The First Fairy Tale
Dale K. Brown
By this time, Catholicism had become the state religion of what was now the Holy Roman Empire. They, too, had been targets of Roman persecution in the early days. Now that they were in charge, things would be different...and they were.
Freedom to be a Catholic was guaranteed by state decree. Not only that, it was required. Catholicism started out as a skeleton belief and had to be fleshed out as it grew. Like the Romans, they developed a habit of adopting foreign gods and the questionable, but gratifying, festivities that went with them. But, as they had no existing gods to merge them with and since the Almighty wasn't amenable to cross breeding, a new device had to be invented. They Christianized the festivals and jettisoned the gods.
By the year 861 A.D., Catholicism had evolved into a complicated system of belief and spread far beyond its point of origin. Not everybody was happy with this phenomenon. Greeks, Turks, and Moslems, in particular, had honest differences of opinion with Rome over such minor doctrinal issues as, "Who is God, really?" and "Who do you think you are?"
In an attempt to clarify papal thinking on the matter, Pope Nicholas I issued an edict humbly assuming control of the entire world. Greeks, Turks, and Moslems were not amused and diplomatic relations with the Holy See, already badly strained, deteriorated even further.
A succession of popes from Silvester II, who was murdered May 17, 1003, to Damasus II, who died of poison August 9, 1048, continued to try to assert their authority over religion in general and everybody in particular. Things might have continued in this vein indefinitely were it not for the crusades.
The crusades were an early attempt to preach the gospel to all men. Crusaders, displaying the red cross of Christ on their body armor, went door to door in Moslem lands, raping, massacring, and looting as they went. No records were kept on the number of souls thus saved for Christ, but much heathen loot was converted to Christian wealth in this manner. This method of proselytizing went on for several hundred years as uncounted thousands were forcibly induced to "give their lives to the Lord". Militarily, the crusades were a Christian defeat; economically, they were a financial disaster. The defeat they could live with, but the bills had to be paid.
Indulgences offered a way out of this dilemma. These sacred writs of Habeas Corpus had been around for years so there was precedence for their usage. The theory went like this: Up in heaven, God the Father kept a running tally on everyone's deeds, good or bad. Heavenly merits were posted daily to the accounts of those whose good deeds outweighed their bad and, though it was widely preached that the human race as a whole was a decadent, disgusting, lust filled lot which had not improved one damned iota over the eons, curiously enough, more merits than demerits had been posted. This proved extremely beneficial for the papacy since it was thought that the church had the authority to post excess merits to the accounts of those who had led less than exemplary lives.
At first, indulgences pardoned only the buyer and only for sins past, but the program soon became such a financial success that it was hastily expanded. In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV concluded that those whose souls were roasting uncomfortably in purgatory, who had never had a chance to buy their way out, should also be eligible for post-mortem relief; as long as relatives were willing to pay retroactive insurance premiums. Rates of exchange were, to be sure, proportional to the seriousness of one's indiscretions but, as a matter of practicality, nearly any offense could be laundered, up to and including murder, rape, or theft, as long as no serious breaches of etiquette occurred, such as questioning the infallibility of the pope or suggesting the world might be round. These were crimes for which there was no propitiation. Not now! Not ever!
Forgiveness, then, became a commodity to be sold or traded as commerce allowed. Representatives of the church traveled far and wide hawking these guilt edged certificates of pardon like raffle tickets. It wasn't long till they could be purchased on the installment plan and saved up for sins one planned to commit but hadn't yet gotten around to!
This was the plan all humanity had been waiting for, a practical program designed by saints with sinners in mind. One now had access to the divine balance sheets with their sins forgiven to sins outstanding ratio. At last! Someone had taken all the infuriating guess work out of heaven and hell. That this could be accomplished while straightening out some growing kinks in the holy cash flow of Pope Leo X didn't hurt matters any.
Pope Leo lived, by a simple monastic axiom: "Begin gloriously, live gloriously, die gloriously!" In pursuit of these lofty ideals, he had racked up appalling debts of over 840,000 ducats. He owed 240,000 to various banks in Florence, each of which charged a modest 40% in usury fees, compounded at the banker's earliest convenience. The rest was in unsecured personal loans from friends and cardinals. And, still, he hadn't a spare pair of ducats to rub together.
It wasn't for lack of trying, though. He'd raised the price of a cardinalate from 25,000 to 70,000 ducats, increased papal taxes on wine, vinegar, and alum; but nothing seemed to work. He'd even tried his hand at cards and the Roman lottery called Primiera. Try as he might, there was still a problem so, from his point of view, Martin Luther and the newly invented printing press could take a hike.
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