Conversation: Indulgences Nothing But Greed?

Q. “In 1517, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

A. But do you know what an indulgence is?

Myths about Indulgences


Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers

Indulgences. The very word stirs up more misconceptions than perhaps any other teaching in Catholic theology. Those who attack the Church for its use of indulgences rely upon—and take advantage of—the ignorance of both Catholics and non-Catholics.
What is an indulgence? The Church explains, “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 1). To see the biblical foundations for indulgences, see the Catholic Answers tract A Primer on Indulgences.

Here are the seven most common myths about indulgences:

Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.
This charge is without foundation. Since indulgences remit only temporal penalties, they cannot remit the eternal penalty of hell. Once a person is in hell, no amount of indulgences will ever change that fact. The only way to avoid hell is by appealing to God’s eternal mercy while still alive. After death, one’s eternal fate is set (Heb. 9:27).

Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.
The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, “[An indulgence] is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power.”

Myth 3: A person can “buy forgiveness” with indulgences.
The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Indulgentarium Doctrina 1, emphasis added). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven.

Myth 4: Indulgences were invented as a means for the Church to raise money.
Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of shortening the penance of sacramental discipline and were in use centuries before money-related problems appeared.

Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.
The number of days which used to be attached to indulgences were references to the period of penance one might undergo during life on earth. The Catholic Church does not claim to know anything about how long or short purgatory is in general, much less in a specific person’s case.

Myth 6: A person can buy indulgences.
The Council of Trent instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and, because of prior abuses, “in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions” (Catholic Encyclopedia). This act proved the Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.

Myth 7: A person used to be able to buy indulgences.
One never could “buy” indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding 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.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states:

“[I]t is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded.”



For a more thorough explanation of indulgences click HERE



Q. The aggressive marketing practices of Johann Tetzel in promoting this cause provoked Martin Luther to write his 95 theses, protesting what he saw as the purchase and sale of salvation. In thesis 28 Luther objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs”.

Agreed. This is historical.

Q. The 95 Theses not only denounced such transactions as worldly

A. True.

Q. but denied the Pope’s right to grant pardons on God’s behalf in the first place:

A. This is flatly contradicted in the Gospel of John

John 20:22

And with that he breathed on them and said,Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”


Matthew 16: 8

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Q. the only thing indulgences guaranteed, Luther said, was an increase in profit and greed, because the pardon of the Church was in God’s power alone.”

A. We agree that the selling of indulgences is wrong, misleading, and fraudulent. The method was wrong. There was nothing greedy about fundraising to build a church. Unless you think all fundraising for any church today is automatically, greedy.

Conversation: Indulgences

Q. I have belonged to an organization of believers, the Presbyterian Church USA as you may recall, that started to espouse beliefs that were in direct contradiction to the Word of God, such as acceptance of homosexuality even though it is an abomination to our God. When these things started gaining large scale support in this body, I felt I needed to remove myself and my family from this organization because a true Body of Christ does not violate the clear essential teachings of the Bible, plain and simple. But isn’t this exactly what happened with the Reformation?

A. Yes, in one way, the seeking of purity of faith.

The official position of the PCUSA is that all sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin. But dissent from this is widespred.

Q. When it became clear to Martin Luther that the Catholic Church was teaching and practicing violations of the Word of God, he had to make his stand.

A. It is a misunderstanding of the situation to believe that the Catholic Church was teaching, as in had doctrine, that Martin Luther objected to in the beginning. It simply was not the Catholic Church that was teaching incorrectly. It was human persons that misrepresented the teaching of the Catholic Church.

We have a similar situation in our time. For instance, it would be incorrect to assert that the Bible teaches that loving your neighbor means it is perfectly OK for homosexuals to marry and indulge in sexual pleasure. We know that the Bible does teach us to love our neighbor but it does not teach that the practice of homosexuality is morally good. And yet, there are “Christians” who teach this and assert that it is legitimate Christian teaching based on the Bible.

Now, we can clearly see that it is NOT the Bible that teaches this abuse of Christian doctrine but human persons claiming the authority of the Bible who are the ones in error.

