Thinking about Obsolete Sins

Simony was the act of selling church offices and roles.

Sort of like selling someone a priesthood rather than making them go through the whole thing of actually going through seminary. Or giving a really big donor the position of “Bishop”. Or it could be something as simple as offering a spiritual reward in exchange for services rendered and/or as a retainer for future services. Trafficking for money in “spiritual things”.

Originally named after Simon Magus, who offered some of the disciples some money for the ability to impart the power of the Holy Ghost.

Luckily, now, we know things don’t work that way.

Indulgences were “a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.”

My understanding of indulgences in the absolute best way they could be spun was that they were a way to deal with uncertainty for the future. I mean, if you were going to go a couple of weeks (or months) before seeing a priest again, you’d want to make sure that your confessions were all caught up. You wouldn’t want to die unconfessed, after all, so you’d cover the stuff that was likely to happen between now and your next scheduled confession as a way to cover your backside. Hey, people died *ALL THE TIME*. People sinned all the time. You didn’t want to die unconfessed.

Of course, that could turn into “how much for two fornications, one burglary, and three drunkennesses?”

That eventually evolved into “yeah, yeah, here’s your bag of gold, see you next month” and, on the other side, “hey, you were caught in adultery and then caught lying about it and let me check the chart… that’s two florins and a groat.”

At the worst, it turned into “we’re trying to build a cathedral… hey, let’s have a sale! This year only: half-off fornication!”

Martin Luther did a good job of stomping that lump in the carpet down back in the early 1500’s.

Of course, there are now a bunch of things that used to be sins that we all know aren’t really sins (sloth, gluttony, usury, so on) but I’m more meditating on the sins that can’t be committed anymore, because we no longer have the infrastructure required to commit them.

Good riddance, I suppose.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
TwitterFacebookRedditEmailPrintFriendlyMore options

74 thoughts on “Thinking about Obsolete Sins

  1. I disagree with much of this.

    Both Simony and the selling of indulgences still exist, even if institutions different than the Church are the ones controlling political power. Take for instance our bail system: an alleged mistake for a wealthy person may require a small fee to undo, but an alleged mistake for someone of low socioeconomic status may be life-destroying. Personal connections are very much the driver of advancement in our society.

    Sloth, gluttony, and usury still cause great harm, particularly when someone is in a position of authority or of responsibility over others.

    Report

    • Redacted – it apparently wasn’t nearly as charming and affectionate to the subject, and self-mocking towards myself, as I intended it to be. So I’m sorry, honey, that I made you feel mocked and attacked. Wasn’t my intention and I’ll do my best not to do it again. – maribou

      (And no, I won’t be suspending myself. Though next time – wait, no, that might be hurtful rather than affectionate and self-mocking too. Sigh. My dudes, sometimes being the moderator is really hard.)

      Report

    • Simony in the form of “credentialism” seems to exist today.

      I’m sure we’ve all met people with certifications that say “I passed a test” but not “I know how to find my butt with both hands and a flashlight”. People with Master’s Degrees or PhDs who, seriously, strike you as never having read a book related to their degree and say things that, seriously, are wrong that even you know about and you’re not the guy with a PhD in that.

      But you pay your money and next thing you know, you’re a Cardinal.

      Report

      • Indulgences were always backward looking, too.

        To facilitate explanation, it may be well to state what an indulgence is not. It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power.

        (Link from one of the sources of the wikipedia article you linked to)

        Now, were sometimes indulgences used inappropriately, wherein the grantor suggested to the grantee that this was a get of jail free card for future use? Almost certainly. But that was a corrupt and on paper, improper practice.

        Report

        • So, when used correctly, a swear jar is an appropriate measure.

          The problem is when it’s only a freakin’ quarter when it should be a freakin’ fin.

          (Which, of course, creates its own set of problems… “we won’t be able to afford the thing we want unless Wally starts swearing again! Quickly! Set up some incentives to swear!”)

          Report

  2. So at risk of being pedantic, I’m going to express my medieval history view.

    You’re way underselling Simony, because you are forgetting that the Church commanded dramatic real power. Buying a religious title meant more than bragging rights or even spiritual authority. It meant ownership of land/people. It meant income from that land. It meant law enforcement powers. And it was just about the only way to obtain such rights other than birth. So simony means you get “religious leaders” just as competent as officers who bought commissions in the English army a few centuries later. But those incompetent/corrupt church officials ran an entity that was often of similar real power to the nobility.

