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The anxiety of salvation from the Middle Ages to modern times

 The anxiety of salvation  from the Middle Ages to modern times   ING-020
17 May 2024

In order to better understand what is meant by indulgence, we have to take a step back. In the ancient Church, the faithful did not have confession as we do today. The forgiveness of sins was a “social event”: one declared oneself a sinner (without going into detail, which was unnecessary), joined a group (a real “rehab”), and underwent a penitential journey, which could last several months, even years, according to the gravity of the sin. Thus, one did the penance first, and then after that, (usually on Holy Thursday morning) one went to the Bishop who granted the absolution of sins through the imposition of hands. The order was thus: first confession, then penance and finally absolution.

It was a long process that required time and called for many sacrifices. It was a journey that one could undertake only a few times in life, and it had to do with grave sins (theft, murder, etc). One gave it a lot of thought before setting out on the journey, and usually it took place in old age (when the capacity for sin was also lower).

In the Middle Ages, Christian life continued in the monasteries, and the situation there was very different. In small, isolated communities, many sins that were not grave were committed regularly, and one could not do penance that lasted months or years for every minor fall. Moreover, it was very rare to meet bishops.

The practice of confessing small sins to the monastery’s abbot began to spread. He immediately absolved the sins and then assigned the penance, as we still do today.

The distinction between guilt (eliminated by confession) and punishment (to be served after receiving forgiveness to repair the sin) arose from this new system. Since the old system had not been abolished, the duration of the penance was always calculated in terms of days, months and years. There were even “price lists” (penitential books) in monasteries which specified the duration of the penance for almost every possible sin.

However, on particular occasions (important feast days, exceptional events) a good penitent could obtain a “reduction of the sentence”. In exchange for some hours of charitable work, a certain amount of days, months or years would be removed from the penance. This “special offer” was called an indulgence, and it was often very convenient, so that good Christians did not miss out on the opportunity.

In 1096, on the occasion of a “mission impossible”, which was to reconquer Jerusalem after its invasion by the Arabs, Pope Urban ii considered the high risk factor of this endeavour and made an unprecedented offer: the complete remission of the penance for anyone who set out to liberate the Holy City.

This was the first plenary indulgence. From then on, it was increasingly often the Pope, as Vicar of Christ and Successor of Peter, to use the “power of the keys” received from Jesus to open the treasury of indulgences, directly substituting the days, months and years of the ancient penances with the infinite value of Redemption: an “exchange office” that was very much in demand throughout most of the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages, people had an immediate and intuitive relationship with God. They believed in his mercy, but they also feared his justice, because they thought of their relationship with Him in a “medieval” way, as a feudal pact between subjects and kings. They literally put themselves in His hands (the gesture of praying with “joined hands” comes from feudal ceremonies) and promised to obey His laws. In exchange, they received security, help and protection from the devil’s snares.

To break God’s law was considered a very serious affront to the king, who, by removing his protection, left the transgressor at risk of damnation. Hence, the anxiety of returning to a “state of grace with God”, making a new feudal pact and thus “reinstalling the antivirus” against the devil.

When Boniface viii announced the first jubilee in 1300, promising plenary indulgences to everyone in exchange for just 30 days of prayer in Rome, the city was swarmed by an army of pilgrims. Since then, “indulgence” and “Jubilee” have been a winning combination.

The anxiety of salvation did not subside throughout the following centuries, resulting in in-depth study of the doctrine that was already known, according to which charitable works can shorten the duration of the penance. In the name of the communion of Saints, the bond that unites all the baptised people to the single mystical Body of Christ, they deduced that the reduced penance could be applied to all Christians, both the living and the dead.

The fame of indulgences stayed alive for further centuries among Christian people.

With the transition from the agricultural economy that was typical of the Middle Ages, to the monetary economy of the modern age, indulgences also entered the market.

The wealth of the Middle Ages came from the land which guaranteed sustenance and therefore autonomy; the wealth of modernity is money, which allows us to buy at the market what we used to obtain from the land. In civil society, public offices, titles of nobility, and the judiciary began to be sold while in the Church, it was cardinalships, abbeys and dioceses. The richest merchants also lent money to kings, emperors, popes and bishops.

A 26-year-old German Bishop became indebted with a big bank in order to buy a big diocese. He got ahead of himself and in order to pay off the debt he had to scrounge for money very quickly. The Pope also needed money for the same reason: he had to continue to build the Basilica of Saint Peter. Both used the same system: a campaign of preaching to obtain a plenary indulgence. But the charitable work to be undertaken was no longer to reconquer Jerusalem, but simply a modest offering of money. The anxiety for salvation was still very great, but the logic of the market had brutally inserted itself, along with advertising slogans: Wenn die Münze klingt, die Seele springt! (“At the sound of money, the soul goes to heaven”).

The Bishop preached about the Pope’s Indulgence in his diocese and kept a percentage of the donations. Revenue was high, fostered by the ambiguity of the proposal (today we call it “misleading advertising”), but at a certain point, the mechanism failed.

A young Augustinian, a professor of Sacred Scripture whose name was Martin Luther, poured salt on the wound: it is useless to bleed oneself to buy papal certificates if the heart does not convert!

Man changed and so did his relationship with God. Modern man was no longer the subject of a feudal pact, but rather, an individual with a tormented conscience, in search of the truth and intolerant of all distortions. He wanted a sincere and free relationship with God, not to get over it by paying the bill. When he invited his colleagues to discuss this view, the topics of their conversation spread throughout Germany, achieving great success.

The indulgence went from being an aid to conversion, to a synonym for disgrace and the catalyst of a protest that exploded throughout Europe. And it remains that way in many consciences, still scandalized by the seriousness of what happened five centuries ago.

Let us try to restore some order: what does the Church say today about the doctrine of indulgences? Let us begin by saying what is no longer valid: the days, months and years of “reduced penances” were abolished by Paul vi in 1967. Nowadays, indulgences can only be partial or plenary, and they are very limited compared to the past. However, these qualities are not the most important thing. Today, we preach especially about the spiritual doctrine that lies behind this: the doctrine of the “residue of sin”.

After confession, sin is eliminated, but the nostalgia of the flavour of sin remains. Evil maintains its attractiveness, continues to tempt us, makes us weak, makes us always fall back on the same sins. Anyone who takes the Lord seriously knows very well that one cannot deceive oneself into believing that a confession is enough to do away with sin. If we had faith it would certainly be that way, but our weakness is such that, unfortunately, it is not enough. The body too, after a serious illness, needs a long recovery before healing completely. The attractiveness to sin and its residue become an obstacle to those who want to walk swiftly in God’s will.

This long recovery that prevents us from running quickly towards God’s love for us is the punishment of sin.

In order to meet those who want to heal faster halfway, the Church indicates some good works that are useful to heal faster. In reality, they are the same ones as always. One is asked to strengthen union with Christ in the sacraments, with the faith of the Church (recital of the Creed and prayers for the Pope) and with our brothers and sisters (works of charity). When a partial or plenary indulgence is assigned to these works, by faith we believe that the attraction to sin lessens whereas charity and sanctity grow in a particularly intense way. The dregs of sin are eliminated and one can heal more quickly than before.

This is why, today, like then, a good Christian does not let this “special offer” pass them by!

Federico Corrubolo