Modern Indulgences

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Saturday,  February 28, 2015

When reading about Reformation Europe, there is also that recourse to the practice of paid indulgences within the Church. The main point of this recourse is to discuss the issue with the notion of buying one’s way into heaven. While, as many apologists no doubt have said, the notion of buying one’s way into heaven is a overly reductionist explanation. Indulgences exist prior to the economical method of the Reformation era. But there is a fundamental question related to economically buying one’s way into a good ethical standing. The importance of such a question is evident when one looks at the socio-economical ethics that seems common in our business models today.

The practice of paid indulgences arose in the 15th-16th as the result of changing European society. Leonard Hoff’s insightful text The Analogical Turn: Rethinking Modernity with Nicholas of Cusa describes this change as the severing of the old medieval communitas <more specifically, the liturgical common space>. One contributor to this was the growing economic conditions within Christendom that lead to the development of a distinct merchant class. Within the Divine Economy <the many ways by which God draws his people to salvation>, the paid indulgences became a common occurrence to suit those within this merchant class. Indulgence practices would very over what was viewed to be the most appropriate method to the individual. Usually, what this would lead to would be fiscal payment by the rich, and physical labor (e.g. pilgrimages) for the poor.

"A Question to a Mintmaker" by Jeorg Breu Elder

“A Question to a Mintmaker” by Jeorg Breu Elder

From my experience, the furor over this between the Reformation era Catholics and modern day commentators differ. Nobility generally complained about what the money was being used for <with harsh critiques of the Papal States for using them to help with its prestige>. Among the peasants, the class distinction between them and the rich <merchants, priests, nobility> inspired more hostility as presented in texts such as Peasant’s Fire: The Drummer of Niklashausen by Richard Wunderli. Even within Luther’s Catholic early writings, the hostility was more drawn towards malpractice that always followed the paid method, not the indulgences themselves. The modern critique, on a more normative level, revolves around the notion of buying one’s way to heaven. While certainly influenced by the faith v works dichotomy of the Reformation, the view, at least among the secular, can be said to revolve around buying one’s ethical status. The question is, with current trends, have the moderns lost the validity of this critique?

Within the current economical mindset, consumption is rewarded by buying into charity with every purchase. For instance, when buying fast food, one is commonly asked to contribute money to St. Jude’s Hospital. Starbucks promotes assisting the countries they export from; Chick-fil-A found itself benefiting financially from the American culture war. The ethical and economic spheres are grounded together within our culture. While certainly one will say, “Well of course ethics and the economy are grounded together. An ethical economy is a healthy economy.” True. The point I wish to present is the relationship between one’s ethical status and the medium by which it is accomplished. To refer back to the Chick-fil-A example, the conservative Christian perceives his consumption as a means of holding back the domineering Liberal threat. The act of consumption has become the medium by which the Right is supporting its views of traditional marriage. What is derived from this is an ethical status derived from consumption not sacrifice. The money paid for fast food is not sacrificial, it is consumptive.

As a final note, there should be a brief reference to another critique which simply is the emphasis on heaven in indulgences. Perhaps, from a more atheistic perspective, paying for some fictional status in the afterlife is what makes indulgences unethical. Fair enough, but the notion of heaven is no purged from the atheistic model; it is rendered material or at least immanent. I do not believe the rise in volunteer work, ethical capitalist alternatives, and environmental care are the result of some self-masturbatory need to feel good. There is this sense of contributing to a better world. This is not a transcendent heaven, yes, but it is a better future than what it currently present. Regardless of the atheistic or the ethical critiques, upon looking at our society, we are throwing our money towards an ethics. We are indeed making a system of paying for the sins of our own system.

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College and  a student of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He is working on a masters in philosophy <and theology>, but has to go through a lot of language courses. Sooner or later he will work on his course material, but there are blog posts to write! 

Crusading One’s Way Into the Ground

by Andrew Simmons                                                                           Wednesday,  February 11, 2015

Generally, when one hears a statement that is pedestrian, the best course of action is to regard it for what it is: a pedestrian statement. Obama’s remark really should just be passed a long and forgotten; but, this current political sphere has decided to elevate it to an absurd level. What has been unleashed is a sleuth of media releases concerning the “true history” of the Crusades. This post will not be counted amongst the Crusader apologists. What is presented to you, the esteemed reader, is a former-apologist’s recantations of his former charge. When I converted to Catholicism, there was this spirit of needing to solidify the ground by which I chose to stand. Years later, views have changed and information was re-analyzed. As such, this is a very brief counter to the ideological views that both the promoters and detractors learn by.