    Indulgence is a whole other mess. Nearly everything about medieval elite life was sinful (from murder to warfare to sexual practices—keep in mind marriage was political, not personal, at that level). And excommunication or other religious censures were serious business. So it wasn’t “I might die with unconfessed sins,” but more like a protection racket. (“Build a new church/commission art/etc or I will tell the world you are going to hell, and it’ll be open season on your holdings.”). #notallindulgences, but still.

    We are mostly past that because the church is mostly not a source of real power (not least because “the church” no longer means one thing per country). And to the extent one can obtain power through it, it is far from the sole competitor with formal government. Which is part of what people mean when they say separating church and state is necessary for BOTH entities.

    Report

    • Not just that. The process was necessary in the first place because the only time a central government at the time could be sure to get tax revenue from a smaller entity was at the point of investiture of office. After that they didn’t have all that much leverage against subordinate to demand payments. Hence kings and emperors had new bishops pay a big lump sum at the start of tenure. So telling monarchs they couldn’t sell bishorphics was essentially telling them to write off gaining any income from some of their biggest cities.

      There was a reason Germans Emperors risked their empires by crossing the Alps with armies to deal with Popes who wanted to end the practice.

      Report

  3. IMHO this article understates the whole “indulgences” issue and just how nasty it could be.

    The church teachers that it’s possible to put blessings on someone else’s soul. Example: You do the sign of the cross and tell god to put it on the other guy.

    So you (illiterate peasant) have your father die. You’re told he didn’t quite make it into heaven. Bad things are going to happen to his soul, basically forever, unless you get him blessed out by doing good deeds, which in practice means purchasing enough “indulgences”.

    Report

  4. My understanding of indulgences in the absolute best way they could be spun was that they were a way to deal with uncertainty for the future. I mean, if you were going to go a couple of weeks (or months) before seeing a priest again, you’d want to make sure that your confessions were all caught up. You wouldn’t want to die unconfessed, after all, so you’d cover the stuff that was likely to happen between now and your next scheduled confession as a way to cover your backside. Hey, people died *ALL THE TIME*. People sinned all the time. You didn’t want to die unconfessed.

    Unfortunately this is a pretty common misunderstanding of indulgences; now, I don’t think this is really a post about Indulgences, but its at least worthwhile to make sure that we’re building our strawmen with the finest, freshest organic straw.

    A simple explanation of indulgences would be this: Sin incurs two things Guilt and Punishment. Confession with the required antecedents of contrition and purpose of amendment absolves one of Guilt (note, absent contrition and amendment, the sacrament does nothing – so your typical modern apology? No remission of sins for that). There remains, however, the matter of punishment; not the eternal punishment of damnation (that is removed with the remission of Guilt), but rather the matter of Justice for the commission of the sin in the first place – a matter of penance, even though the sin is forgiven. This and this alone, is what the indulgence mitigates: the temporal punishment for sin.

    You can’t pay it forward because it only applies to sins that one has already confessed, and it doesn’t absolve one of capital “G” Guilt at all. So, it doesn’t really have anything at all to do with hell… only purgatory. And that’s a whole different argument… the real argument behind the reformation.

    Ultimately though, Indulgences are more complicated than we appreciate; first, they are technically Almsgiving – you don’t actually buy an indulgence, you give alms to an approved project which grants an indulgence under the proper circumstances and forms – and the number and types of Alms projects was diverse… sometimes the (re-)building of Churches (yes, including St. Peter’s in Rome), but also Hospitals, Schools, Alms houses, bridges, and all the common infrastructure of the late middle ages. One could also offer personal labor as alms, think of it as public service in reparation for sins – like Bill Clinton and Harvey Weinstein. In what way have we done away with the apparatus?

    But perhaps most importantly, almsgiving was an option that mitigated long and difficult penances (usually hard fasts). In short, the Indulgence was an often seen as an “improvement” on older practices of public penance.

    So the things most folks misunderstand are 1) Indulgences are a form of penance, not forgiveness, and 2) Indulgences aren’t simply the result of a greedy church, they are the result of a willing and, dare we say, spiritually slothful laity. Indulgences replacing fasting, privation, and public penance?… which *also* build churches, hospitals, bridges and all the things we need in common? That’s a freakin’ awesome change – what could possibly go wrong with that?

