Buying Forgiveness

A coffer used to collect mmoney for indulgences at the Luther House in Wittenburg
A coffer used to collect mmoney for indulgences at the Luther House in Wittenburg

“As soon as the coin in coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

I had always heard this saying used to sum up what Martin Luther was objecting to when he nailed his famous manifesto to the church door in Wittenburg, but I didn’t realize it was a slogan that the pardoners actually used to raise money.

The pope was running a special campaign to finish off St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the theme was buying forgiveness for the sins of your dead relatives. That’s what finally set Luther off.

For me, what really stuck in my craw was the ability to buy forgiveness for sins you had not yet committed. That would seem to rule out completely the whole idea of contrition.

In her book The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman, one of my favorite authors, has a great chapter on the decadence and venality of the Renaissance popes.

The decadence is kind of summed up in the Banquet of the Chestnuts hosted by Cesar Borgia and his father, Pope Alexander VII, which you can read about in Tuchman’s book or on Wikipedia.

The execution of John Hus
The execution of John Hus

“Prizes were offered — silken doublets, pairs of shoes, hats and other garments — for those clergymen who were most successful with the prostitutes.”

The venality was obvious to everyone, too. All church offices were for sale. You could buy a bishopric for your underage nephew and they would make a special exemption.

And everybody knew this. It took a guy like Luther to stand up and say, “Enough.” He ran a very real risk of being burned alive, and in the end it was a very close thing.

One hundred years before, a reformer named John Hus, with many of the same beefs, was burned alive after the Emperor Sigismund failed to honor the safe passage he had given him.

Hus stood before the assembly and said that he had come there trusting in the honor of the emperor, and he looked straight at Sigismund and, it is recorded, Sigismund blushed. OK maybe that’s more than you want to know, but it played a critical role in Luther’s story.

Frederick the Wise of Saxony

A century later, Luther was summoned before the Emperor Charles V of Spain, also emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which, as every schoolboy knows, was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It was at the Diet of Worms, not as gross as it sounds; it was a gathering of noblemen at a place called Worms. Luther too had a safe conduct from the emperor

Luther’s views were found to be heretical and in the natural course of things he would have been “turned over to the civil authority” to be burned at the stake, but Charles V, to his eternal credit, said, “I will not blush like Sigismund.” And he allowed Luther to leave.

It was a turning point in history. I think it had a lot to do with Frederick the Wise, the Elector [king] of Saxony, who earned his moniker by protecting Luther. Without Frederick the Wise, Luther would have been just another sad story like John Hus.

Did Luther know, when he posted his manifesto, that Frederick would stick up for him? Probably not. His courageous actions were purely a matter of personal principles.

But Within 20 years, all of northern Europe had joined in the Reformation, which is a good indication of how sick everyone was of the Renaissance popes.