Were indulgences SOLD?


We’re studying the Protestant Reformation in my World Civilization class.

My teacher who expresses her views in a very anti-Catholic way says an indulgence was a way to buy entry into Heaven. I wanted to interrupt the class and give a lecture on purgatory, faith alone, and how Luther became a monk, anyway (by praying that if he survived a storm, he’d become one).

My textbook says, and very explicitly so, that the selling of indulgences was a major cause to the Protestant Reformation. Luther once witnessed a priest “selling” an indulgence to anyone who would give money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

My textbook, which also seems to be biased against all things Catholic, claims the buying of indulgences were even forced on people.

**So, my teacher, who is very Protestant, claims the pope was the richest guy around at the time, the Church was selfish - taking people’s money instead of helping the poor, and people were forced to believe various things. She says that once the printing press came around and bibles were distributed, people could “talk to Jesus” to be “SAVED”. **

I understand there were Church abuses. I do remain confident the teachings remained orthodox. The Church was never corrupt in its teachings!

Were indulgences SOLD? ? ? Please help me understand this.

:thumbsup: P.S. I have already read Catholic Answers’ Myths About Indulgences. No need to refer me there!


Does anyone know of a primary resource that would support the truth in this case?


They WERE sold, but were sold wrongly and sinfully and contrary to, rather than because of, church teaching - the Council of Trent acknowledged the evil of their sale and reaffirmed that such was wrong:

25th Session - Decree Concerning Indulgences:

“It [the Council] ordains generally by this decree, that **all evil gains ** [including monetary ones!] for the obtaining thereof [of indulgences] … be wholly abolished.”


Newadvent.org is a great resource with all of their sources listed. Here’s an excerpt from newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.htm:

The word indulgence (Latin indulgentia, from indulgeo, to be kind or tender) originally meant kindness or favor; in post-classic Latin it came to mean the remission of a tax or debt. In Roman law and in the Vulgate of the Old Testament (Isaiah 61:1) it was used to express release from captivity or punishment. In theological language also the word is sometimes employed in its primary sense to signify the kindness and mercy of God. But in the special sense in which it is here considered, an indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven. Among the equivalent terms used in antiquity were pax, remissio, donatio, condonatio.

What an indulgence is not
To facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven. It is not an exemption from any law or duty, and much less from the obligation consequent on certain kinds of sin, e.g., restitution; on the contrary, it means a more complete payment of the debt which the sinner owes to God. It does not confer immunity from temptation or remove the possibility of subsequent lapses into sin. Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer’s salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory. The absurdity of such notions must be obvious to any one who forms a correct idea of what the Catholic Church really teaches on this subject."

There’s much more on the link.


[quote=catholic1seeks]Were indulgences SOLD? ? ? Please help me understand this.


Your teacher is talking about a man named Tetzel. He was guilty of a number of abuses…but he was acting on his own power, not with any authority behind him.
He “sold indulgences” in the sense, that he *claimed *that he was offering people a chance to obtain an indulgence, by contributing to the building of a cathedral.
In point of fact, it was his own scheme. (And I personaly suspect that a good deal of the money he collected may have gone :cool: to his own pocketbook:twocents: ).

Tetzel had no authority to act as he did, but Luther did, in fact, use his actions as an excuse for his own actions…
However, I am frankly shocked at the number of people–like your teacher–who really should know better, but who keep peddling this particular fairy tale, claiming it as the “real” cause of the Reformation.
There is no question that Luther seized on Tetzel as an excuse, as I say, but really…I am forever astonished at how many people believe that one corrupt priest (monk?) was the whole reason for Luther…It makes no sense.

You can quote me, as a Methodist,by the bye, on the subject.
Gee…makes me:confused: wonder what other bees she may have in hr bonnet. (Again::twocents: for what its worth… ).:shrug:


I thought it was common knowledge that the sale of indulgences built St. Peter’s cathedral. This was one of the things that set off Martin Luther’s backlash.

Here’s his letter to the Archbishop of Mainz referencing it.



Luther made any number of inaccurate claims. “Ex Surge Domine”, the bull which excommunicated him, identified 41 of these.

Just because Luther claimed something didn’t make it so.


I call Tetzel’s actions a really bad marketing plan which it got blown out of proportion!!


The printing press was invented and the first Bible printed in 1454, 29 years before Luther was even born in 1483 and 66 years before Luther broke with the Church. bl.uk/treasures/gutenberg/homepage.html

The problem was that illiteracy was high at the time, only the nobility, some of the merchant class and the clergy could read, so even if people could now get hold of a bible, most still couldn’t read it. Luther was a monk, therefore, part of the literate crowd.