    As to modern apparatus and sin, Weinstein was able to buy indulgences without the requisite confession, contrition and purpose of amendment; so as far as institutional failings go, our modern one seems much worse.

    Report

    • From what I understand, Weinstein went to therapy and… well, I’ll just quote this rag called the “Daily Star” but here you go:

      The producer, 65, planned to leave an Arizona therapy centre yesterday after completing seven days of outpatient sessions.

      But he has now decided to move into the £31,600-a-month clinic The Meadows for intensive treatment for the next four weeks.

      And his psychologist said Weinstein was “fully engaged” with the “intensive” therapy.

      I wonder to what extent his distribution of such documentaries as “The Hunting Ground” analogizes well to “Indulgences”.

      Report

    • Also, thanks for clearing that up.

      I’ve always seen the concept of a purgatorial hell as being a kind of great compromise and sign of evolution past the (understandably) raw emotions of the early church fathers.

      I suppose I should have put more effort into seeing how such a compromise would be gamed (because, of course, it was going to be gamed).

      Report

      • Yeah, its sort of the metaphysical equivalent of… of… well, whatever the equivalent in physics would be for the thing that is inferred by its absence, because if it didn’t exist, the equation wouldn’t balance.

        Luther balanced the equation by super-charging Grace, which has had its own implications down the centuries… but well beyond the scope of this digression.

        Report

          • Heh… this era barely labors under the concept of heresy much less the threat of it. As for 1054… now here we have a clear case of Russian tampering. But, in the end we take our metaphysical breakthroughs when we get them, not when we want them.

            edit: I should add, religious heresy… we have more than enough secular heresy.

            Report

    • So it sounds from your answer that you’ve spent some time thinking about these or learning about them, but your description doesn’t mesh with my historical understanding.

      You say they can’t be prospective, but I thought it was pretty uncontroversial to observe that they were essentially invented to give to those about to go crusading, with the idea being those folks were about to do a lot of murder and violence out in the hinterland but should not do so burdened with guilt or fear of eternal punishment (both for personal spiritual reasons, and for impact-on-family-at-home reasons), so they could have a prospective indulgence for the acts they were to commit.

      The practice then certainly grew to become a more standard cash-for-forgiveness racket which flourished because nearly everything one did to become a successful old noble was a sin.

      Anyway, interested in what direction you come at this from since it sounds like we have only partially-overlapping understandings.

      Report

      • interesting question… Let’s see, it all started with Manzikert… ok, let’s fast forward a bit to Urban II at Clermont and his famous speech. A famous speech for which we have no text, only first and second hand accounts.

        I certainly understand how modern teaching of the crusades might say that just going on crusade would forgive sins… One contemporary paraphrase of Urban’s speech implies just that: “Accordingly undertake this journey for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of heaven.Robert the Monk. There you have it, let’s put it in the history books.

        However, this is insufficient… or, more accurately, it is not understanding what Remission of Sins means; to any medieval catholic, the Remission of Sins means Confession and Penance; and Penance is the thing we do for the remission of temporal punishment of sins. But better than parsing the parts of a sacrament, we have the 2nd canon of the Council of Clermont: “Quicumque, pro sola devotione, non pro honoris vel pecuniae adeptione, ad liberandam ecclesiam Dei Jerusalem profectus fuerit, iter illud pro omni poenitentia reputetur.” or, “Whosoever, for devotion alone and not for attaining honor or wealth, shall go to Jerusalem for liberating the church of God, that journey is to be counted for all penance” Very clearly the cannon lays out that undertaking the Crusade will grant a plenary “indulgence” for Penance… not for the commission of any and all sundry sins without need to confess them and do penance.

        Additionally, Urban writes a letter of instruction which is extant and reads in part: “We solemnly enjoined upon them at the council of Auvergne [Clermont] (the accomplishment of) such an undertaking, as a preparation for the remission of all their sins.” This places the Crusading journey in the understood context of requiring Confession and Penance; the Penance which the Crusades for which they are preparing will suffice in lieu.

        As further support for the ordinary understanding of Remission of Sins, we have the Bull Quantum Praedecessores issued in 1145 by Pope Eugene III calling for the Second Crusade: “According to the institution of our aforesaid predecessor, by the authority of almighty God and by that of St. Peter the chief of the apostles, conceded to us by God, we grant such remission and absolution of sins, that he who shall devoutly begin so sacred a journey and shall accomplish it, or shall die during it, shall obtain absolution for all his sins which with a humble and contrite heart he shall confess, and shall receive the fruit of eternal retribution from the Remunerator of all.” The Bull in both title and text ratifies the previous understandings of Crusade as the remission of penance upon confession (or death).

