Why Indulgences Incited the Protestant Reformation

 The Protestant Reformation was a 16th century movement that originated in Germany. The German monk Martin Luther is the person who initiated the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was initiated by Martin Luther because in his eyes there were clear abuses going on in the Roman Catholic Church.

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The Protestant Reformation was initiated by Martin Luther for a variety of reasons. For example, one reason why Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation is he simply didn’t agree with certain aspects of Catholic Doctrine. The Catholic Church was adamant about faith and good works being required for a Christian to go to heaven. While studying the Bible Martin Luther concluded that humans are saved through faith alone.[1] This is significant because this means that Martin Luther believed that people didn’t have to do good deeds, like donating alms to the church, to gain access into heaven. The biggest reason why Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation was he didn’t approve the sale of indulgences. Martin Luther was morally just to start the Protestant Reformation because the sale of indulgences was clearly being abused. Martin Luther officially acted against the abuse of indulgences when he created the Ninety-Five Theses. An indulgence allows someone to be relieved of the penalties of sin.

An indulgence is earned through good deeds[2] To understand why Martin Luther was so against the sale of indulgences it is important to understand the history of their presence in the Roman Catholic Church. According to John O’Malley The remote origin of modern indulgences is the practice of allowing the mediation of those awaiting martyrdom to reduce ecclesiastical penances imposed on public sinners, which was practiced during the persecutions in the early centuries of the church[3]. This means that modern indulgences were originally used to reduce the sins of people who were willing to die because of their Christian faith. If indulgences were only given to people who were willing to die because of their faith, I don’t think they would’ve been abused so easily. There have been times in history where indulgences were given out to crusaders who contributed to holy war efforts.

According to John O’Malley During the First Crusade, in 1099, Pope Urban II canceled all ecclesiastical penance for the armed pilgrims setting off for the Holy Land.[4] It makes sense for Pope Urban II to do this because the crusaders by participating in the crusades were willing to die because of their Christian faith. John O’Malley also stated, As the doctrine of purgatory evolved, the practice and teaching on indulgences shifted to the shortening of punishments in purgatory for oneself or somebody else in exchange for a good deed in this life.[5] I think this evolution of purgatory doctrine may be a reason for why indulgences would be abused in the future. Before the evolution of purgatory doctrine, you had to be willing to die to receive indulgences. This makes indulgences harder to come by because everyone won’t be willing to die to receive an indulgence.

After the evolution of purgatory doctrine, you only have to do good deeds to receive an indulgence. This makes indulgences easier to receive, and easier to abuse. Throughout history indulgences would also be extended to people who weren’t necessarily crusaders. According to P.F Palmer and G.A Tavard During time the crusade indulgence was extended to others than the crusaders, notably to all who contributed to the support of the crusades against the Moors in Spain, the Albigensians in Southern France and the Turks when their political and military pressure on Europe was believed to threaten the very existence of the Church[6]. This shows that if you helped the Catholic Church politically and militarily you would be given an indulgence. This is wrong because you should only be given an indulgence if you are willing to die for the faith. The indulgences shouldn’t have been given out so easily. I think this practice of giving out indulgences to people who weren’t even crusaders may have been precursor to the future abuses that came from the sale of indulgences.

Martin Luther had many valid reasons to be angry about the sale of indulgences. The main reason why Martin Luther was angry about the sales of indulgences is they were getting abused. The fact that indulgences were being abused was undeniable. Cardinal Alexius-Henry-Marie Lupicier was very supportive of the use of indulgences. He also was very critical of Martin Luther. Despite all of this even he couldn’t deny that indulgences were being abused. In his book Indulgences Their Origin, Nature and Development he stated We have already seen how the Fathers of the third and fourth centuries protested against the bad use made by some lax Christian of the letters of recommendation given by the martyrs. In later times the distribution of indulgences was indeed modified; but human nature always remains the same and is capable of abusing the very best of God’s works[7]. This statement from L?©picier shows that indulgences were being abused even before Martin Luther’s time. It also shows that there were ineffective modifications that were made to stop the abuse of indulgences. There are many examples of indulgences being abused throughout history. Quaestors were people that were sent to collect the alms that were given for indulgences. Quaestors would blatantly abuse indulgences for their own selfish gain. For example, Quaestors would preach false doctrine when collecting alms. Enrico dal Covolo stated Unfortunately, in many cases the preaching of these quaestors, out of ignorance or shrewdness, went far beyond dogmatic truth; some of them even dared to promise that the damned would be released from hell.[8] This is extremely immoral because the quaestors were taking advantage of people’s lack of knowledge and their desire to receive salvation. Quaestors would also receive extra payments when collecting alms.