The idea of indulgences being sold is a misunderstanding of the indulgence granted for almsgiving. Alsmgiving, or donations to the Church for such purposes as building new houses of worship which benefit the entire faith community were enriched with indulgences. Others have gone over just what indulgences are, ie - not the forgiveness of sins but the remission of the temporal punishment due for sins already forgiven. Almsgiving has always been a major tenet of Christianity and of Judaism before it. Unfortunately, since the money was being given to the Church, it took on the appearance of being sold. Moreover, since only those with some spare cash could afford to give alms, it looked like the rich were trying to ‘buy their way out of Purgatory’ while the poor still had to perform the lengthy penances.

As an example, lets say a person committed the sin of blasphemy and was given a penance of 100 days of fasting. The rich person could give alms to the Church and obtain an indulgence of 100 days, thus exempting him from having to fast. The poor person, unable to give such generous alms to the Church would have to do the fasting. The poor person could decline to fast for the required number of days during his lifetime, but then the temporal punishment due for his sin would still remain and would have to be expiated in Purgatory.

So, you can see how it appears that the rich person is buying their way ‘into heaven’ or more accurately, ‘out of Purgatory’ with the blessing of the Church and how this could rapidly become an abuse with the rich believing all they have to do is give some money to the Church and they are good to go and do anything they want, no contrition necessary.

In addition, there was one particular monk, Tetzel, who was accused of selling plenary indulgences to get rich himself.

History presents few characters that have suffered more senseless misrepresentation, even bald caricature, than Tetzel. “Even while he lived stories which contained an element of legend gathered around his name, until at last, in the minds of the uncritical Protestant historians, he became the typical indulgence-monger, upon whom any well-worn anecdote might be fathered” (Beard, “Martin Luther”, London, 1889, 210). For a critical scholarly study which shows him in a proper perspective, he had to wait the researches of our own time, mainly at the hands of Dr. Nicholas Paulus, who is closely followed in this article. In the first place, his teaching regarding the indulgences for the living was correct. The charge that the forgiveness of sins was sold for money regardless of contrition or that absolution for sins to be committed in the future could be purchased is baseless. An indulgence, he writes, can be applied only “to the pains of sin which are confessed and for which there is contrition”. “No one”, he furthermore adds, “secures an indulgence unless he have true contrition”. The confessional letters (confessionalia) could of course be obtained for a mere pecuniary consideration without demanding contrition. But such document did not secure an indulgence. It was simply a permit to select a proper confessor, who only after a contrite confession would absolve from sin and reserved cases, and who possessed at the same time facilities to impart the plenary indulgence (Paulus, “Johann Tetzel”, 103).


Ok, how 'bout the Catholic Encyclopedia then?


“Albert of Brandenburg, already Archbishop of Magdeburg, received in addition the Archbishopric of Mainz and the Bishopric of Hallerstadt, but in return was obliged to collect 10,000 ducats, which he was taxed over and above the usual confirmation fees. To indemnify hiim, and to make it possible to discharge these obligations Rome permitted him to have preached in his territory the plenary indulgence promised all those who contributed to the new St. Peter’s; he was allowed to keep one half the returns, a transaction which brought dishonour on all concerned in it.”


The Catholic Encyclopedia is always a better source than Martin Luther.

If this passage sounds familiar to some, it will be because they recognize the common practice of Roman tax collection, perhaps because one of the Apostles was a tax collector.

They would obtain the right to raise funds, raise them, and keep a portion of the proceeds.

Were the tax collectors “selling taxes”?


Ok, if you want to switch to analogies, fine.

This would be the equivalent of the Emperor Vespasian ordering Roman tax collectors to sell “Get out of Hades Free!” cards to it’s citizens, all in an effort to finance the building of the Coliseum.

Even the Catholic Encyclopedia sees this episode as dishonourable.

p.s. I’m sure Vespasian would have done this if he could have gotten away with it.


I’m not switching analogies; it is the same analogy.

In fact, this practice continues today. If you have been phoned by someone soliciting donations for charity, they likely are not working for free. Does that make them dishonorable?

The trouble with the practice is not the hiring of someone as a fundraiser. The trouble was not your “Get Out of Hades Free” nonsense formulation. The trouble was not the false “selling salvation” formulation of the Anti-Catholic’s Greatest Hits.

The trouble was that whenever money is linked to a sacrament, abuse inevitably follows. As noted above, almsgiving and indulgences are very ancient and honorable practices within the Church. The former we are commanded to do by Christ and the latter is part of the binding and loosing authority of priests which undergirds the Christ-granted sacrament of penance and reconciliation. There is nothing wrong with either.

When they are in close proximity, however, they look too much like a financial transaction. The appearance of impropriety exists even when actual impropriety does not.