        Regarding death… previous popes in the 9th centuries (if not before) had already clarified that death while fighting Saracens would grant the kingdom of heaven as a reward… I understand this as a sort of “proactive martyrdom” clause. But clearly death is a gateway that most hoped not to avail themselves of.

        So there you have it…I tried to use only original texts to illustrate that the ordinary understanding of confession and penance for the remission of sins was the context for understanding the plenary “indulgence” granted by going on Crusade. Looked at another way, the concept of penance looms so large in Medieval life that we moderns overlook how it acted as a force; even modern Catholics have little appreciation for penance and its place, we having largely abandoned most practices of it.

        Report

        • Marchmaine,

          Fascinating stuff. I have a question: it seems to me things like confession, penance, the selling of indulgences, etc. is premised on an inherently transactional view of sin’s relationship to attaining the kingdom of heaven, one which may not be entirely consistent the original spirit of Christianity as a religious practice. Or is it?

          Report

          • I just found this thread. I can’t believe I hadn’t found this thread until now.

            Marchmaine is making a distinction between the eternal punishment for sin (which is waived by God’s free sacrifice) and the temporal punishment for sin (which requires a person to accept his moral responsibility for his actions. If I burn down your barn and then apologize, you can accept my apology but still require me to rebuild the barn.

            Report

            • So, is that a concession that sin, in living Christianity, is a state which can be erased transactionally? Eg., by paying the right monk or saying some hail marys?

              Pinky: my weirdly worded question comes from a view of Christianity in which sinning (the property of having sinned, of being a sinner) is sufficient to prevent a person from admittance to the kingdom of heaven. To the extent that being a sinner is a worrisome but fixable problematic condition, the idea of repentance/indulgences appears to be that being eternally damned need not worry anyone with some cash or who’s willing to say some hail marys. But that seems like a strange conception of sin to me, and one *almost* completely divorced from the idea that accepting Jesus as savior is necessary – and perhaps also sufficient – for ascension to heaven. Granted, I get that some of this stuff is governed by the idea of a Pope and Catholic tradition and so on. Hence, my asking the question.

              Report

              • It’s saying that, to borrow Pinky’s apt analogy, you can rebuild the barn by paying the right monk or saying some hail marys. you can’t actually *fix* things that way though. in fact, in most forms of living christianity, you can’t fix things at all, jesus already fixed them for you. your aside-from-penance job is to accept that fixing or not to accept it. That’s not imaginary but it is internal, it doesn’t happen just by you convincing yourself you’ve accepted it if you haven’t, let alone by claiming you’ve accepted it if you haven’t, and nobody can really know your state for *that* part except for God. People can help you, both in community and after death. Historically, baptism was believed to be necessary (although that isn’t the case now and it was generally deemed controversial at repeated intervals throughout history). But it’s *basically* an internal and thus humanly unknowable state.

                That said, a) Catholicism did traditionally and to some degree even still does hold that *you still have to fix the barn* and indulgences were a way of doing that
                b) did lots of laypeople and even clergy approximate all of the above and run with an inaccurate theology where you pays your price and you takes your chances? and did people use that for at-least-equally-sinful personal advancement? yeah, that’s definitely part of the history.

                but that’s different from saying it’s theologically true.

                (Sorry if it bugs you to have me jump in, but I actually did a minor in what ended up being mostly Catholic theology and history and my mentor at the time** wanted me to do a grad degree in it… it’s kinda my thing, despite my current state of near-apostasy.)

                ** to give some context, said mentor is currently a regular contributor to First Things. he has also drifted quite a ways rightward since he was my prof.

                Report

                • but that’s different from saying it’s theologically true.

                  I’m not so interested in what’s theologically true as what’s metaphically true given a theology. It seems to me like there’s either a) two conceptions of the word “sin” at work, or b) two conceptions of the role sin plays in Christian tradition. I’m trying to get clear on how (eg) volunteering for the Crusades guarantees someone admittance into the kingdom of heaven (ie., absolves them of all sins which *otherwise* would send them the other direction). On that view sins aren’t mortal, they’re contingent. You just need to clear them up before you die, no matter how sinfully you’ve lived. Hence, my wondering about their transactional status.

