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Indulge, My Son: Economic Look Into the Catholic Church's Use of Indulgences

Indulge, My Son: Economic Look Into the Catholic Church's Use of Indulgences


David Hoffer's Entry For The 2004 Moffatt Prize in Economics

The Catholic Church's grasp in the daily and elemental aspects of life far exceeds its reach. For the Pope, through letters and edicts, is constantly setting up the official role of the one and unified Catholic Church in the surrounding unfaithful world. However, judging by the ambivalent history of the Church in its dealings with their secular counterparts, in the many battles, bans, boycotts, burnings, and brew-ha-ha of councils, the official position is becoming more and more convoluted as different needs and necessity of purpose arise. One of the more shady and difficult doctrinal facets embedded in Catholic Church history is that of use of indulgences as an economic force to back and support certain particular societal, national, and ecclesiastical developments: mainly, Church treasury needs, Crusading incentive, and the doctrine of Purgatory. To begin this overview of the sale of indulgences, it might be beneficial to examine what they are, when exactly they originated, and where they come from. In the words of Pope Paul VI,
    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 prescribed conditions through the action of the church which, as a minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. (Pope Paul VI, 1)
Before the Crusades, the people of a particular parish or province would be given to prayer and fasting for each other's salvation and continued perseverance in the order of the saints on earth. But beginning with Pope Urban II, and roughly the start of the first Crusade (Ekelurd, 70), the local clerical authority could offer up indulgences either for sale or attainment through deed in order to dispense with the need to do penance, either for self or others. Clearly, its coming into prolific use due to an economic crisis (namely, the war between the Christians in the west and the Moslems in the east) is a large factor in determining its main uses in the following centuries.

The use of indulgences in the funding of the general Church treasury takes the primary utility in its use from its pragmatic externalities. Though rooted in spiritual truth and necessity, a great factor in determining the details of indulgences, was monetary. And with good reason, one might say. What institution if not the Catholic Church, held more land than any other institution in Europe during the middle ages? With such great spiritual claims, land holdings and, consequently, tenants of the land, raiment, rituals, and general splendor of their Cathedrals, there were many expenses to be considered (both of a material and spiritual nature).(Cook) As Lea is quoted in The Sacred Trust as saying, "the struggling Church would have had slender chance of securing converts if it had disclaimed all power to succor the dead." (Ekelurd, 165n) More of this will be said in the part concerning purgatory, but this 'power to succor the dead' is stressed at the time in the form of indulgences. So as a result of these holdings, both physical and spiritual, came increased and heightened opportunities of revenue. As asserted in The Sacred Trust,

    The Church controlled enormous wealth. Its sources of revenue included tithes, land rents, donations, bequests, fees charged for judicial services, proceeds from the sale of indulgences, and income derived from monastic production and market of agricultural produce. (Ekelurd, 31) (Italics mine)
With the exception of donations, bequests, and indulgences, all the other income-inducing elements are founded in the pragmatic aspects of daily life and travail (land, labor, and capital). Indulgences are the only item among those listed that directly prescribes physical means to attain spiritual goals. Arguably donations (charity) could serve that end, but not of necessity; indulgences can serve no other end but the attainment of a spiritual good. Also, the Catholic Church found indulgences aiding in the prevention of the corrupt clerical practice of "malfeasance." (Ekelurd, 70)

Be Sure to Continue to Page 2 of "Indulge, My Son: Economic Look Into the Catholic Church's Use of Indulgences".

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