In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther claimed that the Catholic Church was full of corruption. He was outraged by the sale of indulgences, for example. Was this really happening? Yes: at one point, indulgences (which are devotions that require certain prayers and actions to make additional reparation for our sins) were being sold—wrongly—by particular people.
In her book The Church Under Attack: Five Hundred Years that Split the Church and Scattered the Flock, Diane Moczar explains that a certain Pope Leo X was selling indulgences to raise money for rebuilding St. Peter’s Basilica. He believed that the best way to do so was to send clergy throughout Europe to sell indulgences. He also convinced the archbishop of Germany to help with this effort because the archbishop needed to repay gambling debts. The abuse was so obvious that Spain (a Catholic nation) prevented indulgence-selling clergy from entering their country.
According to Moczar, there are some theories as to why Pope Leo X and his allies engaged in this scam and why so many people fell for it. At this point in history, there was a new business culture called proto-capitalism, which emphasized that time was temporary and money was plentiful. During this era of proto-capitalism, the false idea that you could just “spend some money to shorten your time in Purgatory” appealed to many people. Just as many saints in the late Middle Ages had warned, the laity’s “spiritual fervor” was fading; few people were interested in investing time and energy to strengthen their love for Jesus Christ.
This lack of spirituality, combined with the corruption of certain Church officials, made it clear that the Church’s members were in need of reform—a reform which came later through the Counter-Reformation, led by such saints as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
To read an unbiased, accurate history of the Catholic Church, check out Diane Moczar’s The Church Under Attack, sold here.