Of course, the Church was twelve centuries old when Innocent laid down his requirement. Penance, in various forms, was celebrated from the earliest Apostolic times. Why, in the 1200’s, would a sudden urgency about penance take hold in the general Catholic faithful. There are several possibilities. In no particular order, I would begin with the Crusades. When Pope Urban II in 1095 invoked the First Crusade, a chronicler of the time quotes the pope as providing this incentive: “All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.” In short, Urban was stating that anyone who died on this Crusade was assured an instant place in heaven—his sins and their residual punishments would be dissolved.
If forgiveness of sins and eternal life were the destiny of the Crusader-martyr, those who did not go on Crusade—a vast majority of Catholics—were left to wonder about their own destinies with more urgency. Thus, the appeal of a sacrament whose primary purpose was the absolution of sin and the avoidance of potential hell fire would take up a new urgency.
A second consideration is the simple fact that the thirteenth century was a golden age of theology, and minds like Thomas Aquinas were fine-tuning such concepts as the form of the sacrament itself, the nature of sin (as in mortal and venial), grace, and a particularly thorny issue: the reparation or “penance” (as we would say today) that is due as a follow-up to the penitential sacrament. Aquinas and his peers understood that a good intention, or true contrition, was necessary for the optimum celebration of the sacrament, but they were realists enough to understand—as Augustine had years earlier after his baptism—that the inclination to sin does not automatically disappear with valid absolution. Medieval writing from this period understood the sacramental penitential event as both an opportunity/obligation to make reparation for past sin and as a kind of school of virtue.
The thirteenth century situation was different from the third century, where the penance was performed first, and then the bishop absolved the sinner and welcomed him back to the Eucharistic table. The Irish had reversed the process; the penance, which could be quite severe, was assigned by the confessor after the absolution. Medieval theologians were thus faced with an interesting and rather urgent question—what happened if the penance was not completed, or completed poorly, or without a true repentance? What precisely was the status of the penitent’s redemptive situation?
Gradually a consensus was reached that nearly all believers, though genuinely absolved, accumulated a residue of unfinished business in terms of reparation of sin that tainted, to varying degrees, their spiritual status. The Church turned particularly to the Gospel of Matthew (5:8) where Jesus states that only the pure in spirit would see God. The assumption developed that aside from Mary and the heroic saints, all Christians who died were imperfect—in very personal ways and degrees—and that a period of purification or “purgation” was necessary according to the quality of one’s life. Hence the development of Purgatory, a place or state of purification. Medieval Christians tended to think of Purgatory as a fiery, tormented place of purification, and it was dreaded only modestly less intensely than hell itself.
The Christian in later medieval times would have sought out the Sacrament of Penance as a juridical assurance of avoidance of hell (“imperfect contrition”) but he was still faced with his purgatorial dilemma. And so developed the concept and practice of the indulgence, from a custom in the early Church where a bishop might mitigate a sinner’s penance by his Apostolic authority in the pre-absolution phase of the sinner’s repentance. By the eleventh century, though, French bishops—again appealing to their Apostolic power—would accept financial offerings for churches and monasteries in return for mitigation or full remission of the punishments of purgatory. Pope Urban, of course, made the promise of a plenary or full remission of post mortem punishment an enticement to attract soldiers for the First Crusade. As the medieval era progressed, an indulgence could be gained not merely for one’s self, but for one’s loved ones as well. Churchmen were quick to point out that the exchange of money was not a purchase of salvation, but a prerequisite to receive from the Church’s “treasury of acquired merits.”
As the Middle Ages drew to an end, this explanation appeared to more and more thoughtful Christians as, well, “a fine medieval distinction” in the pejorative sense. One such offended Christian was the monk Martin Luther.
For the next four weeks I will be on summer schedule, and I will pick up our historical/theological narrative of morality in late July. However, I will post as possible each day, so check in as your summer schedule permits.