And so it was in Luther’s Germany. Human persons taught and believed error. The teaching and doctrine of the Catholic Church was perfectly fine. The error taught in the name of the Catholic Church was wrong and brought calumny upon the Catholic Church

Selling indulgences was clearly not the official teaching of the Catholic Church because, Saxony and Spain forbade this method of fundraising in their territories. It was an abuse of the doctrine of indulgences in Germany, not an all inclusive Church teaching. And not taught all over the world either. It was not Catholic Doctrine.

Now, the Catholic Church does still offer indulgences. It is a complicated subject made even more difficult to understand when one comes to it with deep antipathy and prejudice regarding the whole notion of indulgences. At least try to read some of this. –>Catholic Encyclopedia: Indulgences . It is a complicated subject and easy to understand if you read the whole article how the common people could easily  misunderstand, even if Fr. Tetzel taught it correctly. I am not saying he did.There are confilicting opinions.

There was corruption in the Catholic Church then just like there has been in our own time and various other times. Corruption has waxed and waned. No doubt there will always be some corruption somewhere or many-wheres in the Church.

The Devil prowls like a around hungry lion seeking to devour

Catholic people are not immune to the wiles of Our Enemy. What is pure and indefectible is the doctrine of the Catholic Church, not her members or even her popes. But the Devil cannot corrupt the Teaching, The Doctrine, of the Catholic Church. That is under the divine protection of Our Lord.

Luther’s objections were very worthwhile. One of his errors was to leave the Church and start his own instead of trusting God. The Jews are known for their repeated apostasy and corruption in the OT. But, individual Jewish Prophets never left and started their own “Chosen People” when they got fed up with the sinfulness of their brothers.

God, and God alone, is the Chooser of the Jews and the Founder of His Church. The Catholic Church was ushered in with all manner of supernatural events. By what authority, did any of the human founders of any of the Protestant churches, start a new Church? What miracles or supernatural events attested to this God given authority?

Q. At this time the Catholic Church, led by the Pope, of course, was extracting money from members by selling Indulgences

A. This was an abuse and a twisting of Catholic Doctrine for the purpose of fundraising to build St. Peter’s in Rome. Indulgences CANNOT be bought and sold. The Pope did not sanction the abuse. Remember, communication was very slow back then so errant behavior was difficult to keep track of and correct.

Q. These indulgences purported to perform functions that only God can do, such as the forgiving of sins, and all for a price.

A. You are misunderstanding what was going on because of the one-dimensional influence of Protestant theology. Yes, only God can forgive sins. But they all KNEW that. What they were hoping to do was to “atone for the TEMPORAL punishment of sin”. And giving alms is a legitimate way to do this.

But according to two-dimensional Catholic doctrine only God decides how much of the temporal punishment of sin has been satisfied by the giving of alms, devotions, prayers, etc. So, the people were not trying to buy forgiveness of sin but buy their way out of Purgatory. Which can’t be done. So the saying/teaching “When the coin in the coffer rings a soul from Purgatory springs” is pure presumption and heresy.You might find this article on Tetzel interesting. Tetzel→ At least read the last 1/3 of the article.

Please see my post and some of the other posts on Purgatory, In order to better understand the two-dimensions of sin according to Catholic theology.

Q. Add to this the atrocities historically committed by the Pope and his hierarchy including sexual immorality, murder, and the Inquisition. Is there any wonder that Martin Luther could no longer participate in an organization of believers that permitted these things?

A. You have been misled to think that these things were approved or even permitted. The Inquisition was not the overblown disaster that many have come to think it was. But any atrocities were certainly not permitted/approved/taught by the Catholic Church. The Church/State relationship was very different in the middle ages from what we have today and it is not correct to judge a different culture based on our own culture. To be brief, in those days the State considered any person guilty of religious heresy equal to being a traitor to the state. The state gave the church the job of examining accused heretics to ascertain guilt and if guilty her ministers implored them to recant. But the church did not execute anyone; that was done by the state. The Church tried to save lives.

And at times people were accused of heresy in order to get rid of them and seize their land. The view many have of the Inquisition is simplistic when the whole situation was much more complex. I am not saying that there were not Catholic people guilty of immorality. I am saying that the Catholic Church did not teach them to be immoral or commit atrocities.