Pope John Paul II has revived the practice of earning indulgences, a decision which has caused concern and embarrassed among British Roman Catholics. On the first Sunday of Advent he issued a Papal Bull for the Millennium, Incarnationis Mysterium (The Mystery of the Incarnation), which describes in detail how Roman Catholics may obtain indulgences both for themselves and for souls in Purgatory.
The Romish dogma of indulgences lies at the very heart of the historical conflict between Biblical Christianity and the Vatican. It was the major factor in the gathering storm that instigated Luther's revolt against the corrupt pecuniary practices of the Roman Church and led to the victory of the Reformation. The fact that the present Pope has just announced the revival of the false doctrine of indulgences proves that the spirit of Tetzel, far from dying out, merely slumbered on, unawakened by the enlightenment of the sixteenth century. Those who had imagined otherwise must be reminded of Rome's boast that she never changes. With the Millennium on the horizon, the Pope is attempting to re-instate the spiritual darkness of the Middle Ages! Semper eadem! No change except for the change that is soon to tinkle once again in the coffers of the Vatican!
What is an indulgence?
The 22nd article of the Roman Creed is: "I do affirm that the power of indulgences was left by Christ in the church, and that the use of them is very beneficial to Christian people."
Dr. Ludwig Ott, in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (p. 441) states: "By an indulgence (indulgentia) is understood the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment of sin remaining after the forgiveness of the guilt of sin."
Rome claims that this remission is valid in the sight of God, and that it is granted by the Church out of her treasury of satisfaction. It is the remission in whole or in part of the temporal punishment  due for sins which have been forgiven. The gaining of these and other credits is necessary because the Sacrament of Penance  does not fully satisfy for punishment due. To gain an indulgence, one must be in a state of grace (free from mortal sin ) and perform whatever work is required for the indulgence. The remission is made by applying some of the Treasury of Merit  which the Church possesses. The indulgence is a transfer of merit from one person to another and offers a lessening of Purgatory . Plenary indulgences remit all temporal punishment; partial indulgences remit a portion of this punishment. There is also the application of indulgences to departed souls, which is admitted by Roman Catholic writers to be of recent date.
The Wanderer of June 10, 1994, summarising paragraphs 1471-1479 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, gives the following definition:
"An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sins that have already been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance. This temporal punishment exists because every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in a state called Purgatory. Indulgences are obtained through he Church, which opens to us the treasury of merits of Christ and the saints. The remission can be plenary or partial, depending on whether it removes all or only some of the temporal punishment attached to sin. The indulgence can be applied to the person performing the works of devotion, penance, and charity or to a soul in Purgatory."
Fulano, in Romish Indulgences of Today. An Exposure [London, 1902, p. 82f.], provides a memorable definition of indulgences:
"[...] Rome, by means of deft definitions, lifts the burden of eternal guilt and punishment of sin off the Roman Catholic sinner - only to re-impose, by means of her definition of poena temporalis [temporal punishment] another burden scarcely less appalling. The pains of Purgatory are substituted for the pains of Hell - and then this 're-imposed penalty', as we might call it (practically the only penalty which Romanists yet fear) - this one the Catholic Church graciously takes away in whole or in part by her Indulgences. Rome is an Indulgent Mother!"
A little history…
The Middle Ages
Indulgences were originally introduced in the eleventh century and arose in connection with the so-called sacrament of penance, which was claimed to assure the penitent sinner of the forgiveness of sins while making a distinction between the guilt and the punishment of the sin. According to the Church of Rome, the former was forgiven by God through the priest. The latter, however, had to be met through the performance of certain good works such as fasting, the recitation of certain prayers, pilgrimages, or alms.
In the fourteenth century we find the partial substitution of money gifts for works of mercy and charity, a fact which already laid the train for the Reformation: even notable Roman Catholics such as Juan de Valdez, the brother of the secretary of the Emperor Charles V, admitted the corruption of such practices:
"I see that we can scarcely get anything from Christ's ministers but for money, at bishopping money, at marriage money, for confession money - no, not extreme unction without money! They will ring no bells without money, no burial in the church without money; so that it seemeth that Paradise is shut up without money. The rich is buried in the church, the poor in the churchyard. [...] The rich man may readily get large indulgences, but the poor none, because he wanteth money to pay for them."
The practice of selling indulgences, with its falsification of Biblical truth as well as scandalous financial exploitation of the populace, thereafter increased significantly until in Luther's time it led Europe to the brink of revolution and caused the mighty revolt against Rome in the form of the glorious Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation period
The event that brought the latent crisis into the open was the public sale of indulgences by a notorious Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel, in 1517. He was the Vatican's "Apostolic Commissary for all Germany and Inquisitor of Heretical Pravity" during the popedom of Leo X (1513-1521). His indulgence-brokering activities, which soon aroused Luther's righteous indignation, were part of a corrupt and ambitious ecclesiastical scheme by Leo to provide funds for the reconstruction of St. Peter's in Rome, the most lavishly expensive mass house of Romanism. It cost £12 million, a colossal sum in 16th-century terms and more than all the money expended on it by successive Popes, and took 111 years to build. Leo was advised by Cardinal Pucci to publish a sale of indulgences throughout Europe for the purpose of replenishing the pontifical exchequer and finishing the work on St. Peter's begun by Julius II (1503-1513). Little did they realise that the project, paid for by their dupes both rich and poor, would cripple the permanent resources of the Papacy and lead to the decline, if not the downfall, of Romanism.
