The System of Indulgences -- By: Alfred H. C. Morse
BSac 70:278 (April 1913) p. 228
The System of Indulgences
No doctrine in the Roman system is more comprehensive, more remarkable, or more vital than that of indulgences. In it center all the hierarchical tendencies. Its development is the product of centuries of sacerdotal pretensions, based upon an originally harmless solicitude for the purity of the church membership. Its abuse was the immediate occasion of the Protestant Reformation; and, without doubt, its practical operation is fraught with immeasurable evil. It has also been the butt of Protestant attack upon Rome for centuries. But neither of these facts will argue that the doctrine is destitute of reason or wholly and essentially evil. Justice demands that even Satan be heard in his own defense before he is finally judged. I shall treat in this article: (1) the rise of the practice of indulgences; (2) the statement of its doctrine; (3) its elements of truth; and (4) its abuse.
I. The Rise of the Practice of Indulgences.
1. The rise of indulgences is traced to the ancient penitential system in the early church. The ancient church was distinguished for the severity of its discipline, whose object was, on the one hand, the dignity and purity of the church; on the other, the spiritual welfare of the offender. Heresy, schism, and all gross crimes incompatible with a regenerate state were classed as mortal sins. All members of the church were considered free from the penalties attaching to these
BSac 70:278 (April 1913) p. 229
sins, through the efficacy of baptism. That is to say, by submitting to the act of baptism, they were placed in a condition of grace. But such persons often committed post-baptismal sins—sins which were considered venial, that is to say, they were sins of weakness, which, though tending to mar the effectiveness of sanctifying grace, could yet be pardoned. But, for their absolution, the offending parties were subjected to temporal punishment in this world or in purgatory. Moreover, since the church was considered to be a single and organic whole, possessing in its presiding head the power of the keys, it assumed the right to dictate all forms of ecclesiastical penalties, as atoning for the shame which post-baptismal sin brought upon the body.
Indulgence is originally the remission of these ecclesiastical pains and penalties. So jealous was the early church for the purity of its membership, that those who were openly guilty of sin and disobedience were subjected to exclusion from the privileges of worship and chiefly of the communion. If the excluded party desired readmission to the fullest fellowship, it could be only by submitting to severe and humiliating discipline. After having secured a fixed and sufficient amount of this, t...
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