When one thinks of really important Catholic history, the answers can come in a large variety of forms. It could be the Crusades, the election of a certain pope, or another action or inaction by the church. However, what could be more important than indulgences? Yes, those intangible things that, once bought, can help get you and a loved one out of a few thousand years of purgatory. After all, they did initiate Martin Luther to break away from the church and etch out what would become the Protestant movement.
As I already mentioned, an indulgence was something someone could buy that would get them out of years of purgatory, and henceforth years of suffering and torture while one paid for their sins before reaching heaven. Indulgences have been sold by the church since the Middle Ages, however, not many people had a large amount of cash at that time. Only a few noblemen had money in the form of cash. People were rich, don't get me wrong, but their money was tied up in their property. Very few, if any, had a Scrooge McDuck-esque money vault to go swimming in. But the few that did were approached by the Catholic church while they lay on their death bed. For an exorbitant amount of money, one could buy an indulgence. An invisible, intangible something that would shorten one's suffering in Purgatory. This practice was not very wide spread, and therefore, not many knew of it, save the church.
During the Black Death, the priests, being human, often became sick with the illness while they performed last rites on the sick and the dying. As priests began to die, some turned chicken and fled to villas in the countryside or other areas where the bubonic plague would not reach them. When that wave of the plague died out, they would reconvene. This lead to a rather corrupt section of the church remaining in power. This, in turn, lead to a more corrupt church forming as they bribed people with positions in the church, among other things. Abbots, Bishops and Cardinals all began to live a hedonistic lifestyle, complete with male and female concubines and 20 course meals, 3 or 4 times a week. During Pope Leo X's reign, two major happenings occur. The first is that the church starts to lose money for doing actual church things, like running schools and hospitals and helping out the poor. The second is that during Easter mass, a 15 ton block of stone fell from the top of the 1,000 year old cathedral in Rome and almost kills the Pope rather gruesomely. Not wanting to get smushed in the near future, Leo X called for a new cathedral to be built in Rome. Since it would be in Rome, it had to be bigger, grander and more beautiful than any other building made. Even Michelangelo designed most of the architecture for the chapel.
Needless to say, an endeavor like this would require a lot of money, money that the church did not have. Originally, Pope Leo X wanted to trim down money sent to the Cardinals and Bishops and put the rest into a building fund for the cathedral. The Bishops and Cardinals, quite attached to their 20 course feasts and extravagant clothes and lifestyles outright refused. So the church came up with a different plan, selling indulgences. Due to a creation of a middle class, more people had cash money than in the middle ages, however not as much. So, the church decided that an indulgence would not work like it did in the Middle Ages and clear one of purgatory, but could be bought cheaper, and lessen the time in purgatory, by about 4,000 years or so.
How could this work? Surely the peasants aren't stupid enough to just give money to the church? Well, they were. But the church did have a justification for indulgences. They figured that if good people can go to heaven, there must be a set level of goodness needed to get into heaven. What about saints? Well, those people were extra good, and occasionally extra extra good. This "creates" a surplus of necessary goodness in heaven. That goodness was channelled by the Pope and returned to you in your indulgence which you bought.
Who went around selling these indulgences, you wonder? Enter the Dominican order of monks. Yes the Dominicans, the same people who ran the Inquisition. Sort of a conflict of interest, but the Dominicans had several means of, uhm, persuasion, which they used to
force ask people if they wanted to buy an indulgence. They would often head to the local priest and get a list of the recently dead, and head to their former house. "Oh your wife died, would you like to ease her suffering in purgatory by buying an indulgence? No? So you want your wife to suffer? That's a sin, you should buy an indulgence for yourself now too." etc. etc. etc.
France and England looked at this idea and were unhappy, as it was pretty much the same as the lottery, a tax on the stupid. Both nations banned the Dominicans from entering their borders and hocking indulgences, as money sent to the church kept money out of the hands of the tax collectors, and therefor out of France and England. However, Germany had no strong central government like France, Spain and England. The Dominicans went to town, flooding the countryside with indulgence sellers.
One unlucky group of peddlers came upon a church in the town of Wittenberg in Germany, went inside and started to ask if anyone wanted indulgences (they did have their own song for this). Unfortunately, the priest was none other than Martin Luther. Upon hearing what an indulgence was, Martin Luther quickly remembered that only God had the power to cleanse people of their sins and became outraged, and rightfully so. He turned on the Dominicans and sent them out of his church, with the churchgoers behind him, slowly turning into an angry mob.
Luther challenged the indulgences publicly. He could have been squashed here and now, but the Augustinian Order of Monks, of which Luther was a member, backed him and his ideas and opted not to send him to some remote mission. The local rulers in Germany, realising they were getting hosed, also backed him. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, also backed Luther as Frederic the Wise, lord of Saxony, had asked him to do so. In 1517, Luther walks up to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral and nails his 95 Theses to the door, basically calling for a duel with the church. The rest, as they say, is History.
I cannot say anything on indulgences in the modern day and age. I think the church is smart enough now not to proclaim anything that really is not mentioned in the Bible in anyway, shape or form. To make a long story short, Luther goes on to form the Protestant Movement and the Lutheran church, after making the church look like a fool. His ideas are later picked up by one John Calvin, and Calvinism is born. For more information, I suggest reading their respective nodes. This is, after all, just about indulgences.
written from notes taken in my Colonial America class at Umass Lowell, 43.350.
Much love goes out to asterix and Noung for pointing out stuff I missed.