I’ll never forget the time I was hanging out in Manhattan talking about Bible history with three male friends who were life-long Catholics—all successful and intelligent native New Yorkers in their 50s—and one suddenly asked me what specifically got Martin Luther so riled up.

I later thought, “If that doesn’t speak volumes about human nature. Here you’ve got this monumental world-shaking scandal inside the very organization you trust your eternal destiny to and it isn’t even on your radar. You’d be on top of it if it involved your stock market portfolio!”

*****

Just as I was surprised the other week when a five-day Vatican conference to discuss alien life never received more than a “blip” of news coverage, a very revealing feature story in the New York Times from last winter about the Roman Church hierarchy’s new worldwide campaign to bring indulgences back in vogue didn’t elicit further news play at all!

The Times article began by informing that “in recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin.”

It went on, “The fact that many Catholics under 50 have never sought one, and never heard of indulgences except in high school European history (Martin Luther denounced the selling of them in 1517 while igniting the Protestant Reformation), simply makes their reintroduction more urgent among church leaders bent on restoring fading traditions of penance in what they see as a self-satisfied world.”

*****

To understand the abominable heresy behind indulgences one need only look at a brief history of the Catholic-invented money-making scheme credited for much of the Church’s great wealth. As the Times points out, while the outright sale of indulgences was outlawed in 1567, “charitable contributions” can help you earn one.

Dave Hunt, author of A Woman Rides the Beast: The Roman Catholic Church and the Last Days, summarizes, “There could be no greater abomination than selling salvation, yet Rome has never repented of this evil but continues similar practices to this day.

“. . . Inside the door of the Wittenberg castle church to which Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses were relics (including an alleged lock of the Virgin Mary’s hair) offering 2 million years in indulgences to those venerating them according to prescribed rules. Never has the Roman Catholic Church apologized for having led multitudes astray in this manner. And how does one apologize to souls now in hell for having sold them a bogus ‘ticket to heaven’?

“For ingenuity and infamy, no money-grabbing scheme of the past or of today’s unscrupulous television hucksters even comes close to the sale of indulgences. It provided much cash for the popes at the time of the Reformation.”

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It was in 593 A.D. that Pope Gregory I concocted the unbiblical notion that there was a hellish limbo jail for dead spirits called Purgatory (later declared official dogma by the Council of Florence in 1439), defined by the Catechism as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030).

The idea is a sinner can reduce their sentence in Purgatory, or even that of a dead relative already suffering torment there, by receiving an indulgence. A certain number of days or years can be knocked off and, in the case of those with plenary indulgences, all punishment is eliminated until another sin is committed.

An infamous sales pitch coined during the reign of Pope Leo X (1513-21), the one who excommunicated Luther, went, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs!”

It was under Leo X, says Hunt, that “specific prices were published by the Roman Chancery to be paid to the Church for the absolution from each imaginable crime. Even murder had its price. For example, a deacon guilty of murder could be absolved for 20 crowns. The ‘anointed malefactors,’ as they were called, once pardoned in this way by the Church, could not be prosecuted by civil authorities.

“Leo’s sale of salvation was nothing new. Two hundred years earlier John XXII (1316-34) had done the same, setting a price for every crime from murder to incest to sodomy. The more Catholics sinned the richer the Church became. Similar fund-raising schemes have been in operation for years.

“Innocent VIII (1484-92), for example, had granted the 20-year Butterbriefe indulgence. For a certain sum one could purchase the privilege of eating favorite dishes during Lent and at other times of fasting. It was a way to be credited with fasting while indulging oneself in the richest of foods. The people believed that the popes had such power . . . The proceeds from this enterprising scheme built the bridge over the Elbe. Julius III (1550-5) renewed this indulgence (for a handsome fee) for another 20 years after he came to office.

“Leo X tore down Constantine’s basilica and built St. Peter’s, largely with monies paid by people who thought they were thereby gaining forgiveness of sins and entrance to heaven.”

*****

Explaining that Vatican II dedicated 17 pages to “explaining indulgences and how to obtain them and excommunicates and damns any who deny that the Church has the right to grant indulgences today for salvation,” Hunt warns, “Well-meaning Protestants, wanting to believe to best, imagine that Roman Catholicism has rid itself of past abominations, including indulgences.

“Charles Colson’s book The Body contains examples of such incorrect information. Though the book eloquently speaks much truth, it erroneously presents Roman Catholicism as biblical Christianity and calls for union therewith on the part of evangelicals.

“Colson writes: ‘The Reformers, for example, assailed the corrupt practices of indulgences; today they [indulgences] are gone (save for the modern-day equivalent practices by some unscrupulous television hucksters, ironically mostly Protestants, who promise healing and blessing for contributions).’ ”

*****

As the Times article conveys, while the latest re-introduction of indulgences began in 2000 with Pope John Paul II and the celebration of the Church’s third millennium, “offers have increased markedly under his successor, Pope Benedict, who has made plenary indulgences part of church anniversary celebrations nine times in the last three years.”

“ . . . The latest offers de-emphasize the years-in-Purgatory formulations of old in favor of a less specific accounting, with more focus on ways in which people can help themselves — and one another — come to terms with sin.

“ ‘It’s more about praying for the benefit of others, doing good deeds, acts of charity,’ said the Rev. Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese.”