                  Report

                  • I’m afraid I don’t quite follow your confusion.

                    Are you wondering why the Catholic notion seems so “transactional” but various Evangelical and Protestant notions seem to rely on efficacious Grace? In that case the answer is, yes, there are two (at least) notions of how Grace works. I don’t think its exactly different notions of sin, but how Grace remediates sin.

                    So yeah, if what I tried to clarify above doesn’t at all square with dominant American notions of Sin and Grace, that’s because it doesn’t.

                    And c’mon, I just wrote piles of words showing how the Crusades were not a free pass on sin.

                    Report

                    • Are you wondering why the Catholic notion seems so “transactional” but various Evangelical and Protestant notions seem to rely on efficacious Grace?

                      Sort of, yes, but not so much the why (tho that’s an interesting question in its own right) but the underlying metaphysics. Eg., I think sincere prayer can get a person closer to God, but not because it “restores the balance” by absolving a person of a previously committed sin. Yet that seems to be the logic underlying its use as punishment in penance and absolution. The idea seems to be that the sin, an actual thing which adheres to the soul, is erased from the repenter’s soul in *exchange* for doing X. Something like that anyway. That’s what I was wondering about up thread.

                      Report

                      • I see… alas, prepare for disappointment; I don’t think I can begin to clarify Divine Justice and Mercy and the economy of Grace in a combox (or in a book, for that matter). The good news, though, is that there are probably a bajillion other folks who’d love to try. This really is the nub of the Reformation… I could probably recommend a couple of good primers on how the disputes break down if your curiosity demands satisfaction.

                        Report

                        • Ah, good. At least I’ve stated the problem somewhat clearly. Seems like there are two types of sins: the disposable kind that require a bit of repentence or cash to absolve, and bigger sins (the kind we’re born into as the nature of our condition, I guess) that require accepting Jesus as your personal savior to absolve. But if one, why not the other, each way?

                          FWIW, I think there’s tremendous social utility in requiring confession/repentence of sin (Jesus was a pretty pro-social guy afterall), but there’s a lot of individual psychological utility in it as well. Spiritual utility? That’s the part I get stuck on.

                          Report

                          • Hmmn… sort of.

                            I mean, all Christians accept Jesus as a personal savior… but “Accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” is also a specific concept within Protestant theology… which impacts how the “disposable” ones are disposed.

                            At the most basic level, Baptism is the absolution of the big sin in the human condition… but we don’t all agree on what exactly that means.

                            FWIW, there are large swaths of American Protestantism that are entirely opaque and foreign to me… once we get beyond the 2nd generation of Protestant Reformation theology I have no idea what they are talking about.

                            Report

                  • “two conceptions of the role sin plays in Christian tradition”

                    I’d say that that’s the case.

                    There’s the old joke about the kid sitting in class on the first day of kindergarten. The teacher holds up a picture of a cat and asks the class, what’s this. All of the kids but one shout out “a cat”. The teacher holds up a picture of a square, and asks what this is, and all of the kids but one shout out, “a square”. The teacher holds up a picture of the number three, and asks what this is, and the one kid gets up and walks to the door. The teacher stops him and asks him where he’s going. He says, “I’m going back to day care. My day care teacher could figure this stuff out on her own.”

                    We don’t merit heaven on our own, any more than the kindergarten students are informing the teacher. Any holiness we have is us parroting it back to God, just like any knowledge the kids demonstrate is showing that they successfully learned it from a teacher. To live a holy life is to simply show that we’re cooperating with God’s freely-given gifts.

                    We sin and repent, and God forgives us. We sin again, and repent again, and God forgives us. But we’ve got to step up and accept the temporal punishment for our sins. Remember, the prodigal son gets forgiven by his father, but he doesn’t get another inheritance. We have to pay the price by reshaping our souls to conformity with God (and again noting that this is only something we’re doing with God’s help, so we can’t claim that we’re earning it). If I sin by overeating, maybe I can pay the debt by fasting. If I burn down a barn, I should rebuild it. If I’ve cheated people, I should repay them. Maybe I can’t track down everyone I’ve cheated, but I can offer up prayers for them, and reshape my soul to love them more. Maybe I can give of my own wealth to build a church for them as a recompense.

