This week (Oct. 31) in 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, to protest several practices of the established Roman Catholic Church that Luther believed violated traditional Catholic teachings.
The church practice that particularly bothered Luther was the selling of indulgences, and, as it happened, his posting of his theses coincided with the arrival in Wittenberg of a Papal delegate whose job was to convince potential donors, especially wealthy ones, to give money to the church. In return, the church would “indulge” them by lowering, or completely erasing, their punishments in the afterlife for sins they committed on Earth.
In a way, it was like fundraising in modern political campaigns, and in light of the presidential election campaign that is finally (!) concluding, it might be illustrative to posit a scenario in which these Papal fundraisers act like the financial “bundlers” who raise large sums for President Obama and Mitt Romney. In fact, “bundlers” is essentially what these Papal fundraisers were.
You know how it works in presidential campaigns. For large sums of cash, donors get special access to the candidates, plus a promise of future positions or favors.
Selling church indulgences was similar. The Papal fundraiser would come to town and say to a gathering of Catholic fat cats, “O.K., we have several categories of giving for you to consider. For a donation of $100,000 (or the 16th Century financial equivalent), you become our Bronze Medal Friend of the Church, meaning that, regardless of the sins you commit while alive, you get to go to Heaven.”
Switching to his next PowerPoint (again, 16th Century equivalent), he says, “However, if you become a Silver Member Special Friend of the Church by donating $250,000, not only will you go to Heaven, so will your wife and kids. Doesn’t matter how bad they were on Earth. Plus, when you get to Heaven you get a one-on-one meeting with St. Peter himself.”
Changing PowerPoints again, he adds, “But if you become a Gold Medal Super Duper Friend of the Church by giving $500,000, not only do you, the wife and kids go directly to Heaven, so do any relatives of yours who are currently burning in Hell!! Plus, in addition to your one-on-one with St. Peter, you get to attend a special mass conducted by the Holy Ghost himself!!”
O.K., I’m exaggerating, slightly, but it was, by any standard, a corrupt practice, and Luther’s rebellion against it started a mass movement that eventually ushered in the Reformation, the establishment of an entirely separate religious sect, Protestantism, and — at least for a time — a less venal, more egalitarian world.