Not So Simple Simony
Among the attributes shared by Vegas and the Vatican are that both are built on hope and hot money. Vegas promises the chance of winning down here while the Vatican offers its payouts up there.
As countless Mafia movies have taught us, Vegas was originally realized by mob moolah, particularly the Cleveland crowd. Since then, of course, publicly traded corporations have taken over--if that’s any improvement. Apart from The Agony and the Ecstacy, there are not many films about how my one time neighborhood church of St. Peters got put up. Though few Catholics choose to linger over the fact, the holy truth is that St. Peter’s and the Vatican complex were largely financed by sinful samoleons, or as Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible dubs it, filthy lucre.
It was Pope Julius II who back in 1506 commissioned Bramante to design St. Peter’s and hired Raphael and Michelangelo to superintend the job. The money for the work, which went on for a century, came from the sale of indulgences, “thereby lighting the match that ignited the Protestant Reformation."*
An indulgence, according to a recent front page New York Times story is “a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife.” By crossing your heart or certain palms you can procure pardon or parole from Purgatory, a place unmentioned in the bible that Catholics hold to be a sort of over-heated waiting room where the semi-sinful are temporarily relegated on the way to either paradise or perdition.
Back in the olden days, Rome marketed indulgences like reverse time shares. You could knock a day, a week, a year, etc., off your purgatorial detention by making the proper prayers, penances, pilgrimages and certified good works, such as quitting your “attachment to creatures” (presumably falling love with your livestock).
But business being business even in the late middle ages, the profitable possibilities of selling indulgences caught on big time. Lots of priests and princes paid popes for the privilege of peddling them. And from those tainted funds came the capital to construct St. Peters. The selling of indulgences and the corruption of the clergy was given a name: simony. This was after Simon Magus, who offered Jesus’ disciples some sugar for their horses if they would grant him power to impart the holy spirit to others.
At any event, all of this chicanery so enraged Martin Luther that he started a new religion, Protestantism, which eventually gave us mushy white bread, churches with neon marquees and NASCAR fans who’d like to share a beer with George W. Bush. In reaction, the Vatican did its best to massacre the Lutheran heretics in the Holy Wars and, when that failed, cleaned up its act a bit by outlawing pray for pay in 1567.
So, you may ask, with our economy evaporating and our empire expiring, why bring up this well toasted history after 400 years? It’s that story in the NY Times I mentioned above. It said that the Church of Rome is recrudescing indulgences in line with a general march back into medieval obscurantism decreed by the current pope, who, if you recall, was only a Hitler Youth, not a Nazi. The official reason for the return of indulgences is said to be the continued presence of sin in the world, which would seem to me to be an admission that after 2000 years the mother church has yet to get the job done .
I hate to be cynical (not), but it strikes me that the church’s finances are in a parlous state due to having to pay for all that priestly pedophilia for all those decades. They surely calculated that a revival of the discredited indulgence game will not help their bona fides but might bolster their bottom line.
It shouldn't be hard to revive such clerical cozening even though the passing of filthy lucre has been banned since 1567. Simony never really stopped but merely slowed. Indeed, its outstanding practitioner in the modern age was the late Mother Theresa, who counseled the poor to suffer in silence while swapping benedictions for bucks with the rich and reactionary (consult Christopher Hitchen’s factual and funny The Missionary Position for all the profane poop).
Not that I’m against all indulgences. I’ve long been a fan of San Francisco’s Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose good works include sponsorship of an annual Hunky Jesus competition in Dolores Park.
* Lives of the Popes by Richard P. McBrien, p. 272