                    But look too long at that idea, and lose focus on the point of it, and you end up trying to buy indulgences.

                    Report

                  • My “A Bay Area Liberal Studies Medieval History” answer is that I find it entirely unsurprising that when a single religion had major political/real/etc. power they decided you needed to do something “more” than confess and apologize in order to be a member in good standing. I find it even less surprising that for centuries the “more” was “pay us.”

                    ‘s explanation is a great one of the primary sources, and I’ve appreciated learning more about the religious argument in this thread. But the biggest truest thing he said was that repentance was a big effing deal as many people lived in theocracies. It wasn’t “ten hail marys” it was “you must do the following difficult tasks, and if you refuse I may punish you in ways that would ruin your life.”

                    Report

                    • I agree with your take here. There were competing conceptions of Christianity thru the early centuries AD, tho, and not *all* of them agreed you could buy your way out of a sin. :)

                      Report

            • Marchmaine,

              Re: Acts: Don’t those writings support a more direct, unmediated relationship with God than the one we’re talking about right now, one governed by (eg) exchanging cash or service to an authority to clear a spiritual debt?

              Report

              • Not quite. My understanding (fwiw) is that the Pope has such a direct connection to god (i.e. the power to bind and loose in god’s name). His hierarchy had parts of that authority. So by giving your indulgence to the right church official, you aren’t interacting with god. You’re interacting with a papal delegate.

                Report

                • Yes, sure. My introduction into this thread was to contrast Catholic thinking with other types of Christian thinking, including versions of Christianity which existed earlier than (eg) the Council of Nicaea.

                  Report

    • Weinstein was able to buy indulgences without the requisite confession, contrition and purpose of amendment…

      IIRC he did at least make gestures in this direction in his public statement immediately after the scandal blew over the top. The lack of sincerity was evident, as was the lack of appreciation of the scope of his misdeeds. Notably, he also tried to burnish up his “I’m a good liberal and look what a shithead Trump is” credentials in that statement too, but no one was having any of that.

      Which is an example of what I think you mean by the phrase “spiritual sloth.” He was going through the motions and pretty clearly not being truly contrite.

      Report

    • Recognizing this wasn’t a serious comment, it still highlights the difference.

      An ambassador is essentially an ornamental function (in most of the world) where someone rich hosts parties for the rich people of that country. (A few are important, and those are usually staffed with actual diplomats instead of the rich donor class.) Such posts are absolutely given to party donors/friends/etc (though, perhaps, not sold quite as explicitly as religious posts under simony). But the key difference is that an ambassador is an expensive honor, not a position that comes with otherwise-unowned riches/political power/etc. To the contrary, such ambassadors are expected to throw lots of their own money around to make the US look powerful and desirable.

      Report

    • Simony or Sinecure?

      A sinecure is a benefice literally without the curation of souls; what makes a sinecure a sinecure is precisely the benefit without the obligation.

      Not all ambassadorships are Sinecures, but some might be; in order to rise to the level of Simony we’d have to be certain that the Vatican Ambassador is performing important duties “for the curation of souls,” or at least secular interests on par with souls. suggests perhaps not; the previous administration perhaps agreed – as they consolidated the apparatus of the Vatican Embassy into the Italian embassy. They didn’t eliminate the position of Ambassador, but in so doing they removed quite a bit of whatever administrative overhead there once was for running an embassy; making the Vatican Ambassador a very high ranking title with the obligations of, say, a departmental head within the Italian Embassy. That’s at least a step in the direction of Sinecure… but possibly not dispositive.

      We have so few sinecures in this age of efficiency that I hate to see them go.

      Simony? Rod Blagojevich was guilty of attempted Simony… though we just call it plain old corruption these days. What makes it Simony was that the position of US Senator indisputably rises to the level of “curation of souls” … or the equivalent secular stuff. Now *that’s* secular simony.

      There is a second order of Simony, but again, it is based upon the curation of souls; it is Simonical to charge for spiritual goods that are the province of all the faithful. That is, a priest may not charge to perform a wedding; the poor must be afforded Christian burial even if they cannot pay, a church may not charge admission, and, having learned from the Indulgence controversies, confessors may not benefit from penitential almsgiving. etc. etc. this order of Simony is stated as a principle, and not a list of do’s and don’ts… so it applies to all sacraments. Ah ha, you say, but we do give gifts to priest for performing weddings, and we do pass a collection basket around every week at church, and we do pay for work as part of a burial service, like the casket, the hole, and the preparation of the body. Correct; we donate, gift, and reward labor as part of a communal upkeep of the Church – it becomes Simony when it becomes a gate, or pay-for-play.

