They Are Still At It

People assume (as I once did) that since the Martin Luther (1483–1546) first protested the abuse of indulgences, in 1517, that Rome must have been shamed into ending the practice. She was not. The sale of indulgences continues. In §1471 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses revealing language. The benefit of indulgences is available “under certain conditions through the action of the church.” It cites Paul VI’s Indulgentarium Doctrina (1967). Notably, the Catechism criticizes past abuses but does not forbid their sale. This is because canon 28 of the Council of Constance (1414–18) set the conditions for the sale of indulgences:

Can. 27. And whether he believes that by reason of this sort of grant those who visit the church and those contribute to them can gain indulgences of this kind.

Can. 28 “Likewise, whether he believes that, for a just and holy reason, the pope can grant indulgences for the remission of sins to all Christians who are truly contrite and have confessed, especially to those who make pilgrimages to the holy places and to those contributing to them (emphasis added).

This was part of the basis of Johann Tetzel’s practice of selling indulgences to Germans. This is whence the marvelous slogan, “When the coin the coffer clinks, the soul from purgatory springs.” The sale of indulgences did not end in the sixteenth century. In 2000, which Rome declared a  Jubilee year, a writer in the National Catholic Register wrote,

…By the time of Luther, it had become common to grant indulgences in exchange for financial donations to various charitable causes, including large building projects such as churches and cathedrals. The upheaval of the Reformation helped bring about a re-evaluation of the administration of indulgences, but the Church never condemned the principle behind indulgences.On the contrary, almsgiving continues to be encouraged to this day. One of the good things to come out of that turbulent period was the Church taking steps to ensure that the focus of giving alms returned to the interior disposition of penitents (emphasis added).

Almsgiving is a financial contribution to the church. The “Apostolic Penitentiary” on “The Gift of the Indulgence,” issued by Cardinal William Wakefield Baum in 2000 explained that one of the ways one can obtain a full indulgence is by “a significant contribution works of a religious or social nature.” [sic]

Rome is still at it. In November, 2021 Catholic News Service reported, “The Vatican has decided to grant Catholics who visit a cemetery to pray for the dead on any day in the month of November a plenary indulgence.” 1 According to CNS, Rome typically offers a “plenary indulgence” to those who pray during the week of All Souls Day (Nov 1–8). They have extended the indulgence because of Covid.

What is an indulgence? It is part of a system of piety and salvation that developed in the medieval church whereby a Christian was supposed to confess his sins and to be assigned acts of penance. Failure to fulfill these assignments was said to bring with it temporal (in this life and in purgatory) punishments. This is still Roman dogma. Indulgences are said to be remissions of these penalties.

In March, 2020, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary, declared,

The Plenary Indulgence is granted to the faithful suffering from Coronavirus, who are subject to quarantine by order of the health authority in hospitals or in their own homes if, with a spirit detached from any sin, they unite spiritually through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary, to the pious practice of the Way of the Cross or other forms of devotion, or if at least they will recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and charity towards their brothers and sisters, with the will to fulfill the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer according to the Holy Father’s intentions), as soon as possible.

The condition of receiving a complete deliverance from purgatory are “a spirit detached from any sin” and a “spiritual” union, through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the rosary, a “spiritual” union to the “pious practice” of the way of the cross, the saying of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, or invocation of the Virgin Mary.

Calvin called the Roman system of indulgences a “Satanic mockery” intended to lead people away from Christ. It has had that effect. Any system which has Christians satisfying for their own sins denies Christ. As we say in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, either Christ is the Savior or he is no Savior at all.

The issues that prompted the Reformation remain live issues. The Roman communion still confesses justification by grace and cooperation with grace, including the purchasing of indulgences. The Reformation objection that making good works instrumental in our justification is a denial of Christ still holds. This is why the sola in sola fide and sola gratia remains so important.

Your Romanist friends believe that, in the mass, the priest is propitiating (turning away) God’s wrath by extending or participating in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Rome confesses that God graciously initiates salvation but that we must do our part to complete it. In Rome, Christ is not the Savior and Mediator. He is a Savior and Mediator. According to Rome, insofar as you are freely cooperating with grace unto justification and salvation you too are a savior and the Blessed Virgin and the saints are also mediators. Rome’s gospel is no gospel because to say, in effect, “I have begun the process but the rest is up to you, in cooperation with grace” is not good news. To locate the ground of justification (i.e., the legal basis) in ones self  and not in Christ is not good news.

The controversy over penance and purgatory was always symbolic of a corruption greater than the financial scandal of Tetzel’s abuses. The major scandal was the injury to the gospel that the Roman system of salvation represented. In contrast to the Roman system, the good news is that Jesus obeyed in the place of sinners and that he did it all, that he really justifies those who are no, in themselves, sanctified or righteous, that his righteousness is credited to us and our sins are imputed to him. It is the the wonderful exchange of which some Christian (Polycarp?) wrote to Diognetus c. AD 150 and that Luther recovered. We strive to become sanctified not in order to be justified but because we have been justified. Rome rejected that truth in the Reformation and she rejects it today.

