Why I Am a Christian

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Hallowe'en Which Changed the World

     Hallowe'en, as everyone ought to know, is All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints' Day, "hallow" being simply an alternative to the word, "holy", which is what the French word "saint" means. The fun and games now celebrated on that day refer back to the Celtic festival of the dead, which the holy day supplanted.
     Five hundred years ago All Saints' Day was a very special day in the German university city of Wittenberg. Its pious ruler, Frederick the Wise had amassed a huge collection of holy relics, including a twig from Moses' burning bush, a piece of bread served at the Last Supper, four hairs of the Virgin Mary, and 19,000 other items of equal undoubted authenticity, each bearing its own indulgence. Indeed, in 1520, three years after the events to be described, when the Pope, in order to gain Frederick's co-operation, increased the indulgences on the collection, anybody who viewed them and made the proper contribution, could gain a reduction from purgatory, for himself or others, of 1,902,202 years and 270 days, assuming the world lasted that long. And the logical day for them to be placed on display would be All Saints' Day.
     But 1517 was different. The day before the display, the University's Master of Sacred Theology, a priest and monk called Martin Luther, sent a letter to his superiors and some friends, which included an invitation to a debate on 95 theses concerning indulgences. (He probably did not nail them to the church door.) All he wanted was a polite debate, but something unexpected happened. Anonymous persons translated the theses into German and started distributing them. Within a month they were all over Germany. The author suddenly found himself thrust to the head of a great movement of spiritual reform which divided Europe and the Church, and for which men would be prepared to die.
     With hindsight, anyone reading the 95 theses today will be surprised at how limited they were. The cardinal issues of the Reformation, such as monasticism, clerical celibacy, transubstantiation, masses for the dead, purgatory, or prayers to the saints, are ignored or mentioned only tangentially. Yet this was the tiny spark by which the Holy Spirit set Europe ablaze. The speed at which events moved was exceptional. Only 12½ years separate the 95 theses from the Confession of Augsburg, by which time most of northern Europe, and many other major cities, had embraced reform.

     Moral Dereliction 
     At the start of the sixteenth century, Christendom was in a bad way. The Eastern Churches were being ground down by the Muslims, while the Latin Church was corrupt, and had been for a long time, with the rot being deepest and foulest at Rome itself. Everyone knew it, and people with the utmost respect for Christ had utmost contempt for His agents. Two centuries before Luther, Dante had written The Divine Comedy, in which he placed several consecutive and contemporary popes in Hell - and with good reason. Over the years several people had attempted to clean it up. John Wychliffe made the attempt in England, and although he did not succeed, he was at least protected by the Black Prince. His discipline, John Huss tried to do the same in Bohemia, and was burnt at the stake.
    Let us go forward 21 years to hear it from the horse's mouth. In 1538, faced with the criticism of the Lutherans, the new Pope Paul III asked some of his  cardinals to prepare a report on abuses which required fixing. What they uncovered was shocking. Mere lads, "utterly unqualified reprobates" were being ordained priests. Italians were being appointed to posts in Britain and Spain. Cardinals held several bishoprics at once. Churches were neglected because the priest lived elsewhere while helping himself to its revenues. Other revenues designed for the poor were being consigned to the wealthy. A major abuse was simony, the purchase of holy orders for money. Those who committed it received absolution by buying an indulgence, but still retained the benefice, so that they came out ahead.
Since Rome is the mother of the churches it is scandalous that the priests officiating at St. Peter's are ignorant and filthy. In this city prostitutes are conveyed like matrons by mules followed by cardinals and clerics.
     But it wasn't just the behaviour of the clergy which was at fault, but the doctrine. Over the centuries certain false ideas and practices had developed. This was not deliberate, nor did it all occur at once. As I explained in any earlier post, what really happened in the Middle Ages was something I prefer to call "doctrinal drift": first, a slightly new practice, a slight change in emphasis, a slight change in interpretation, followed a generation or a century later with another slight change, until the changes finally built up to something completely new. It is analogous to a clock which loses or gains a minute every day without being corrected, until it is completely out of synch with reality. Or, to use another analogy, it can be shown to be impossible for a human being to walk to a destination by dead reckoning. There will always be a bias towards either the left or right foot - which is why people who are lost in the wilderness end up walking in circles. Eventually, people are going to cry: "Hold it! It's the middle of the day, and the clock shows it should be evening. We need to set the clock according to the sun. We're lost! We need to get out the map and start looking for landmarks. And our theology has gone astray. We need to get back to the Bible and the teachings of the early Church." It finally happened in the sixteenth century.