      Bracketing whether our entire political pay-for-play political system is Simonical; I look at the court system as being a fairly good proxy for Simony tests… do we have to pay to access the courts? Indirectly as part of the communal upkeep of taxes, yes; but we don’t have to slap down $100 on the judge’s desk to have our case heard. Now, we do often have to pay “administrative” fees if we lose, and I’d say that’s perhaps semi-Simonical. Poll taxes are obviously Simonical… if you use fees as a gate to a Secular/Spiritual good that we all collectively are entitled to? That’s Simony too.

      Maybe some officers of the court have other ideas where our system may be more or less Simonical, but those are the principles of Simony that we’d use to adjudicate Simony (if we wanted to adjudicate Simony, and the original post asks us to, so we do).

      Report

      • For what it’s worth, each party sued in CA state court has to pay $450 with their first paper (for unlimited civil cases).

        I don’t know what that has to do with the issues of the medieval church (and those who can’t pay can apply for permission not to), but nevertheless.

        Report

  5. People make the mistake of thinking that sins disappear over time as permissiveness takes hold. This is not true. In fact, sin simply evolves with the culture that judges it.

    For every sin that becomes an acceptable lifestyle choice (or whatever), another different thing that was perfectly acceptable becomes a sin to take its place.

    Report

    • Given that beat me to the exact “modern simony” and “modern indulgence” examples I was about to proffer, and beat me to pointing out that the Church held substantial political power such that simony and indulgences represented political rather than just moral corruption, I’ll point out something that didn’t used to be sinful and now is: enslavement.

      Like many of the old sins, slavery is a persistent sin, morphing into things that are effectively the thing against which we now have profound moral revulsion. We find ways to look away from it when it happens and pretend it’s something else, or pretend that it isn’t actually happening though evidence is right before us that it is. We can put different labels on it: wage theft, debt bondage, human trafficking. But we fool ourselves when we claim it’s been eradicated because of the nineteenth-century crusade by the Royal Navy and the United States’ civil war.

      And like the sins of the medieval era, the payment of a sufficient indulgence to the prevailing authorities yields an official proclamation that this sin is not what it appears to be, and the tacit coopeartion of the public at large in pretending that stain has been cleansed.

      Report

    • I don’t know that there is necessarily equilibrium… it seems to me that there are likely eras that were more permissive and other eras that were less permissive.

      But I’m not even sure how I’d measure that. I don’t know what a proof of concept mechanism would look like.

      It feels like we have more laws than we used to.

      But I also suspect that I’d rather be born to live in this era than in any other one in the past (and I’m somewhat envious of the kids who will live to see the ones in the future that I’m going to miss out on).

      But I don’t know if we have fewer or more sins than my ancestors. Or parity.

      Report

      • It seems like an equilibrium to me. On day you can say the N-word at a formal dinner party but you’re drummed out of polite society for dropping the F-bomb, the next day…

        Which is not to say that it is equal. It used to be social sin for a woman to work or for black man to date a white woman. Now it’s a social sin to advocate for either one of those positions. One sin is replaced by another as it exits, but both sins are not equal.

        Report

          • I don’t think so. Religious sins have always followed social taboos, not the other way around.

            I mean if all we are talking about is the Catholic Church, then yeah you’re probably right. Or at least kind of right, since what the Catholic Church considers to be mortal sins evolves and shifts with social mores as well, though certainly at a much slower pace.

            Report

                • I’m sorry I didn’t mean to be condescending. By social sin, you mean social custom or taboo, and I don’t disagree that (married) women working outside the home or inter-racial relations have violated some people’s social customs or taboos.

                  Report

                  • Do you disagree that these things have been preached against from pulpits and treated like sins by (many different) churches? Because the history for that is there too.

                    (I personally have a concept of sin that I think is a bit like yours, in that I am in some sense religious – Catholic, rather heretical – and I do think there are *actual* sins vs what the church / society may or may not call sins. I’m just saying for someone who doesn’t feel that way, it’s hard to tell the difference.)