Leo was the friend and protector of the artists Raphael and Michelangelo - the splendour-loving Renaissance Pope of the Medici family. He had commissioned Albrecht of Brandenburg, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mainz, with the task of collecting the money in Germany. Tetzel acted on Leo's orders and went from town to town, offering varying spiritual benefits to his spiritual dupes in return for the payment of appropriate amounts of money.
The people were still ignorant enough to believe in the Pope's power to grant pardons for sins. Thus there was no doubt that they would buy the 'pardons', and so gold would flow into the coffers of Rome. Tetzel told them: "You should know that all who confess and in penance put alms into the coffer according to the counsel of the confessor, will obtain complete remission of all their sins." [Translated from a sermon by Tetzel quoted in Martin Luthers Sämmtliche Schriften, Erfurt, 1717, pp. 46ff.]
There was one obstacle. Princes were growing jealous of their subjects' money being taken by the Vatican. Leo X, however, got over this obstacle by giving them a share in the spoil. He offered Henry VIII one quarter of what came from England, but Henry haggled and bargained to get a third! Since kings had made themselves poor by their wars, a share in the Papal spoils on their own subjects was a greater temptation than they could resist.
Erasmus, in his Praise of Folly (1509), had described indulgences as "the crime of false pardons". In every letter and book that he wrote since then he bitterly complained that the Pope and the Princes were resorting to them again. "Ecclesiastical hypocrites," he wrote, "rule in the courts of princes. The Court of Rome has lost all sense of shame. [...] I see that the very height of tyranny has been reached. The Pope and Kings count the people not as men, but as cattle in the market!"
Luther's attack followed when, on the eve of the Feast of All Saints, 1517, he nailed his famous Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The major theme of a large number of these is his assault on the theory and practice of indulgences. To quote but the most famous: "Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have indulgence letters will be eternally damned, together with their teachers." (32) "It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the Pope, were to offer his soul as security." (52)
The post-Reformation period
The corrupt and demoralising traffic in indulgences nevertheless continued. Sir Matthew Hale (1609-1676), one of the greatest seventeenth-century scholars on the history of English common law, denounced it in the following words: "They have corrupted, as much as in them lies, the most pure and innocent religion the world ever knew, by distorting it to ends of wealth and power."
In the nineteenth-century the administration of Pius IX (1846-1878) declared that indulgences would "continue to be gained in the same manner and form as heretofore". [Letter of Chargé d'Affaires of the Holy See to the Archbishop of Toledo, October 1, 1854]
… and the repetition of history
Has Rome changed its dogma of indulgences today?
While Paul VI (1963-1978) admitted some misuse of indulgences in the past, he still re-affirmed the basic Roman Catholic concept of indulgences as outlined in the definitions above. His encyclical Indulgentarium Doctrina (The Doctrine of Indulgences) of 1967 formulated new laws concerning indulgences, but these merely (1) abolished the value of partial indulgences using days and years, (2) reduced the number of plenary indulgences, and (3) detached them from particular things and places. In other words: a familiar change of face without the slightest change of substance! In his Enchiridion Indulgentiarum (A Handbook of Indulgences) of 1968 he merely reduced the number of works and prayers of indulgence to about 70 and said that the previous practice of attaching a certain number of days or years to a specific task was no longer in effect.
In November, 1998, Pope John Paul II issued a document called The Mystery of the Incarnation with an appendix explaining how indulgences can be obtained. The Church, it declares, will offer a plenary (full) indulgence during the coming so-called Holy Year (December 24, 1999, to January 6, 2001). The requirements are much simpler than ever before and have annoyed Romanist writers such as Richard McBrien, who sees in this decree a return to "a calculating, egocentric approach to Christian destiny, where an individual is concerned primarily with the accumulation of spiritual 'credits'." (R. McBrien: Roman Catholicism)
The blasphemy of indulgence-peddling
Luther, as the servant of Christ, knew from the Scriptures the unconditional pardon offered to those who accept "repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21), the doctrine preached by the Apostles. None of the Apostles ever exercised an authority to declare pardon as an intermediary to any individual on the ground of the merit of either sinner or Saviour, whether for the consideration of a sum of money, or gratis. Tetzel, as the servant of corruption, was a vendor of worthless Papal wares, and as such he inflamed Luther against such a profanation of Christianity.
The Reformation restored to the world not only the grand doctrine of justification by faith alone, but also the doctrine of repentance. Milton, denouncing the errors of Romanism, wrote:
"When I recall to mind, at last, after so many dark ages, wherein the huge overshadowing train of error had almost swept all the stars out of the firmament of the church - how the bright and blissful Reformation, by divine power, struck through the black and settled night of ignorance and antichristian tyranny; methinks a sovereign and reviving joy must needs rush into the bosom of him that reads or hears, and the sweet odour of the returning gospel embathe his soul with the fragrancy of heaven."
Let the Bible speak against indulgences and let us rejoice in the knowledge of the truth: "[...] ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot [...]." (I Peter 1:18-19)
The sale of indulgences. On a pole, in the form of a cross, hangs the Papal authorisation for the sale; on the ground lie scales; two sacks of coins show the profit.
Caricature of Tetzel's sale of indulgences. The last two lines of the German poem recount the famous verse attributed to Tetzel: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, / The soul at once into Heaven springs."
From the Passional of Christ and Antichrist, a Reformation pamphlet of 1521: "Christ drives the money-changers out of the Temple" (John 2) (left) and "The Pope sells special favours" (right).