     Monasticism
     The first major deviation occurred about AD 290, when St. Anthony founded the monastic movement. Like many other movements, it contained a kernel of truth. There is nothing objectionable in renouncing materialism for the simple life, in order to devote oneself to a life of prayer. However, it came with serious baggage: that virginity and celibacy are superior to marriage, that if simplicity is good (which even an unbeliever might accept), self-denial is better, and self-torture best, and that it represented a superior lifestyle to that of the pious layman, and one best calculated to bring one to heaven. The concept is by no means dead. In my first primary school, the teaching nun read us a story about "The Boy Who Loved Jesus" who, among other things, was inspired to put a pebble in his shoe as a method of self-mortification.
     One day, the young Luther was almost struck by lightning. "St. Anne, save me!" he cried out. "I will become a monk." She did, and he did.
     He was later to say that, if anyone could have been saved by monkishness, it would have been him. Throwing himself into vigils and fasts, he went even beyond the requirements of the order. He sometimes went for three days without eating. He cast off the blankets allotted him, and nearly froze to death. In hindsight, we might wonder how anyone would think he could gain merit from God in this fashion, but the idea was to compensate for his sins (which were not grave). Essentially, he and his fellow monks were crucifying themselves: to do by themselves what Christ did for the whole world. Yet it gave him no peace. He could never be sure his self-mortification was sufficient. How could he be? The trouble with crucifying yourself is you can never get that last nail in.
     But there was another way.

Confession and Penance
    From apostolic times the policy has existed that public sin requires public repentance, even if it means sitting in the back row forbidden to take the sacraments. Without public repentance the sinner faces excommunication. (See 1 Corinthians, chapter 5.) The purpose is obvious and twofold. First, it is to bring the sinner to his senses and be reconciled (2 Corinthians 2:5-8). Secondly, if the congregation see a member getting away with sin, it brings the whole message into disrepute.
     Thus, in the early centuries the discipline arose whereby notorious sinners were barred from the sacrament for a lengthy period of time to allow the seriousness of their action to sink home to themselves and others. Typically, it involved some combination of sackcloth, fasting, and alms giving. A couple of points, however, need to be made:
  1. It was only for the serious sins of apostasy (ie idolatry), homicide, or unchastity.
  2. The discipline was applied only once. For a second offense, he was permanently out. He could still make his peace with God and seek His forgiveness, but the church had wiped its hands of him.
  3. It applied only to the laity. The clergy, being the guides of the people, were not given the option. At the first offence they were simply defrocked.   
     Gradually, the system changed. Sinners were allowed a second chance to repent, but they were expected to confess and receive absolution for all sins, not just the Big Three - and they had to pay a fee to do so. From about the sixth century there arose the Penitentials, or handbooks of specific penalties for specific sins. No doubt this helped educate our newly converted barbarian ancestors in the knowledge of right and wrong. Since penance was arduous, the tendency arose to commute it. A person would say, in effect, I've already been on a pilgrimage; isn't that enough to cancel some of my penance? Or they could give alms to the poor. Since the barbarians already had a legal system based on fines, this made sense. However, the church was also defined as poor, so most of the church property came from commutation of penance.
     Imperceptibly, it was forgotten that this was originally a method of bringing reprobates back into the good graces of the church, and it was replaced by the belief that it was the way to bring them back to God himself. The legalistic Roman mind devised a theory unknown to the Bible or early Christian tradition: each sin carried both guilt (culpa) and a penalty (poena). Absolution following confession was held to remove the guilt, and hence the danger of hell fire, but the penance imposed afterwards covered the penalty. If the penance were too light, or not followed, it would have to be made up in purgatory - more about which later. Finally, the Lateran Council of 1216 made annual confession compulsory rather than voluntary. After that began a very complicated discussion on how it could be applied.
      I should add that there can be no doubt about the development of this doctrine. It has all been comprehensively documented by Henry Lea in his classic work, A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church, which can be read or downloaded online - Parts 1, and 3. (Part 2 is apparently no longer on line.) I wish that every Roman Catholic could read, at least, chapters 10 to 12 of Part 1. They would be forced to question either their own salvation or the infallibility of their church when they discover how they might honestly believe they have made a valid confession and received a valid absolution when, in fact, the guilt of their sins remains.
     People were taught that, if they committed a mortal sin - and the definition of this was both vague and inconclusive - the only way they could avoid going to hell would be to confess it to a priest and receive absolution. To illustrate this point, let me go forward a century to the Travels of an Augustinian friar called Manrique. In 1634 he was posted to what is now Burma when he received a pitiful letter from one of a group of Portuguese prisoners held in the mountains. They had been unable to go to confession for twenty-six years, with an indefinite period of exile ahead, and could see nothing before them but hell fire. "Should you fail to come," the plaintive missive exclaimed, "I swear before God's throne that our perdition will be at your door!"
