Sale of Indulgences Affirmed (1343)
It was on this date, January 27, 1343, that Pope Clement VI issued a bull, Unigenitus, officially reaffirming that the Catholic Church can grant remission of sin through indulgences. The bull says,
Upon the altar of the Cross Christ shed of His blood not merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the whole human race, but a copious torrent ... thereby laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.In other words, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, "the source of indulgences is constituted by the merits of Christ and the saints." The scheme is fortuitous on a number of levels: the Christian can avoid the expense of a journey to Rome in a Jubilee Year (first instituted by Boniface VIII in 1300 and carried into the modern era by John Paul II as recently as 2000); the horrific doctrine of Hell is mitigated (except for non-Catholics) by the invention of Purgatory, where minor sins can be expunged before going to heaven; and the Catholic Church can make piles of money by "taxing" the granting of "remittance" of sin: that is, granting a partial pardon, or shortening of torture, in the afterlife.
The sale of indulgences was the chief concern of Martin Luther and the chief cause of the Protestant Reformation. But, protests one apologist website,
One never could "buy" indulgences. The financial scandal around indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences.
As historian and ex-priest Joseph McCabe observed, the Council of Constance (1414-1418) "'sold' absolution from 'sin' as well as from the purgatorial punishment of sin (a pœna et culpa). The Council is rude enough to call it a 'sale.'" Furthermore, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) placed the doctrine close to infallibility when it stated that the Church "condemns with anathema those who either assert, that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them." The Council recommended "moderation," but not regulation, in granting (that is, selling) indulgences.
The chief abusers, after indulgences were instituted in large measure by Boniface, were the anti-pope John XXIII (1400-1415), described by the Council of Constance as a seller of benefices, bulls, sacraments, ordinations, consecrations and anything else that would bring in money, Leo X (1513-1521), who condemned Luther and dispensed indulgences to build St. Peter's in Rome, and Clement VIII (1592-1605), a notorious nepotist, who showered his relatives with gold from sold indulgences.
As most freethinkers consider Hell itself a fabrication, and Purgatory a fabrication upon a fabrication, indulgences are artificial three times over. Nothing in church history or doctrine has so perfectly supported the old saying: The church is happy to exchange treasures in heaven for cash down!
 Quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1909-1911 ed., article "Indulgences."
Want to comment on this essay? Send me an e-mail!