That the doctrine of indulgences (the spark that touched off the Protestant Reformation) is still taught by Catholics is clear from their catechism. It is a cardinal part of their scheme to control men through fear. These doctrines of indulgences are two in kind: one will obtain the complete remission of temporal sins; the other will obtain a partial remission. The idea of indulgences hooks right into the doctrine of penance, and the two heresies joined together form an unholy alliance.
Catholic teaching concerning indulgences can be traced from the last decade of the twelfth century. The Catholic Catechism says that an indulgence is “the remission of temporal punishment due to sin.” The idea is that the priest absolves the penitent sinner of his sins; pronounces upon him certain requirements as penance or punishment for his sins; then by the granting of an indulgence can remit or annul the punishment imposed by penance.
The conception of a storehouse of merits (thesaurus meritorum or indulgentiarum) was elaborately formulated by Alexander of Hales in the thirteenth century. Starting with the existing practice in the Church that some penances (such as pilgrimages) might be vicariously performed, and bringing together the several thoughts that the faithful are members of one body, and that the good deeds of each of the members are common property of all, and therefore that the more sinful can benefit by the good deeds of their more saintly brethren, and that the sacrifice of Christ was sufficient to wipe out the sins of all, theologians gradually formulated the doctrine that there was a common storehouse which contained the good deeds of living men and women, of the saints in heaven, and the inexhaustible merits of Christ, and that all these merits accumulated there had been placed under the charge of the Pope, and could be dispensed by him to the faithful (History of the Reformation, Lindsay, p. 219).
Preaching Of John Tetzel
What must one do to get an indulgence? The answer is given: “to gain an indulgence one must (1) be in a state of grace, (2) have the intention of gaining the indulgence, and (3) do the good works required” of the priest, i.e. do whatever penance the priest may impose.
To whom may the indulgences gained be applied? Answer: one may apply the indulgence to himself, or to the souls in purgatory. (Some indulgences were restricted to the living).
It was the preaching of this monstrous doctrine that was really responsible for the beginning of the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century. When John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, came into Germany selling indulgences like cattle are sold in the market, he so incensed Martin Luther, a devout Catholic monk, that Luther lifted his voice in horrified protest. He filed 95 objections to the practices of Catholicism as it was taught and practiced in his day, and challenged any Catholic on the face of the earth to meet him in open discussion of the same.
Tetzel was unbelievably crude and cynical in his sale of the indulgences. He did not try (nor do modern Catholics) to conceal the crass greed of his doctrine between honeyed words and vague generalizations. When he would enter into a town, he would erect a cross bearing the Pope’s own insignia, enter into the pulpit, and begin to harangue the multitude and exalt the efficacy of indulgences. Here is a portion of the speech he would customarily make:
Indulgences are the most precious and sublime of God’s gifts. This cross (pointing to the emblem) has as much efficacy as the cross of Jesus Christ. Draw, near, and I will give you letters duly sealed by which even the sins which you shall hereafter desire to commit shall all be forgiven. I would not exchange my privileges for those of St. Peter! I have saved more souls with my indulgences than he has with his servants. There is no sin so great that indulgences cannot remit. And even if one should, which is doubtless impossible, ravish the holy Virgin, Mother of God, let him pay, only let his pay well for an indulgence, and all shall be forgiven him! Ye priests, ye nobles, ye wives, ye maidens, and you young men, hearken to your departed parents and friends who cry to you from the bottomless depths. ‘We are enduring a horrible torment’, they scream, ‘a small alms from you would deliver us. You can give it now if you will’. Thus they cry to you from purgatory. The very moment that the money clinks against the bottom of the chest, the soul escapes from purgatory and flies free to heaven. Now just pay off, 0 senseless people! Almost like the beasts who do not comprehend the grace so richly offered. This day heaven is on all sides of you. Do you now refuse to enter? When do you intend to come in? This day you may redeem many souls.
From preaching such as this Martin Luther and millions of other devout and intelligent men arose in wrathful rebellion. Put so crudely as Tetzel put it, no righteous man could accept the doctrine. Only the base and superstitious, only the depraved and wicked could be willing to follow so false a leader. Yet, thought the words to describe it have been softened and sweetened through the years. The Doctrine of Indulgences as taught by Catholicism today is precisely that which was proclaimed by Tetzel
No Bible Authority
Let it be understood by all that the Catholic church does not maintain that the Bible teaches the doctrine of indulgences. Their acceptance of that heresy grows out of another and more fundamental error the belief that the church has legislative power.
In the catechism we have reference after reference to what the church teaches, what the church commands, what the church enjoins, what the church authorizes. With them, it isn’t, what the Bible teaches or what the apostles authorized, or what Christ commanded. Rather, it is, what does the church command?
The idea of church authority as taught by Catholicism centers in the Pope. As head of the Catholic Church, the Pope claims all authority in spiritual matters, and claims to be absolutely infallible. Catholics claim that it is impossible for the Pope to be wrong in any of his teaching. He just cannot make a mistake! What he says is divine law. He has divine right over the church, and over all mankind on this earth. He has supreme authority over every pastor and his flock.
When the Pope speaks, he speaks infallibly; he has authority to enact new decrees, to set aside any particular injunction of the scripture, to modify at will any statement even of Christ himself! This is the basic and foundational error of all Catholic heresy.
With that idea to start with, there is no superstition or fable which may not become a part of “the faith” for Catholic peoples. Once accepting the idea of the infallible authority of the Pope, Catholicism has no way of stopping short of a total and complete descent into eternal darkness of mind and spirit.