     Thus had developed what is now known as sacerdotalism: the change from the priest being the leader and teacher of the community to being an intermediary between God and man. Although there may be many roads to God, all must pass through Jesus Christ, but now all roads to Jesus must pass through the priest.
Medieval Christians believed that the life of the soul was created, nourished and perfected through sacramental grace, of which the priest was the sole purveyor. Pardon was the word of the priest given (sometimes withheld), not the repentance and forgiveness proclaimed by Christ. Grace was a kind of spiritual medicine the priest dispensed, not the personal relationship of the New Testament. The keys of heaven were keys on the girdle of the priest, not the promise of being in Christ. [James Atkinson, 1966, Rome and Reformation, p 20]
     The practical results of this custom are not hard to guess. For the weakly religious or cynical - possibly the majority - it would have been regarded as merely a form of spiritual hand-washing at the end of the day, even as a licence fee for sin. For the conscientious believer, it would be the opportunity for a conscientious priest, assuming he had the time, to train him in the ways of virtue. And -
the terror of the confessional is the overscrupulous penitent, who is constantly tormenting himself with the dread that he has not secured pardon for the sins which he has confessed; that he has not confessed them properly and must repeat them again and again; that things are sins which are no sins. It suggests what an infinite amount of misery the system has caused to timid and conscientious souls, surrounded by multitudinous observances on which they rely for salvation, ever afraid of failing in some minute particular and seeing hell yawning before them as the penalty for some trifling omission. [Lea - vol. 1, page 353]
      One such "timid and conscientious soul" was Luther. He once spent six hours in the confessional going over his misdemeanours until his exasperated confessor suggested he go out and kill his mother and father so that he would have something worth confessing. But Luther's problem was not the seriousness of his individual sins, but the necessity of getting all of them absolved. To his dismay, he realised that not only was it impossible to remember them all, but the real concern was the ones not even recognized because of the blind spot we all have to certain defects in our nature. The penitence system was geared to deal with sins one by one, but the real problem was that human nature is corrupt. We are not sinners because we commit sins; we commit sins because we are, by nature, sinners.

Purgatory and the Mass
     Early Christians recognized only two post-mortem destinations: heaven and hell. Yet, obviously the Day of Judgment has not yet arrived, so there must be an intermediate state. Although the church prayed for the faithful deceased, no clear idea existed of the intermediate state. That is still the case with the eastern churches; they have never adopted the idea of purgatory. In the Latin church, a certain amount of speculation existed about the possibility of post-mortem purging of sins. St. Augustine, in The City of God 21:26, declared that he could not rule out such a thing, as it might be possible. To this, George Salmon pointed out that what was just a possibility in the fifth century could become be a certainty in the sixth.
     To his doctrine was added a specific interpretation of holy communion. There is a misconception among Roman Catholics that Protestants do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. Some might not, but certainly the Protestant core: the Lutherans, Anglicans, and Calvinists, take seriously the words of 1 Cor. 10:16:
The Cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the Blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?
    This, obviously, is something God does for us. However, the Latin church has developed a doctrine which would be hard to justify from either the words of the Bible or the writings of the early church, that is, that the priest changes the bread and wine. We can therefore imagine the horror experienced by Luther on a visit to Rome when jesting priests told him they used to say (in Latin): "Bread thou art, and bread thou shall remain." It was not only their unbelief which was so shocking, but the fact that, according to the current theology, the innocent communicants were being deprived of the benefit of the sacrament.
     The eucharist, or mass, being considered an actual second sacrifice of Christ, it tended to be endowed with an aura of magic.
The belief sprang up and was sedulously inculcated that there were scarcely any object of human desire that might not be obtained by Votive Masses - masses celebrated in the name of the worshipper for the fulfilment of his wishes. The mass was an unfailing resource, and in the ancient rituals there were formulas for masses for rain and for fair weather, for peace, for victory in war, for the cessation of cattle pests, for success in law-suits, against unjust judges, against slanderers, against tempests etc. etc. They were even celebrated in private houses to obtain for the inmates safety, peace and prosperity. [Lea - vol. 1, p 89, giving references]
     Incredible as it may seem, there were even wicked priests who offered masses for evil purposes. In the sixteenth century a certain Spanish priest bribed some mendicant priests to offer masses to enable him to seduce four nuns.