It was the appearance of impropriety which the heretics of Luther’s day seized upon. That was all they needed.

While looking for analogies to this condition within Protestant communities today, one needs to consider the emphasis many place upon mandatory tithing to receive “blessings”. This is a far wider practice than the “prosperity gospel” crowd, and one as pernicious certainly in appearance and reality as those Luther decried.

Many a Protestant minister has found the money raked in by tying God’s bounty to donations to the church to be irresistible. Since they don’t call it “selling indulgences” nobody seems to mind. :shrug:


Were indulgences SOLD?

Was money exchanged for services?

This is a matter of semantics and it may also be a matter of who was salesperson.

If you are wearing a t-shirt that says “Jesus saves” and somone with a guilty conscience runs up and thrusts money into your hands saying “give this to Jesus so he may save it for me” are you obliged to be Jesus’ banker? :smiley:

I am being flippant to illustrate a point. The wealthy in Luther’s time certainly thought they could hire their underlings or their employees to pray for them in church and do charitable works to benefit themselves in heaven - all while they were freed up in time for secular matters to go about the business of making more money. This clearly is morally corrupt and unchristian but not a thing The Church ever taught or promoted. The Church can not prevent people from thinking, doing and acting as they wish. All she can do is present proper teaching.

Similarly, not all clergy are equally educated or steeped in proper understanding. So the church can not always prevent individual clergy from promulgating erroneous teachings or engaging in acts that were well intentioned or even in outright deceptive acts. It takes time to act on complaints, investigate and correct. Clearly there were some abuses.

My own belief is that there was a long standing tradition of alms giving and the wealthy Christians were in the social habit of donating to help the church and to improve their spiritual standing with God through acts of charity. Charity is a well established scriptural principal. No doubt there was also a typical “blue collar” attitude of the perception that the wealthy had an advantage to gain heaven over the poor. Luther played on this classic class envy through demagoguery. This is the kind of class envy and ignorance that permits agitators to fomit civil wars - intentionally or not.

If a wealthy business person imagined that “Charity” was the same thing as “buying and selling” spiritual favor I’d imagine God would not accept such donations as charity since the motive and inner attitude is wrong. But unless there is a conspicuous reason to doubt motive it is NOT incumbent on The Church to interpret the heart and outwardly apparent good intentions of a person donating charity. In other words if a person drops a bag of money off at the front door of the church because that makes them feel good about themselves then that is between them and God. The Church can certainly accept that money in good assumption that it is not blood money or illicit money and is a goodwill gesture of charity.

Bottom Line:
The Church accepts donations and always has and rarely turns down a donation. But The Church has never forced or demanded money to gain entrance into heaven nor to escape purgatory. Neither can it be said that indulgences were “sold” since that implies there was something given in exchange for money or service and only God can spiritually grant an indulgence - the church can only attach its recommendation and authorization. At worst all one can say negatively is that the church exchanges its recommendation (for money or material donations) to God under an assumption of bilateral goodwill between Church and charitable person. At the same time though, the Church has always taught that a person in Mortal Sin can not gain nor merit any charity! This is the assurance that it is impossible to “buy” anything since to even imagine one can buy their way into heaven is a mortal sin as it is against dogma and always has been.

BTW, if a paper receipt or some other recognition (a plaque in the garden etc.) is given for receipt of money (perhaps for accounting or for tax purposes) that receipt is not evidence of a thing “sold”. This is only recognizing an act of goodwill that is made without judgement on the interior state of the person’s soul or sincerity.



It is also worth noting that one can avoid Purgatory by availing oneself of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation frequently or by avoiding venial sins or the near occasion thereof.

We should also note that Purgatory is not Hell. Those in Purgatory are saved. We pray for their souls not because they are damned—they most certainly are not—but because they are not yet with God in Heaven.


I’d be tempted to ask her where folks got a copy of the Bible so they could print more.

Gee, you don’t suppose they got it from the Catholic Church, do you? You don’t suppose Catholics spent years copying that huge volume by hand just so more people could read it, do you?

Naw. Couldn’t be.


Why, I bet Catholics have even SOLD Bibles!

How’s THAT for an abuse?


How DARE they demand some sort of compensation for all those years of work!

As an aside, though, I used to work in a bookstore. Guess what got stolen the most? Bibles!!!


Catholic or Protestant Bibles?

If Catholic, then some folks undoubtedly landed themselves in Purgatory, in which case the whole vicious cycle begins again.


Yeah, see what happens when they try to get into heaven without spending any money? :wink:

Seriously, though, one person I knew who stole a Bible said she justified it by thinking the word of God should be free.

Okay, enough derailing! Back to the topic!

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.