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The Church before the Reformation Page 1 of 2

Indulgences

For the Catholic Church sin is evil. If a sinner is forgiven his sins and is absolved (saved) from eternal punishment,
he still has to be punished for a certain time, either in this life or in purgatory. An indulgence was granted to a
sinner meaning God forgave the sinners sins, but he still had to do something to make up for it for a certain period
of time. This period varied from a few days to a lifetime. In addition, the indulgence would only be granted if the
sinner was in "a state of grace" - which means that his sins had to be forgiven after a true and sincere confession,
and if he had promised to make up for it.
Indulgences were not "a short-cut to heaven" as they imposed severe penitence. This explains the furious reaction
of Luther (and many other devout Catholics) to Johannes Tetzel selling pieces of parchment in the market places of
Germany, like a shopkeeper selling vegetables, claiming that they were plenary indulgences.
Relics
Relics, such as a piece of Christ's cross, Christ's blood in a bottle, some nails from the cross and saints’ bones, were
in widespread use by the Church in the Middle Ages. People called pardoners would travel around the countryside,
from village to village and from town to town, selling these relics. The pardoners had to buy a license from the
Church in order to be allowed to sell relics. This was, therefore, a way for the Church and the pardoner to make
money. It is a difficult for us to understand why people would buy these "fakes", but we must remember that their
attitude to religion was very different from ours.
Perhaps the main reason people bought relics was because they were superstitious. The people, in general, believed
in goblins and ghosts as well as heaven and hell. If they died and went to hell they would burn for ever or be
speared by fierce demons. The buying of a relic would reduce time spent in purgatory ( a place where souls wait to
get into heaven) after death. The second main reason they bought relics was that it showed how devoted they were
to God.
The Wealth and Power of the Church
At first glance, it would seem that the Catholic Church, and the Vatican in particular, was very rich. Thousands of
people lived in monasteries or were employed by the Church as priests. Probably a third of the land in England, in
the 15th century, belonged to the Church. The Church did have a variety of sources of income. In spite of this,
however, the pope was often short of money. He frequently had to borrow from the big banks in Europe.
The Political Power of the Church
The church also had a lot of political power. Bishops were appointed by the Pope to rule in all the countries of
Europe. People often looked to their Bishop as their Lord and Master, and in each country the Bishop took orders
from the Pope, not the king. Therefore the Pope appeared to be more important than kings. He wielded the power
of excommunication. This meant that if people opposed him the Pope could cut them off from the Church. this
would result in them going to Hell.
According to the Roman Catholic Church the Pope's power stemmed from God. He had been appointed by God to
make sure that the Bible was followed. In reality the Pope's authority came from the fact that he gave jobs to
people. People wanted to become Bishops because they could collect tithes (usually 10% of what people earned or
produced) and become rich. Therefore they would pay the Pope to be appointed a Bishop. During the 15th century
wars were fought over this right. In England and in parts of Germany the king could appoint Bishops.
In theory the Pope was Europe's most powerful ruler but in practice this was not the case. The Holy Roman
Emperor was one challenge to his supremacy. The other main problem was that the Pope was in Rome and Europe
was a large area of land to control, with only the horse and boat as methods of communication.
The Church before the Reformation Page 2 of 2
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The reaction of some monks to Luther's 95 Theses was one of anger because Luther's public attack was causing
people to stop buying indulgences. The Dominicans monks thought that Luther was a heretic. The Pope did not
take Luther’s 95 Thesis seriously. Luther was supported by his ruler, Frederick of Saxony. Prince Frederick was
not really interested in the religious debate but was concerned about the political side. He did not want the pope
meddling in German affairs. Additionally, many of the German princes wanted to land owned by the Catholic
Church. Many ordinary people began to see this as a quarrel between one man, Martin Luther, standing up to the
mighty and corrupt Church. Also they saw it as a dispute between "Germans" and "Italians". .

The pope appointed a Dominican friar, Cardinal Cajetan, to solve the problem. Luther was in a good deal of
danger when he was summoned to appear before Cajetan at the Diet of Augsburg in October 1518. Cajetan
questioned Luther only about the pope's authority, not about indulgences. He ordered Luther to retract the Ninety
Five Theses. If he did not, Cajetan said, he would be defying the pope. From then on Luther endeavored to find
fault with the pope and to argue against the power of the Pope.

Luther claimed that the pope was not "divine" or "infallible" (not able to make a mistake). A German nobleman,
Charles von Miltitz, persuaded Luther to write to the pope but Luther refused to change anything he had said. In
the letter he recognized the pope "as in some sense the head of the Church". Luther had found, when he was
researching into the history of the pope, that, in fact, the pope was originally appointed by a general council of the
Church and therefore was not appointed by God. The period 1518-20 saw Luther change his ideas from opposing
indulgences to questioning the right of the Church and the Pope to tell people how to worship. This was
revolutionary.