Brokering forgiveness

Not long ago, in response to this post on Mystical Seeker's blog, I posed a question about indulgences:
Indulgences were granted for specific acts or prayers, and they were given with the promise of a remission of a very specific length of time.

My question is, where did the bishops get this information? How did they know that saying this or that prayer would shorten one's purgatorial tenure by 40 or 100 or 300 days? Or the whole thing, in the case of a plenary indulgence?

Did they actually do empirical research, or were they just guessing?
At the time I was assuming they simply pulled those numbers out of their posteriors, but then I read this from an online edition of the big book of indulgences, the Raccolta. Pope Clement VI wrote,
Jesus Christ did by his superabundant holy Passion bequeath to His Church militant here on earth an infinite treasure, not laid up in a napkin, nor hidden in a field, but committed by Him to be dispensed for the welfare of the faithful by the hands of blessed Peter, who has the keys of heaven, and by his successors here on earth, the vicars of Jesus Christ.
Indulgences are basically a share of this treasure, dispensed as the pope sees fit. As the article in the Raccolta explains,
Christians are not at liberty to take and to use this treasure as they please; but only as determined by the Holy Church and this Sovereign Pontiff, when, and how, and in what measure. (italics in original)
Of course! The popes didn't claim to have discovered the relationship between indulgences and the corresponding remission of sin, they claimed the authority to decide themselves what it should be!

Look at me, always underestimating the authority of the pope!

The interesting thing is that, now that I think about it, I seem to remember learning about that as an undergrad, but somewhere along the way I forgot that popes had claimed that kind of authority for themselves. Am I repressing things? I kind of wonder about that...

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Blogger Meg said...

Not so much claimed it, as believed it was granted to them - the right (and obligation) to bind and loose (Matt 16:19).

I have struggled with this passage, but finally have had to accept that if I want to believe Jesus really meant his words in the rest of the Gospels (which I do!!), then I can't very well say that he didn't mean this particular verse.

Did the Church interpret it differently than Christ intended?

I don't know.

Somewhere along the line, I had to make a conscious choice to accept that the Church's authority was divinely ordained. There wasn't much point in sticking around, otherwise.

Indulgences are not a part of my consciousness, but I know Catholics who find that the thought of a specific reward is a definite motivator for good behaviour. It doesn't bother me - I hope my devotional practices don't bother them.

Keep blogging James Fowler. I'm really looking forward to your take on him. People who need indulgences probaby fit into one of his stages, as do those who do not.


11:12 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

Hi Meg

I don't doubt that Jesus meant what he said -- but I don't believe for a minute that he said many of thing things he is quoted as saying in the gospels.

Even if we accept Matt 16.19 as historical, there is still the problem of tracing the office of the papacy to Peter, a dubious idea at best.

This is from Fr. Raymond Brown:

"As for Peter, we have no knowledge at all of when he came to Rome and what he did there before he was martyred. Certainly he was not the original missionary who brought Christianity to Rome (and therefore not the founder of the church of Rome in that sense). There is no serious proof that he was the bishop (or local ecclesiastical officer) of the Roman church -- a claim not made till the third century. Most likely he did not spend any major time at Rome before 58 when Paul wrote to the Romans, and so it may have been only in the 60s and relatively shortly before his martyrdom that Peter came to the capital." (bold is mine; Antioch and Rome 98)

He approvingly quotes D.W. O'Connor: "On all these points O'Connor, Peter 207, shows excellent judgment: 'Nothing can be determined, however, about when he came to Rome, how long he stayed, or what function or leadership, if any, he exercised within the Roman Church." (98)

I don't buy the notion of a divinely-ordained authority, because if God was going to take the initiative and establish an earthly ruler in his place, it's difficult to understand why the evidence for it is so thin, depends on circular reasoning (e.g., the magisterium is a divinely ordained authority because they tell us so), and, most importantly, why it was allowed to become so corrupted for so long.

As for indulgences, and more broadly the use of reward and punishment to motivate behaviour, that fits very squarely in Fowler's Stage 2, "Mythic-Literal," which most of us outgrow in early adolescence. It's the lowest stage adults have ever been found to inhabit.

More on that soon!

11:53 a.m.  
Blogger Meg said...

Well of course Peter was not the one to found the Church in Rome, but the early Church seems to have found reason to mark him out as one specially chosen by Jesus.

As for the corruption -- I think of what Brian always says -- the Holy Spirit must be present in the Church, otherwise it would have imploded centuries ago.


I think if I believe that Jesus is God, and not just a great example of moral living, then I need to take the witness of the early Church seriously. Granted, they had different issues (in particular the belief in the imminent second coming), but the structure we see from the earliest times is still reflected in the modern Church -- like all things, the pendulum swings back and forth.

I wish we still had several leaders (I hesitate to say patriarchs, still dreaming of the day when women can share in leadership), but I can live with just the one for now.

It may not be perfect, but it's better than the alternatives that I see.

7:34 p.m.  
Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

There is actually very little evidence that Peter ever even made it to Rome, and the legend of his martyrdom there is equally questionable. Funnily enough, Peter was denounced as a hypocrite by the first of the New Testament authors, Paul (in Galatians). James was the head of the Jerusalem church that formed after Jesus died. All of which points to the fact that self-serving claims of divinely sanctioned authorities are just that--self serving.

Your point about using reward and punishment to motivate behavior is a good one. As I mentioned in my blog, I am all in favor of people doing good things for others and for showing remorse when they do wrong. What I object to is the idea of a religious institution coopting authority for itself in matters that pertain to people's alleged fate after they die.

1:09 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I don't know if I understand this whole idea that "the Holy Spirit must be present in the Church, otherwise it would have imploded centuries ago." What does that mean?


There is actually very little evidence that Peter ever even made it to Rome, and the legend of his martyrdom there is equally questionable.That is true. The passage I quoted from Raymond Brown assumes that he did, but the evidence for this is remarkably weak and depends largely on a very tendentious interpretation of 1 Clement.

8:01 p.m.  
Blogger Mystical Seeker said...


Yes, you are right. I unfortunately have misplaced my copy of a book by Uta Ranke-Heinmann that discusses this, but she makes the same point. Also, the legend of him being executed in Rome comes from a very late apocryphal work, yet this is sometimes passed along as if it were a historical fact.

8:06 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I think you mean Putting Away Childish Things. I have that somewhere, too. Her other book, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of God is also fantastic, I definitely recommend it if you haven't already read it.

8:29 p.m.  
Anonymous The Gnostic Street Preacher said...

Love your page! Check mine out. :)

2:32 a.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

I think the indulgences thing is just weird, but that's me :)

5:45 p.m.  

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