                    Report

            • I mean if all we are talking about is the Catholic Church, then yeah you’re probably right. Or at least kind of right, since what the Catholic Church considers to be mortal sins evolves and shifts with social mores as well, though certainly at a much slower pace.

              I can’t speak to how the Catholic Church does things or to the distinction between mortal and venial sins, but I’d think the issue isn’t that sins have changed but rather, what instantiates those sins.

              Most people these days seem to believe that lust is a sin. We might not call it “lust.” We might call it “objectifying” people, or sexual harassment, the use of sexual desire as an excuse/instance of exercising power against another’s will.

              When speaking religiously, it seems to me the idea of sin is directed toward the individual’s soul. In that sense, some of the things we’re calling sin in this thread (Burt’s example of slavery and the secular functions of simony and indulgences others here have mentioned) are probably not sins as theorists of sin conceive it. They may be instantiations of sin, but the “sin,” if I understand, is the harm to one’s soul. I’d even put it non-theistically (though religionists might not) and refer to sin as a way to harm one’s mental well-being. Returning to my example of lust, lust is a “sin” in the sense that it’s a self-enslavement to sexual desire, where one lives in a hell of one’s own choosing by being pulled this way and that in the direction to one’s mating possibilities to the neglect of necessary self-care.

              I don’t think that obviates your point that what we consider to be “sins” evolves. But I think most of us in this thread are using the term “sin” to mean different things.

              Report

              • I don’t agree with your theology entirely (the Catholics, we put a lot more emphasis on hurting other people – works – than on interior state – grace – compared to non-Anabaptist Protestants, historically speaking) but I think this bit is very spot on:

                “I’d think the issue isn’t that sins have changed but rather, what instantiates those sins.”

                Report

        • Well, the dynamic that I enjoy pointing out is the whole “eating vs. sex” thing. In the 1950’s, it was everybody’s business if you were engaging in congress outside of wedlock and there were a lot of social tools that could be brought to bear against people who stepped outside of the line… but, at the same time, it was unthinkable that you would criticize what someone ate. It wasn’t any of your business.

          Now, well, sex is still a minefield but one of the big rules seems to be how two consenting adults who aren’t married (or, more precisely, explicitly monogamous) can do more or less whatever they want with each other and it is None Of Your Business… while food seems to be evolving into something that is much more criticizable. Not just the vegan/vegetarian thing but the organic thing, the Whole Foods thing, the localvore thing…

          Report

          • Actually lots and lots of people would criticize what women ate in the 1950s, either bluntly or teasingly. Men, not so much, but still some. Women? Good luck not getting criticized. (If you know some 50s women who did not face such criticism, they were, in fact, lucky.) It revolved around hourglass figures, and not other kinds of morality, but women were in fact *judged* based on their eating. And actually judged on their presumed eating based on what they weighed, just like their presumed sex lives based on other things… (dress, etc.)

            You may want to roll it back a few decades and hope I can’t find anything on Google / out of my own memory of things old people have told me, or start talking about how the rules for *men* have changed when you make that comparison.

            Report

            • So even with that, then, we’ve gone from the thesis of “Fat-shaming” to the anti-thesis of “Body Positivity” and, Good Lord, I’m not seeing how we’re going to be synthesizing that sort of thing anytime soon.

              Report

              • As a fat person in a female body, I promise you there is still a ratio of about 15:1 or more, fat-shaming vs body positivity.

                Like, SERIOUSLY at least that much of a ratio.

                I still get fat-shamed by random strangers on the street, dude.

                I just don’t complain to you about it because it’s the water I swim in to have harassment about my body by random strangers.

                I don’t think we’re going to be synthesizing it any time soon either, but part of the reason why is that the first thing is still vastly predominant.

                Report

          • Will it one day be thought a “sin” to eat the flesh of an animal, any animal? Not hard to concieve of it, nor the economic pressures that would mold culture in that way and then a religious belief to follow it. I’d miss meat, but perhaps in two generations I’ll be thought a barbarian for having eaten it.

            Report

            • Will it one day be thought a “sin” to eat the flesh of an animal, any animal?

              I think we’re missing several technological advances to make this realistic, vat grown meat, etc. Or maybe “advances” isn’t the right word, we have them, they’re not economic and they don’t taste especially realistic but we think they’ll work.

              So fast forward, assume the vat stuff is cheaper to make, much better for the environment, and also a lot more ethical? I think the answer is “yes, we’re headed there”.

              Report

Comments are closed.