Indulgence sales in the Middle Ages

How do I respond to my Catholic friends who insist that the Papacy/Pope Leo X was not responsible for the abuse of indulgence sales in the Middle Ages? Thanks very much.

You can refer your friends to Roman Catholic sources which acknowledge Leo X’s involvement in the abuse of indulgence sales. One such source is The Catholic Encyclopedia. It has the designations of nihil obstat and imprimatur, indicating that the Roman Catholic Church has reviewed the contents and declared the work to be free from doctrinal or moral errors. It is available online.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers a summary of Leo X’s life and pontificate. The following information from the Encyclopedia is pertinent to your question: “The immediate cause [of the Reformation] was bound up with the odious greed for money displayed by the Roman Curia, and shows how far short all efforts at reform had hitherto fallen. Albert of Brandenburg, already Archbishop of Magdeburg, received in addition the Archbishopric of Mainz and the Bishopric of Hallerstadt, but in return was obliged to collect 10,000 ducats, which he was taxed over and above the usual confirmation fees. To indemnify hiim [sic], and to make it possible to discharge these obligations Rome permitted him to have preached in his territory the plenary indulgence promised all those who contributed to the new St. Peter’s; he was allowed to keep one half the returns, a transaction which brought dishonour on all concerned in it. Added to this, abuses occurred during the preaching of the Indulgence. The money contributions, a mere accessory, were frequently the chief object, and the ‘Indulgences for the Dead’ became a vehicle of inadmissible teachings. That Leo X, in the most serious of all the crises which threatened the Church, should fail to prove the proper guide for her, is clear enough from what has been related above. He recognized neither the gravity of the situation nor the underlying causes of the revolt. Vigorous measures of reform might have proved an efficacious antidote, but the pope was deeply entangled in political affairs and allowed the imperial election to overshadow the revolt of Luther; moreover, he gave himself up unrestrainedly to his pleasures and failed to grasp fully the duties of his high office.”

Another source—with the Roman Catholic Church’s approval of its contents—that I have in my library is The Question Box. It also acknowledges the abuse of indulgence sales during the Middle Ages: “Catholic historians have frequently mentioned the abuses connected with the preaching of indulgences in the Middle Ages…In the Middle Ages when men wished to build a church or support a worthy charity, the Bishop or the Pope granted an indulgence…While Catholics believe that the building of St. Peter’s in Rome was a matter of interest to the whole Catholic world, they heartily condemn the manner of financing the indulgence, and the exaggerations of the preachers in extolling unduly its effects and privileges” (pages 59-60).

Church history may contain embarrassing episodes, but they cannot be denied or ignored.

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