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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

Or the relaxation of a penance enjoined


In course of time the public confession of sins made to the whole congregation was exchanged for a private confession made to the priest, and instead of the public _satisfaction_ imposed by the whole congregation, it was left to the priest to enjoin a _satisfaction_ or external sign of sorrow which he believed was appropriate to the sin committed and confessed. The substitution of a private confession to the priest for a public confession made to the whole congregation, enlarged the circle of sins confessed. The _secret_ sins of the heart whose presence could be elicited by the questions of the confessor were added to the open sins seen of men. The circle of _satisfactions_ was also widened in a corresponding fashion.

When the imposition of _satisfactions_ was left in the hands of the priest, it was felt necessary to provide some check against the arbitrariness which could not fail to result. So books were published containing lists of sins with the corresponding appropriate _satisfactions_ which ought to be demanded from the penitents. If it be remembered that some of the sins mentioned were very heinous (murders, incests, outrages of all kinds), it is not surprising that the appropriate _satisfactions_ or _penances_, as they came to be called, were very severe in some cases, and extended over a course of years. From the seventh century there arose a practice of commuting _satisfactions_ or penances. A penance of several years' practice of fasting might be commuted into saying so many prayers or psalms, into giving a definite amount of alms, or even into a money fine--and in this last case the analogy of the _Wehrgeld_ of the Germanic tribal codes was frequently followed.(155) These customary commutations were frequently inserted in the _Penitentiaries_ or books of discipline. This new custom commonly took the form that the penitent, who visited a certain church on a prescribed day and gave a contribution to its funds, had the penance, which had been imposed upon him by the priest in the ordinary course of discipline, shortened by one-seventh, one-third, one-half, as the case might be. This was in every case the commutation or relaxation of the penance or outward sign of sorrow which had been imposed according to the regulations of the Church, laid down in the _Penitentiaries (relaxatio de injuncta poenitentia)._ This was the real origin of Indulgences, and these earliest examples were invariably a relaxation of ecclesiastical penalties which had been imposed according to the regular custom in cases of discipline. It will be seen that Luther expressly excluded this kind of Indulgence from his attack. He declared that what the Church had a right to impose, it had a right to relax. It was at first believed that this right to relax or commute imposed penances was in the hands of the priests who had charge of the discipline of the members of the Church; but the abuses of the system by the priests ended by placing the power to grant Indulgences in the hands of the bishops, and they used the money procured in building many of the great mediaeval cathedrals. Episcopal abuse of Indulgences led to their being reserved for the Popes.

Three conceptions, all of which belong to the beginning of the thirteenth century, combined to effect a great change on this old and simple idea of Indulgences. These were--(1) the formulation of the thought of a _treasury of merits_ (_thesaurus meritorum_); (2) the change of the _institution_ into the _Sacrament_ of Penance; and (3) the distinction between _attrition_ and _contrition_ in the thought of the kind of sorrow God demands from a real penitent.

The conception of a storehouse of merits (_thesaurus meritorum_ or _indulgentiarum_) was first formulated by Alexander of Hales(156) in the thirteenth century, and his ideas were accepted, enlarged, and made more precise by succeeding theologians.(157) 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, that the good deeds of each of the members are the 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. The doctrine was not very precisely defined by the beginning of the sixteenth century, but it was generally believed in, taught, and accepted. It went to increase the vague sense of supernatural, spiritual powers attached to the person of the Bishop of Rome. It had one important consequence on the doctrine of Indulgences. They might be the payment out of this treasury of an absolute equivalent for the _satisfaction_ due by the penitent for his sins; they were no longer merely the substitution of one form of penance for another, or the relaxation of a penance enjoined.


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