Martin Luther, the Sale of Indulgences, and the Reformation

The Sale of Indulgences

A few words are in order regarding the Sale of Indulgences that Martin Luther so much decried. The clergy were authorized by the Catholic Church to absolve penitents from the guilt of his sins and from punishment in the hellish inferno of the hereafter, but it did not absolve them from doing penance on earth. We must remember that the substitution of monetary fines for punishment of a crime was a well established practice in secular European courts in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church was following coeval practices.Sale of Indulgences

By making a monetary contribution to the church, a penitent would receive a partial indulgence not to commit further sins, while at the same time, diminishing the time period that he/she was to suffer in PURGATORY for remission of his sins. Most people do not understand that an indulgence did not cancel sins. Only a priest during a confession session could absolve a truly repentant penitent.

The best source I have found to understand this much maligned concept is Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, The Reformation: "An Indulgence, therefore, was the remission, by the church, of part of all of the temporal (i.e., not eternal) penalties incurred by sins whose guilt had been forgiven in the sacrament of penitence."

For those who are not familiar with Will Durant, he was a former priest who lost his faith and became a superb historian and scholar. If anything, in later life, he was most influenced by Baruch Spinoza, the French philosophes, and the rationalism of the Enlightenment. I have read his complete, 12-volume series, The Story of Civilization, not once but twice. I detect between the lines that try as he might, he could not quite completely discard his Catholic learning and teaching. And so, in particular I recommend, Durant's "Epilogue in Elysium" between Voltaire and Pope Benedict XIV. It is a magnificent intellectual exchange!

Some further thoughts on the Reformation...

The problem began with the obvious and what everybody knows, Martin Luther's (photo, below) objections to the Church doctrine on the sale of indulgences and the Holy See's spiritual power to remit sins, Martin Lutherwhich Luther vehemently opposed when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the formidable Castle Church at Wittenberg on November 1, 1517. But there was also Luther's own spiritual crisis, doubts about his own salvation,  the belief that inner faith alone, without the performance of good works, was all that is necessary to attain salvation (i.e., Justification by Faith). He ended up condemning priest celibacy, holy pilgrimages, the veneration of saints and sacred images, and the doctrine of infallibility of popes and general church councils.  Luther also jettisoned the old sacramental rites, except baptism and the eucharist.

A few years later he would defend the sacrament of the eucharist from the attack of another reformer at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529), by which he hoped to bring unity to the reformers, instead, it only sharpened his differences with Zwingli and the other dissenters. On the eucharist, Luther continued to insist in the literal interpretation of transubstantiation, while Zwingli insisted that it was only a symbolic, metaphorical ritual.

Let us also  consider the troubling matter of economics. There was much wealth moving from the thriving Germanic north, now just beginning their Renaissance, to the Italian south, Rome. This transfer of wealth was highly resented. And so, in addition to theological arguments, Luther provided the northern Germanic principalities, led by princes, dukes, bishops, and other Electors, with an effective weapon to staunch this loss of wealth going on pilgrimages down south, used among other things to build St Peter's Cathedral, numerous churches, and generally adorn Rome and Italy with architectural and artistic beauties that awed the devout Christian pilgrims then and enchant the secular tourists today!

There was also the issue of marriage and celibacy: Luther was soon ready to get married and work for a living. He married a 26-year-old ex-Cistercian nun and settled into a more comfortable existence and a large family. Truth be known, the meandering celibate and sometimes mendicant monks in Spain, Italy, and France were also highly resented by those in the northern European countries, who had developed their own work ethic and wanted their own clergy to marry, have families, and work for a living.

Luther had been protected by the Elector of Saxony, Frederic III, and soon the Reformation was fought by the secular German principalities, but Luther remained in touch with the German nobility who had supported him. And so when the issue of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse came up, Luther and his right hand man, Phillip Melanchthon gave their consent. Obstinacy and the exigencies of the moment, on the part of Pope Clement VII (1523-1534), had resulted in a bitter dispute and the conflict of the Reformation reaching the British Isles in 1527.

The English Reformation (briefly)

And this brings us to the matter of Henry VIII, King of England, who was initially the DefenderHenry VIII and his six wives of the Faith (Catholic) against Luther and the Reformation. But once he found that he could not obtain an annulment or a papal dispensation to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon,  the aunt of Charles V Holy Roman Emperor, he began to have second thoughts about remaining a faithful defender of the Catholic faith.

