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

Mediaeval theology did not create Indulgences

Sacrament of Penance, and that

Indulgences relate only to temporal punishments, including under that designation the pains of Purgatory. This modern opinion is confirmed by the most eminent authorities of the mediaeval Church. It has been accepted in the description of the theory of Indulgences given above, since it has been said that the principal use of Indulgences was to secure against Purgatory. But these statements do not exhaust the question. Mediaeval theology did not create Indulgences, it only followed and tried to justify the practices of the Pope and of the Roman Curia,--a rather difficult task. The question still remains whether some of the Papal Bulls promulgating Indulgences did not promise the removal of guilt as well as security against temporal punishments. If these be examined, spurious Bulls being set aside, it will be found that many of them make no mention of the need of previous confession and of priestly absolution; that one or two expressly make mention of a remission of guilt as well as of penalty; and that many (especially those which proclaim a Jubilee Indulgence) use language which inevitably led intelligent laymen like Dante to believe that the Popes did proclaim the remission of guilt as well as of penalty. Of course, it may be said that in those days the distinction between guilt (_culpa_) and penalty (_poena_) had not been very exactly defined, and that the phrase _remission of sins_ was used to denote both remission of guilt and remission of penalty; still it is difficult to
withstand the conclusion that, even in theory, Indulgences had been declared to be efficacious for the removal of the guilt of sin in the presence of God.

These questions of the theological meaning of an Indulgence, though necessary to understand the whole situation, had after all little to do with Luther's action. He approached the whole matter from the side of the practical effect of the proclamation of an Indulgence on the minds of common men who knew nothing of refined theological distinctions; and the evidence that the common people did generally believe that an Indulgence did remove the guilt of sin is overwhelming. Contemporary chroniclers are to be found who declare that Indulgences given to Crusaders remit the guilt as well as the punishment; contemporary preachers assert that plenary Indulgences remit guilt, and justify their opinion by declaring that such Indulgences were supposed to contain within them the Sacrament of Penance. The popular guide-books written for pilgrims to Rome and Compostella spread the popular idea that Indulgences acquired by such pilgrimages do remit guilt as well as penalty. The popular belief was so thoroughly acknowledged, that even Councils had to throw the blame for it on the pardon-sellers, or, like the Council of Constance, impeached the Pope and compelled him to confess that he had granted Indulgences for the remission of guilt as well as of penalty. This widespread popular belief of itself justified Luther in calling attention to this side of the matter.

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