On All Hallows Eve (AKA Halloween), 1517, an Augustinian monk and professor named Martin Luther posted Ninety-five Theses on the church door of the Castle Church in the eastern German town of Wittenberg. The door supposedly served as the bulletin board for the University of Wittenberg where Luther taught Bible. The theses included Luther’s raging invective against the local manifestation of a churchwide atrocity: the selling of indulgences.
Translated from Latin into German and circulated through a new social medium, the printing press, the Ninety-five Theses sparked the Protestant Reformation, elements of which remain 502 years later.
“Sometimes (indulgences) are simply a means of excusing behavior that’s a long way from saintliness, resources we use to fool ourselves into thinking we’re holy when we’re not.”
Indulgence selling was a medieval plan of salvation vested in papal authority by which sinners could benefit from the “merits of the saints,” a storehouse of God’s grace so abundant in the holiest Christians that it was more than enough for their salvation. In order that such leftover grace not go to waste, God had given the Vicar of Christ authority to bestow it on less saintly Christians who could then utilize such merit for themselves, their relatives, or friends. All for a little cash.
Initially, indulgences were dispensed to assure salvation for crusaders fighting to retake the Holy Land from the “Turks” (nothing changes). The practice was later expanded to those who, unable to make crusade, would contribute funds to its support. Purchasers were required to make the appropriate “contrition, confession and satisfaction” for their sins, yet over time that small print was generally ignored by populace and priest alike. Cash alone was sufficient.
Indulgences thus became an ecclesiastical cash cow. Sixteenth-century popes the likes of Julius II and Leo X issued plenary (full) indulgences to secure funds for building great cathedrals, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Toward that purpose, Leo X granted a plenary indulgence to Luther’s Archbishop who hired the indulgence seller Johann Tetzel to preach (and peddle) the sale.
Tetzel’s sermons often included this bit of pious doggerel:
When the coin in the coffer rings,
The soul from purgatory springs.
And concluded: “Will you not then for a quarter of a florin receive these letters of indulgence through which you are able to lead a divine and immortal soul into the fatherland of paradise?”
Long an opponent of indulgences, Luther’s rage burned hot at their promotion in his territory. His theses denounced them as false promises of cheap grace and corrupt theology.
“Papal indulgences do not remove guilt,” he wrote. “Beware of those who say that indulgences effect reconciliation with God…. The saints have no extra credits … If the pope does have the power to release anyone from purgatory, why in the name of love does he not abolish purgatory by letting everyone out?”
The saints have no extra credits. I’ve read those words repeatedly across the years, but this October they came home with a vengeance.
“In my view, United States Attorney General William Barr sold indulgences this October.”
Luther used them to condemn a church that turned the “merits of the Saints,” personified in lives of holiness and self-sacrifice, into tawdry cash payments that let sinners off the gospel hook. Today, “the saints have no extra credits” reminds us that indulgences didn’t end with the Reformation; we’re all in danger of “going Tetzel” before we know it. Indulgences aren’t always cash cows. Sometimes they are simply a means of excusing behavior that’s a long way from saintliness, resources we use to fool ourselves into thinking we’re holy when we’re not.
Did 19th-century white southern Christians market the doctrine of “biblical infallibility” as an indulgence by appealing to certain scripture passages as a means of excusing their support for chattel slavery? Richard Furman made that point in 1822, writing that “in proving this subject [slavery] justifiable by Scriptural authority, its morality is also proven; for the Divine Law never sanctions immoral actions.” He concluded: “If a man has obtained slaves by purchase, or inheritance, and the holding of them as such is justifiable by the law of God; why should he be required to liberate them…?”
Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass cut through those indulgence-like claims, repudiating biblical “extra credit” for slaveholders. Garrison, editor of the antislavery periodical, The Public Liberator, challenged evangelicals who sent out missionaries but ignored slavery, writing: “Let anti-slavery charity boxes stand uppermost among those for missionary, tract and educational purposes. On this subject, Christians have been asleep; let them shake off their slumbers and arm for the holy contest.”
Douglass, himself a former slave, asserted: “For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”
Those two prophets called the church to a new Reformation.
A hundred years later, Martin Luther King Jr. raised similar Reformation prospects in response to Jim Crow legislation, segregation and white supremacy. In one of his most profound writings, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), King confronted a group of Birmingham “moderate” clergy, Christian and Jewish, who, though well meaning, were peddling the indulgence of injustice in the name of “law and order and common sense.”
“The saints have no extra credits. I’ve read those words repeatedly across the years, but this October they came home with a vengeance.”
The Birmingham ministers’ written statement acknowledged that “recent public events have given indication that we all have opportunity for a new constructive and realistic approach to racial problems. However, we are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.”
King reminded the ministers that he was in Birmingham because he had been invited by Civil Rights leaders “because injustice is here” and because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He insisted: “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea.”
King confessed his grave disappointment with the “white moderate,” which led him to the “regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” Even the indulgence of “order” could not excuse inaction against injustice and radical reformation.
In my view, United States Attorney General William Barr sold indulgences this October. Speaking at the Notre Dame Law School, he used an address on “religious liberty” as an excuse to denounce “militant secularists” intent on destroying “the traditional moral order” of the United States. He excoriated secularists and “so-called progressives” for the country’s rampant “moral chaos” evident in the use of drugs, the rise of mental illness and rampant violence. Barr concluded with a reproof of “irresponsible moral conduct” and “licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good,” with secularists as the prime culprits.
But, as far as I can tell, Barr said nothing in the context of a Catholic university regarding the way in which that “common good” was violated by the rampant sexual abuse perpetuated by priests engaged in the “unbridled pursuit of personal appetites,” actions often covered up by church authorities. I wish he’d confessed that at Notre Dame instead of, or at least along with, condemnation of secularists. Before we critique or scapegoat “outsiders” or secularists for national or ecclesiastical ills, let’s take responsibility for our own sins.
Luther was right then and now: “The saints have no extra credits.” Same for the Church, Catholic or Protestant. Reformation remains elusive.