When indulgences were granted for monetary gifts, as for the up keep of churches or the building of new ones, the quaestors often received more money than was due, thus paying themselves for their work[9]. This means that people who were sent to do God’s work abused their position just for financial gain. This is extremely immoral because the quaestors were blatantly stealing from people who just wanted to receive salvation. This was also immoral because the quaestors were stealing from the Catholic Church as well. Catholic kings and princes would also abuse indulgences to fund projects. Permission began to be granted to Catholic kings and princes, particularly on Crusades, to retain for themselves a rather considerable part of the alms collected for the gaining of indulgences[10]. This means that the Catholic Church allowed Catholic kings and princes to keep a large part of the alms collected for indulgences for themselves. Allowing Catholic kings and princes to keep a large amount of the alms collected for indulgences for themselves is immoral because they were most likely going to use the alms to maintain their lavish lifestyles, as opposed to using the alms to help the church or the less fortunate. The alms that were used for sale of indulgences should’ve been used to help the poor and disenfranchised people of the world.

Martin Luther’s feelings toward the sales of indulgences motivated him to act. In 1517 Martin Luther decided to create the Ninety-Five Theses, so he could combat the abuses that were directly connected to the sale of indulgences. The Ninety-Five Thesis is widely considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and is the foundation of the Protestant faith. The Ninety-Five Theses was essentially a list of questions and propositions for debate[11]. This shows that the Ninety-Five Theses was not exactly a direct attack of the Catholic Church like one might think. The main ideas that the Ninety-Five Theses were trying to convey were that God wanted believers to seek repentance and that faith alone would lead to salvation. The Ninety-Five Theses while conveying these ideas was very critical of the sales of indulgences and the Pope’s authority.

Theses 5 states The Pope has neither the will nor the power to remit any penalties beyond those he has imposed either at his own discretion or by canon law[12]. Theses 21 states Hence those preachers of Indulgences are wrong when they say that a man is absolved and saved from every penalty by the Pope’s Indulgences. It is mere human talk to preach that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately when the money clinks the collection box[13]. Theses 5 and Theses 21 are both critical of the Pope’s authority because they are directly implying that the Pope doesn’t have the power to take away all the penalties that are a result from sin. These ideas from the Ninety-Five Theses were then able to spread quickly throughout Europe because of the printing press. Because of his actions, Martin Luther was eventually excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1521.

However, Martin Luther’s work still had a large impact. The Protestant Reformation forced the Catholic Church to address the abuse of indulgences. The Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation was called the Counter- Reformation. According to P.F Palmer and G.A Tavard during the Council of Trent, the council acknowledged the abuses that came from the sale of indulgences and ordered the bishops to correct them.[14] The fact that the Council of Trent acknowledged the abuses of indulgences and demanded that they stop shows how impactful the Protestant Reformation was. Without the work of Martin Luther, the abuses that came from the sale of indulgences would have never been addressed.

  • [1] William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel, World History, (Boston, MA: Cengage,2015),421
  • [2] William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel, World History, (Boston, MA: Cengage,2015),946
  • [3] John O’Malley, The complex history of indulgences, America, March 30th 2009, pg.6+
  • [4] John O’Malley, The complex history of indulgences, America, March 30th 2009, pg.6+
  • [5] John O’Malley, The complex history of indulgences, America, March 30th 2009, pg.6+
  • [6] P.F Palmer and G.A Tavard, New Catholic Encyclopedia,2nd edition (Detroit: Gale,2003), Pg.436-441
  • [7] Alexius Lupicier, Indulgences Their Origin, Nature and development (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner), Pg.403
  • [8] Enrico dal Covolo, The Historical Origin of Indulgences, CatholicCulture.org, May 19,1999, https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=1054.(accessed April 7,2018)
  • [9] P.F Palmer and G.A Tavard, New Catholic Encyclopedia,2nd edition (Detroit: Gale,2003), Pg.436-441
  • [10] Enrico dal Covolo, The Historical Origin of Indulgences, CatholicCulture.org, May 19,1999, https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=1054.(accessed April 7,2018)
  • [11] History.com Staff, Martin Luther and the 95 Thesis, History.com.2009, https://www.history.com/topics/martin-luther-and-the-95-theses. (accessed April 10,2018).
  • [12] William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel, World History, (Boston, MA: Cengage,2015),422
  • [13] William Duiker and Jackson Spielvogel, World History, (Boston, MA: Cengage,2015),422
  • [14] P.F Palmer and G.A Tavard, New Catholic Encyclopedia,2nd edition (Detroit: Gale,2003), Pg.436-441
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