NOTE

1. Francesca Pollio, “How to get a plenary indulgence any day this November 2021,” Catholic News Services (November 2, 2021).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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20 comments

  1. Very good article. Just one quibble (I’m an ex-Catholic): The Catholic church does not sell indulgences any more. You have to perform some act or say some prayer; but at least in my lifetime they were never sold for money.

    Your critique of the practice, however, is spot on.

    • Tom,

      Thanks for the encouragement.

      I don’t think your claim is correct. Did you check the resources at the bottom of the post? Rome still sells indulgences.

      See §1471 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

      The key phrase is “under certain conditions through the action of the church.” It cites Paul VI’s Indulgentarium Doctrina (1967). It criticizes past abuses but does not forbid their sale.

      See this post (2009) where I documented the grounds for the sale of indulgences. They key phrase is, “and those that contribute to them.”

      I believe that indulgences were sold to raise funds for Seton Hall and also during the Jubilee year (2000). In that year a writer in the National Catholic Register wrote,

      …By the time of Luther, it had become common to grant indulgences in exchange for financial donations to various charitable causes, including large building projects such as churches and cathedrals. The upheaval of the Reformation helped bring about a re-evaluation of the administration of indulgences, but the Church never condemned the principle behind indulgences.

      On the contrary, almsgiving continues to be encouraged to this day. One of the good things to come out of that turbulent period was the Church taking steps to ensure that the focus of giving alms returned to the interior disposition of penitents.

      This isn’t airtight but it does suggest that alms may given for indulgences. It’s clearer here:

      “Trading money for services rendered is one of those conditions as in the case of the Great Jubilee (2000) when Rome offered indulgences to those who made a pilgrimage to specified places or who support by a significant contribution’ works of a religious or social nature.”

      That phrase “support by a significant contribution” is from “APOSTOLIC PENITENTIARY” on “THE GIFT OF THE INDULGENCE.”

      Source. It’s under §9, “works of mercy or charity.”

    • Dr Clark, I’ve checked the Resources without success. Now I freely admit that I couldn’t find a brontosaurus in a haystack, let alone a camel, so, in view of this admission, could you please tell us which of the resources listed above has the evidence that Rome still sells indulgences, and, even, the relevant phrase to be found therein?

    • OK, I’ve been out of the RCC since 1968, so I may be a little behind the times. I can really only speak for Our Lady of Mercy parish during my boyhood in the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks for the wider resources.

  2. Dr Clark, just noticed YOU’ve stopped being still “at it” – Indeed, I could only find the evidence on The Puritan Board (but you know Who would still know if I hadn’t found the evidence).

    As regards them, at least they HAVE replaced cash sales with barter.

    • John,

      Two things.

      1. Your email doesn’t work. Please use a working email when you comment. A working email allows me to clarify comments privately rather than publicly.

      2. This comment is really cryptic. I’ve no idea what it’s about.

    • Dr Clark, as a man totally lacking in humour and too thick to appreciate wit, I was seriously rebuking you for your “When the coin in the coffer clinks, the cost of bandwidth shrinks”, which I could no longer find on the Heidelblog, but DID find on The Puritan Board – a numbers 32:23 moment indeed! (Nothing whatever, of course, to do with your finance appeal being stored on your website in only one place, to which every post you have ever made carries a pointer, so when you changed it, all previous posts I looked up changed as well).

    • I think your website must have a separate template for the Heidelcast (which I had difficulty receiving, so I’ve not been loooking it up). Actually, the Heidelcast only has the first half of the dictum, so the only people who’ll know what you’re getting at are those who’ve been with Heidelblog long enough to remember what your posts originally displayed, or who have the nouse to complete it for themselves (who won’t, IM”H”O, be very many).

    • Thank you so much, Dr Clark, and I hope to be able to listen to a heidelcast soon. But I have had a horrible thought: Your dictum is as witty as the Puritan Board says it is, but I fear that it may not have become household knowledge. What if some Baptist, FIEC, or Brethren (etc) guy, new to HB, visits the Heidelcast, doesn’t realise it’s about the cost of bandwidth, thinks “I see. These Paedobaptists ARE cryptopapists”?”, leaves, and never darkens HB’s electronic door again?
      You know that before Vatican II, some Roman Catholics believed that Protestants are people who denied the deity of the Son (I got this from Lilian A Walsh’s “My Hand In His” – This lady started out RC and her course took her via John Stott’s to Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s ministry)?

  3. I was concerned that instead of “the cost of bandwidth shrinks”, they might think Dr Clark meant something like “the soul from purgatory slinks”. Or “sprinks”. If anyone links these together, they are foolish. (Even a noobie HB reader should comprehend the massive difference)

    • Matt, do you really think I was suggesting that anyone would link “the cost of bandwidth shrinks” with ‘“the soul from purgatory slinks”. Or “sprinks”’? But I did suggest it was possible that someone who hadn’t seen “the cost of bandwidth shrinks” might, when faced with “When the coin in the coffer clinks …”, complete the sentence with something more like Tetzel’s original.

Comments are closed.