1. The Amorphic Mass of Mohammedans

Appeals to the great Muslim Other’s conquering hordes is a trend appearing on my Facebook feed as of late. The basic summary of this position is that the Crusades were launched against this coordinated Islamic horde that had conquered a lot of East Christian territory. This view is usually always accompanied by the map of the Umayyad Caliphate because “Look at all that conquest!”


One point needs to be very clear: the Umayyad Caliphate was very short lived. The Islamic unity did not withstand the schism between the Sunni and Shiites which divided this caliphate. This is not what the Crusaders were fighting. The Crusader, specifically during the First Crusade, were primarily fighting the Sunni Seljuk Turks and the Sultanate of Rum in Anatolia. The Egyptian Caliphate at the time was Shiite <although this would change under Saladin who politically converted Egypt to Sunni>. The stories of pilgrims being slaughtered on their way to Jerusalem are true, but it must be remembered that this itself was not even coordinated. The Seljuk fought under the decentralized authority of military leaders who primarily gained wealth from plunder. The Levant, while still having Arabic leaders, was primarily a frontier of Turkish warbands. If anything, the Muslim leaders had very little control over what was happening and they too also suffered economically from this. The Crusaders were primarily fighting these warbands which would become progressively more centralized under Kilij Arslan against the Crusaders <who, for the record, was busy fighting other Turks before fighting the Crusaders>.

2. But the Crusades were ethical due to Just War theory!


The Fall of Constantinople

Another defense centers primarily on the Church’s stance concerning Just War and what is needed for a just cause. The problem I have with relying heavily on the causa bellum argument is that the just war theory pertains to one thing: the initiation of a war. Just War theorists, in my honest opinion, continue to run into an issue that an initially just cause equates to an overarching value judgment of a war despite the incidence that occur within the war. In short: good cause means good war despite bad occurrences. This might have further underpinnings, especially among Catholic scholars, with the claim that effects are never greater than their cause. The initial issues that I have with this position is that it relies on the broadest denominator of judgment in order to discern value. Within the pursuit of knowledge and clarity, refinements are necessary in order to properly assess information. When studying the Crusades, there are instances of heroism but also instances of depravity. The Gesta Francorum presents pious figures such as Raymond de Toulouse, and horrendous acts such as the cannibalism of dead Islamic soldiers <which, to be fair, horrified the Crusaders as well>. The Fourth Crusade with the sack of Constantinople also appears as giant black mark on the Crusader record. Specifically with regards to Constantinople, the claim that good causes remain sound despite bad effects can be challenged. Just War theory acts as if the causes and effects of a particular situation are isolated enough to be adequately valued. Rather, the causes of wars themselves find themselves as effects of causes that led to them. The further split between East and West, the collapse of the Shiite Caliphates, the rise of the Sunnis, the recurring infighting in Christendom, et al emerge as effects that act as causes that lead to much greater events in history than that which triggered the Crusades. And what triggered the Crusades? According to Pope Urban II, the violence done to pilgrims and Eastern Christians by the Turks <who were not even affiliated with the Umayyid Caliphate…>.

3. For the Wealth!

To conclude this, a brief mention must be made about the secular responses to the Crusades. The general opinion of secular scholars is the Crusades were immersed within economic causes. The issue I have had with the economic interpretation is that it does not adequately match up to the data. Christendom, after the First Crusade especially, was generally plunged into economic ruin as debts would be made and the debtor would inexplicably die overseas. The time after a particular Crusade were generally violent pursuits to re-solidify an economy broken by war debts. Financially theories, in my opinion, are more applicable to the Reconquista of Spain as the Spanish territories were more valuable than the Levant. This is also true for the Albigensian Crusade which occurred in Toulouse, a crucial trade route between the Spanish and French kingdoms. If anything can be ascertained by the invalidity of a pure economic theory <in addition to the bellicose views of the apologists>, the Crusades covers a grey area of conflicting motives. The apologist may find shelter in the moral haziness, but the grey still does not shine with the light of grace.

Instead of a bilbiography, a very short recommended reading list:

Warriors of God by James Reston

God’s War: A New History of the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman

Andrew Simmons is a graduate from Aquinas College and  a student of the Ukrainian Catholic University. He is working on a masters in philosophy <and theology>, but has to go through a lot of language courses. He wishes people would take a deep breath and calm down before sending the painful controversy train onward….maybe chill with yoga and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.