     But one of the major uses of the mass was to get time off purgatory. Thousands of chantry priests did nothing except rattle off masses for the souls of well-to-do sinners who had established endowments for that purpose. It must have been tough for the sinner who didn't have the money to pay for it.

Indulgences
     Prior to the Council of Trent, leading Roman Catholic theologians had no problems admitting that indulgences were an innovation. Thus, in his 1534 encyclopedia of alleged heresies, Alfonso de Castro agreed that indulgences were unknown to the early church, but then, he added, so were transubstantiation, purgatory, and the procession of the Holy Spirit (which makes one wonder how those doctrines could be justified as well).
     In point of fact, the practice developed in the eleventh century. As mentioned before, penitents had been allowed to commute part of their penance through the hardships of going on a pilgrimage. Thus, it became highly valuable for various shrines to obtain the privilege of providing to their pilgrims a fixed term off their penance. But it was Urban II in 1095 who offered the first plenary indulgence ie a remission of the whole penalty of sin, to all those who confessed before setting out on the First Crusade.
     About that time, religious houses started granting "confraternity" status to their benefactors, allowing them to share in the joint spiritual merits of the members. Eventually, Alexander of Hales (1158-1245) came up with the theory, which would soon become official doctrine (even today) that Christ and the saints, who were conceived of as having performed more good works than was required of them (works of superrogation), had built up a treasury of merits which the church could bestow to remove the penalties of sin.
    Thence, the sale of indulgences became one of the biggest money making ventures of the church, and would probably, without the intervention of the Reformation, have replaced confession and absolution in the life of the church. Strictly speaking, indulgences removed only the penalty of sin; guilt still had to be removed by confession and absolution. However, in the popular mind - which the hierarchy did little to contradict - they removed both, and the quaestuarii, who went about peddling them on behalf of the church, were popularly known as "pardoners", whose chicanery was well known to astute witnesses such as Chaucer.
    Strictly speaking, too, indulgences only shortened the earthly penances imposed by the church to living penitents. But in 1476 Pope Sixtus IV granted to a church in Xaintes a concession to provide indulgences to souls in purgatory. This caused not a little stir, firstly because it was clearly an innovation, and secondly, because it cut off the traditional source of income from masses for the dead. Just the same, the flood gates were open.
     Thus it was that, by the time Luther visited Rome, a special indulgence had been attached to what was known as Pilate's Stairs. Anyone who climbed the stairs on his knees, repeating the Lord's Prayer on every step, could release a soul from purgatory. Luther felt a bit sorry that his mother and father were still alive, but he decided to release the soul of his grandfather instead. But when he reached the top, his words were: "Who knows whether it is so?" He was beginning to see the two defects in the theory:
  1. It is one thing for the Pope to remit the penalties he himself had imposed, but what right had he to remit God's penalties?
  2. If the Pope was really capable of releasing those poor souls from suffering, why didn't he empty the place right away, out of sheer compassion?
The Bible
     By now Luther was going through a severe spiritual breakdown. At that point his superior was inspired - and I use that word literally - to appoint his to the chair of the Bible at the university. Now he was going to have to go to the fundamental source book of the religion.
     Now, it is important at this point to note that the Bible has always supposed to have been the sole fount of doctrine. Even the term, sola scriptura was not coined by the Reformation. Almost 300 years before St Thomas Aquinas had proclaimed in his commentary on the Gospel of St John that "only canonical scripture is the rule of faith" (sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei). You will note, from the link I provided, that the editor was somewhat embarrassed by this statement, and tried to wriggle out of it by claiming that the saint wasn't really setting the teaching of the Church and Sacred Tradition against scripture - as if the teachings of the Church were not "other non-canonical writings". In point of fact, it is unlikely St. Thomas ever saw the issue in such a light. Remember, there had been a thousand years of imperceptible doctrinal drift. It never occurred to theologians that the Biblical interpretation they were learning had not been the same from the very beginning. It was only when, in the sixteenth century, the reformers called them out, that the Roman Magisterium realised that many of its doctrines could not, even by the most dextrous logical legerdemain, be found to be Biblical. It was only then that they discovered "tradition" as an addition to the Bible, tradition meaning that anything now believed was asserted to have been believed from the start.