And so, when King Henry VIII also discovered that he could make a lot of money for himself and his nobility by seizing and confiscating the land and property of the Catholic Church in England, and at the same time divorce his wife who had not provided him with an heir, he jumped on the bandwagon of the "Reformation." He became a "Protestant" as well, and acquired a new, sprightly young wife, Anne Boleyn, who he, not long after, had beheaded for imaginary and concocted sins and "treason." By 1534, Henry VIII had the English Parliament pass the Act of Supremacy that established the Church of England as the religion of the realm and completed the formal dissolution of the remaining  ties to the Catholic church.

Henry VIII ended up with six wives, two of whom he had executed. He also ended up immensely rich from all the stolen property and land taken from the Catholic churches and monasteries in the realm. If there was ever one king who needed beheading, it was this porcine monarch, Henry VIII (another was King Philip" the Fair" of France, but that's for another lesson). Henry VIII established the Church of England, the Anglican Church, and made it the official state religion of England. It was in reference to this established state religion that the American Founding Fathers framed the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, not as a separation of church and state, but as "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

This article was published exclusively for on November 25, 2011. The article can be cited as: Faria MA. Martin Luther, the Sale of Indulgences, and the Reformation., November 25, 2011. Available from:

Copyright ©2011 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.

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Dual Canonization!

Pope Francis makes history with dual canonization of Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis declared Popes John XXIII and John Paul II saints before some 800,000 people on Sunday in an unprecedented ceremony made even more historic by the presence of emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in St. Peter's Square.

Never before have a reigning pope and a retired pope celebrated Mass together in public, much less at an event honoring two of their most famous predecessors.

Benedict's presence was a reflection of the balancing act that Francis envisioned when he decided to canonize John and John Paul together, showing the unity of the Catholic Church by honoring popes beloved by conservatives and progressives alike.

Francis made that point clear in his homily, praising both new saints for their work associated with the Second Vatican Council, the groundbreaking meetings that brought the 2,000-year-old institution into modern times. John convened the council in 1962 while John Paul helped ensure its more conservative implementation and interpretation...

In John Paul's native Poland, bells rang out as soon as Francis pronounced the two men saints. "He changed Poland and he changed us with his teaching and with his visits here," an emotional Maria Jurek said as she watched the proceedings on giant TV screens at a sanctuary dedicated to John Paul in Krakow.

In the Philippines, where John Paul in 1995 drew the largest ever crowd for a papal Mass at 4 million, Filipinos watched the canonization on TV and joined local celebrations, including a suburban Manila parade of children dressed like the pope...

Yet the atmosphere in St. Peter's seemed somber and subdued — perhaps due to the chilly gray skies and cumulative lack of sleep of many of the pilgrims who camped out on the streets near the Vatican or stayed up praying at the all-night vigils organized in churches around town. It was a far different scene than the rollicking party atmosphere of John Paul's May 2011 beatification, when bands of young people sang, danced and cheered before, during and after the Mass.

Spirits did pick up after the service when Francis drove through the crowds in his open-topped car all the way down to the Tiber River, giving many people their first — and only — close-up glimpse of him.

The Vatican estimated that 800,000 people watched the Mass in Rome, with about 500,000 in the square and nearby streets and the rest watching on TV screens that had been set up in piazzas around town...

During the Mass, Benedict sat off to the side of the altar with other cardinals, though he was clearly in a place of honor. He received the Italian president and a steady stream of cardinals, as well as Francis himself who embraced Benedict at the beginning and end of the service. Benedict had arrived in the square on his own to cheers and applause, wearing the same white vestments and white bishops' miter as other cardinals. The only difference was he had a white skullcap on rather than red...

Pope John XIII, who reigned from 1958-1963, is a hero to liberal Catholics for having convened Vatican II, which allowing Mass to be celebrated in local languages rather than Latin and encouraged greater dialogue with people of other faiths, particularly Jews.

During his quarter-century papacy from 1978-2005, John Paul II helped topple communism through his support of Poland's Solidarity movement. His globe-trotting papacy and launch of the wildly popular World Youth Days invigorated a new generation of Catholics, while his defense of core church teaching heartened conservatives after the turbulent 1960s...

DANIELA PETROFF - Associated Press, April 27, 2014