Buying Forgiveness

This begins the Protestant Mythology series.

Myth #1- “During the Middle Aged the Catholic Church purported to sell forgiveness for sins (indulgences).” Image result for selling indulgences

2017 is the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This post begins my 2017 series debunking the Protestant mythology. By mythology I mean a certain set of generally accepted ‘facts’ which are believed without hesitation, at least in the English speaking world. The truth behind the ‘facts’ is usually not so simple and straightforward of course. At this point many of these myths have become secularized and one can find them in textbooks of our secular public schools, they are part of a cultural imprint.

This first myth is one I consider a gimmie.

“During the Middle Ages The Catholic Church sold forgiveness for sins.”

This claim refers to the granting of indulgences and is expanded in a number of ways, some more accurate than others. Some of the more outrageous versions of this claim state that one could purchase indulgences for things like adultery ahead of time, in other words the elements of repentance and contrition weren’t necessary one could simply buy their way out of hell. According to this myth an indulgence was permission to indulge in sin. I consider busting this myth a gimmie because I need only explain what an indulgence is.

It is true that indulgences were granted for making donations to the church and that there were abuses of this practice to the point that one could say churchmen were selling indulgences. One may debate whether granting indulgences for donations is a good thing. One may debate and object to the theology of indulgences. In either case, for the sake of honesty one must actually, as a prerequisite, know what they are objecting to.

So, what is an indulgence? An indulgence is the remission of temporal punishment due to sin. It is not a remission of sin but of punishment. It is not a remission of eternal punishment. It is not a remission of guilt. It is most certainly not a permission to sin. CCC 1471

There… done.

The underlying theology is that of satisfaction for sins, and very much a development from the public penances of the early church. Additionally, the communion of the saints and the concept of bearing one another’s burdens is involved. Of course most of those who think an indulgence is remission of or permission to sin have no idea what temporal punishment is. Eternal punishment is Hell. Temporal punishment are the other negative fruits of sin due to the sinner. The classic biblical example is that of King David and his sin of Adultery in the old Testament. He repents and is forgiven but is told he still must suffer the punishment of his child dying as a result of his sin.

More could be said as this is a complex subject but the myth has been addressed, if you’re trying to get rid of sins and avoid hell, indulgences don’t even claim to help.

(For further reading see St. Thomas Aquinas part 3, questions 86-90: and questions 25-27 of the supplement to part 3 of the Summa. I doubt anyone will actually click the links though, but I included it for those who might claim the church changed the definition of ‘indulgence’ after the reformation.)

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5 Responses to Buying Forgiveness

  1. This series sounds great! I look forward to future posts.

    • bgpery says:

      mustfollow- Do you have any specific myths you would like me to consider including? They should be the sort of thing that “everybody knows” about the Catholic Church, and the Reformation.

      • If it’s specifically myths about the Church during the Reformation era, one good one is “The Catholic Church didn’t define the canon of Scripture until the Council of Trent, at which point they added the apocrypha.”

        If it’s myths about anything in Church history there are several that are generally accepted as “fact” in popular culture.

        *The myths surrounding the Crusades, such as how they were colonizing efforts and/or forcing Muslims to the Christian religion. An example of this myth in popular culture is in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner. After burying his father, Robin bows before the grave in a moment of sorrow; “I should have been here. He called the Crusades a foolish quest. He said it was vanity to force other men to our religion.” Later, giving an epic speech to rouse the men of Sherwood Forest to fight, he says, “The sheriff calls us outlaws—but I say we are free. And one free man defending his home is more powerful than ten hired soldiers.” He finishes by sharing an understanding look with Azeem; “The Crusades taught me that.”

        This is on my mind because I recently re-watched the movie, which is still one of my favorites despite the bad history. 🙂

        *Myths surrounding the Inquisition are always good to answer.
        *Myths surrounding the Galileo Affair regarding how the Catholic Church is “anti-science.”
        *The myth of “Hitler’s Pope” and how Pope Pius XII helped Hitler against the Jews.

        Have you read the book “Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History” by Rodney Stark? He is not Catholic but felt the need to write against the myths in popular imagination because the historical record simply does not support them.

  2. bgpery says:

    Hmm Ok, I need to evaluate what I’m going to consider part of the ‘mythology’. My thought had been, it is the 500th anniversary of the reformation and in the English speaking world we have an established and accepted understanding of history. This understanding has been formed by a protestant culture, and contains a false or colored understanding of things. For example my secular public school history books presented the reformation as- ‘Martin Luther heroically stood up to the corrupt medieval church which was selling indulgences which were forgiveness for sins, and nailed his 95 thesis to the church door… ” and so on. A highly colored and filtered, now secularized, version of history; a myth, which is widely accepted even by many Catholics. That’s kind of what I meant by ‘Protestant Mythology’. Not so much calculated anti-Catholic bias, but unthinking. I’m having trouble drawing the border around what it is, and is not. I would exclude, the non-mainstream misconceptions which I heard in the Assembly of God growing up. “Catholics think they can pray their relatives out of hell”, is not really part of the mythology as it’s limited to a more fringy fundamentalist Protestantism….

    No I haven’t read “Bearing False Witness”.

    How are things going for you? You’ve been Catholic for what a year now?, there was a lot of tension with your family as I recall, hope things are civil.

    God bless and Mary keep,

  3. Pingback: Protestant Mythology #2 | Under the Mantle

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