The ways of God are mysterious indeed, bringing good out of evil.
First, let me back up: A couple of readers have contacted me to point out that the system of indulgences–which specified the number of days a sentence would be commuted if various penances were performed–was not designed to reduce the sinner’s time in Purgatory, but to calculate an equivalent to the time of punishment of sins under the Church’s old system of public penances. These readers are, of course, correct historically–and thereby hangs a very important tale.
What happened was that the old system of penances fell into disuse, but the system of indulgences remained on the books–and this led to opportunities for great mischief. At the level of popular catechesis, the understanding I was referring to earlier arose and was encouraged by unscrupulous officials. Indulgences were bought and sold, with slogans like this famous one: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, The soul from Purgatory springs!” This shocked a young monk named Martin Luther . . .
So the abuse of the system of indulgences was a great evil, but out of this evil came a great good. The Reformation, enkindled by the abuse of indulgences, set in motion the events that led to the system of political and religious liberty that–as thinkers including Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Novak have so eloquently described–has been such a boon to human flourishing.
(And please, lest any readers misunderstand, I’m not saying this in any secular-messianistic sense. Heaven knows liberty has its own problems, because it allows man to indulge his evil impulses as well as his good ones. All I’m saying is that liberty, on the whole, is good. As Pope Benedict writes in his new encyclical: “If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined–good–state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.” )