     The trouble was, the Bible had been gradually sidelined. In seeking to save his soul, Luther had been following a traditional pathway which did not incorporate it. Indeed, it has only been with the increase in literacy in the twentieth century that Bible studies have become common among Roman Catholics. As late as 1713, Pope Clement XI issued a bull entitled Unigenitus, in which was denounced the idea, among others, that the scriptures should be read by everyone. Years ago, I happened to view the collection of 17th and 18th century Cuscene artists in Cusco, Peru, and it was eye-opening. There were innumerable portraits of post-Biblical saints, plus depictions of Jesus in two contexts: dying on the cross, and as a baby in his mother's arms. I think I counted just a single illustration of any other New Testament story, and a single Old Testament story. This might be extreme, but it illustrates a point: these people did not read the Bible.
     Luther, of course, would have read the Bible in the past, but now he had to teach it, and in order to teach it he had to study it closely. There he found nothing about indulgences, nothing of the complex discussions of the Schoolmen on what makes a valid confession and a valid absolution, nothing about masses for the dead. It was vain to trust in the treasury of merits of the saints because, firstly, they had no merits to offer; the best of humans have done nothing more than is required of them (Luke 17:10), and secondly, because Christ has all the merits we can need, and all you need to do is to ask for them. The monk turned Bible scholar saw that all of the Catholic penitential system was, if not an attempt to win salvation by one's own efforts, at least an attempt to work hard enough to put oneself in a position to receive God's forgiveness. But that was not what the Bible said.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is a gift of God - not because of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. 2: 8-9)
     For Luther, it was like a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders - as it would soon be to millions of others who heard the message. But he did not see his insight as anything terribly radical, or himself as a reformer, nor yet as having a gauntlet to cast down before the church. His task was merely to educate people where God had placed him. But there were strong undercurrents in the land. That the church was corrupt and venial everyone knew, and without a centralised government, Germany suffered most from its exactions. Resentment was everywhere; it only required a spark. And in this minor university city there existed a huge market for indulgences, a monk not afraid to speak his mind, and a pious ruler who, unlike so many others, was not interested in power or wealth, but only his duty as a Christian prince.
     There are foolish people who think these things come together by chance.

The Road to Hallowe'en, 1517
     A few months ago my wife and I visited St Peter's Basilica in Rome (and were blessed by the Pope). But I wonder how many visitors to this largest, and one of the most spectacular, churches in Christendom recall that it was constructed by the sordid sale of indulgences.
     Pope Leo X possessed an attitude to money not unlike that of a drunken sailor, with the result that he was chronically short of funds. The trouble was, his predecessor, Julius II had razed St Peter's to the ground, and had left the task of rebuilding it on a grander scale to his successor. So what was Leo to do?
    Along came Albert of Hohenzollern with a special request. Although he was not old enough to be a bishop, and despite the fact that holding two bishoprics is illegal, he already held the sees of Halberstadt and Magdeburg. Now he thought it would be a good idea for him to also obtain the see of Mainz, which would make him Primate of Germany. Of course, there might be a fee involved - although the sale of ecclesiastical offices is simony. The Pope suggested 12,000 ducats for the twelve apostles. Albert countered with 7,000 for the Seven Deadly Sins. Finally, a bargain was reached at 10,000 ducats for the Ten Commandments.
     Of course, he would have to borrow it from the bankers, but the Pope was reasonable. He would grant him the right to sell indulgences in his territory, with half going to Church, and half to Albert. And nobody could say that Leo didn't possess a sense of fairness. The price of the indulgences were set on a sliding scale such that the rich paid more and the common people less, while the very poor could gain access to God's grace by simply praying and fasting. Moreover, these indulgences would be of the highest value.
The first [grace] is the plenary [ie complete] remission of all sins and that the pains of purgatory are completely remitted.
     So it was now official: indulgences covered the pardon of sins as well as their penalty.
The second grace is that once later in life and in the hour of death there is granted a plenary indulgence of even the gravest of sins.
    If this means what it looks like, it was the equivalent of selling a licence to sin for the rest of one's life. The third grace was to participate in all the benefits of the church. In addition:
The fourth is that a plenary remission of all sins is given to souls in purgatory. This the Pope grants by way of intercession. There is no need that those who contribute on behalf of these should should themselves be contrite and confessed.
     So, even if you were an unrepentant sinner, you could still buy release from purgatory for your nearest and dearest. What could be more generous than that?
     The job was handed over the Grand Commissioner for Indulgences in Germany, the Dominican Johann Tetzel, who set about drumming up business with the most colourful language and the most extravagant promises. Of course, he was not allowed to enter Wittenberg, as that would compete with the Elector's own All Saints' Day indulgences. However, he was plying a brisk trade across the river, whence Luther's students and flock brought back both indulgences and lurid accounts of their vending. As Luther had the care of these souls, he was obliged to act. At Hallowe'en he issued the Ninety-five Theses. The Holy Spirit did the rest.