Did people really have to pay to have their sins forgiven?


In the medieval world was it widespread that people had to pay to go to Church or pay to go to confession?

In Christ,



I was still somewhat young back then but it is my understanding that SOME within the Church collected payment for indulgences. I have never heard of anyone being charged fees to attend Mass or Confession, though admittedly, I am no professor of Church history.


Sure, if you read strident protestant historian accounts!

Truth tends to be subtle. Officially, no one would ever need to pay to go to confession. That would be simony which has always been condemned.

The trouble came when a seemingly innocent practice began. Someone in the church decided that sacrificial giving was an act that has a genuine spiritual impact on the soul. This idea was followed up on by offering an indulgence (look it up in the catechism) for those who gave heroic gifts. Then as always, there were a fair number of unscrupulous and self-serving men in the clergy. It wouldn’t have taken long for them to see the opportunities to exploit this idea.

Abuses of indulgences are one of the things that sent Martin Luther on his path. The reforms of Trent banned the connection of indulgences with monetary donation partially in response to his criticisms.


First of all, let’s clarify what happened. St. Peter’s Basilica needed to be constructed, and the church had little funding after the near collapse of Western civilization due to the Black Death. The Pope’s wish was to construct a building in which confidence in religion and the Papacy would be restored.

Indulgences are temporal remission of punishment due for sins which were already forgiven in a valid confession. Mortal sins are two-fold in their consequences. A person may receive a valid absolution from a priest in confession which means that the person is remitted back to the church and in full graces and may partake in all the sacraments again, but the effects of the sin may remain. I.e. if you steal money from someone say $1,000 or so and it puts them behind on their car-payment or car insurance, they may forgive you but it still will effect them (i.e. their credit score and insurance rating which could raise their rates).

In some instances, bishops would collect a payment for an indulgence, which in hindsight was wrong. However, it was not necessarily an “abuse”. It was no where near as horrible as what is happening today with Fundamentalist Televangelicals who are into the “prosperity gospel” which will bring whoever wealth if they support said ministry even going as far to tell senior citizens on social security to send them their checks.

Protestants are often fast to point out the human errors of people in the church in the history past, without looking at what their counterparts and leaders are doing today.

The Catholic Church never supported or endorsed priests taking anything in payment for duties. However, Jesus Christ did say a workmen deserves his wages, which is why sometimes people would bring the priest foodstuffs and clothing to live on for servicing the community.


It was not collecting a payment for an indulgence.

One can have the temporal effects of sins reduced via 3 paths: Penance, Prayer, and Almsgiving.

Indulgences are like a multiplier: when I do an action (for example a prayer) I receive a reduction in my temporal punishment.

When an indulgence is attached to the action, there is a greater reduction in the temporal punishment.

So some prayers can be offered in place of penance. In the middle ages, the Pope allowed people to offer almsgiving in place of penance. However, there were some who saw this as a sale for the remittance of punishment rather than a charitable act for which an indulgence was granted.

The payment was not for the indulgence, the payment was for the charity (eg building a cathedral) and the almsgiving had an indulgence attached.

Since so many misinterpreted this form of indulgence, the alsgiving indulgence has been removed from the church. Now there are only prayer and penance indulgences.


In former times people rented their pews. I guess you stood if you didn’t rent a pew. I never experienced this, but until the late 60’s they collected seat money at the door at most churches in New England at least. The ushers stood at tables with change and collected $.25 o*. I never paid; I just went by with a muttered comment on money changers in the temple or comment on the value of a whip of cords.

Very early on I started ignoring all special collections, seat money and all the other extras. I just donated whatever I felt right in the regular collection and let them sort it out. Later, when I was being paid once a month, I switched to contributing once a month when I wrote all the checks.*


Thank you for this clarification. Oh my, this has been a bone of contention in many a debate between my husband and his (now) Lutheran brother…thank you for dismantling that flawed account that so many people have of our early Church.


As another poster mentioned, the origional rational was to repair St. Peter’s. As a good number of the people did not have large amount of money, they were allowed to donate their time and skills to the project. Donated labor, so to speak. As the word spread, those too far to travel to Rome were allowed to donate anything of worth. Many of the northern European bishops asked if they could keep some of the money in order to pay off debts they held. Once that was approved, you had some of them give to ok to travelling indulgence brokers. These men then “sold” the indulgences, creating the abuses were protested.


My husband has lent an ear to his brother (who left the RCC and became Lutheran) who would condemn the Church for these ‘practices’ but he was very happy tonight to hear that he can take this back to his bro for their next ‘great religion debate!’:thumbsup:


Strictly speaking, no.

There are occasions when you offer a stipend to a priest for taking the time to do things such as saying a special mass for an intention, a wedding, a funeral and so on, but what you are actually paying for is not the sacrement itself, but the time of the priest. Its his job and livelihood. This holds true to today, though the rarely do we see it for penance services.

The amount and what deserves a stipend varies by time and place, but it was never designed as a barrier to the poor and is not actually required.

I’m not a church historian, just someone who likes to read. So my information might be a bit off.

As a side note, indulgences to not forgive sins. They can only be aquired after confession and are meant to relieve the some of the punishment in purgatory based on the absolved sin. This gets into a long talk about our understanding on the nature of sin, purgatory and so on. Sufficed to say, you can’t buy absolution.


let’s clarify this further. almsgiving was a form of penance before the council of trent. and let’s also qualify that for the indulgence to be valid, that there needs to be a valid confession prior to the indulgence.


Wonderful rebuttals, thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen.

That should be more than enough to be getting on with. :slight_smile:

In Christ,



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