History presents few characters that have suffered more senseless misrepresentation, even bald caricature, than Tetzel. "Even while he lived stories which contained an element of legend gathered around his name, until at last, in the minds of the uncritical Protestant historians, he became the typical indulgence-monger, upon whom any well-worn anecdote might be fathered" (Beard, "Martin Luther", London, 1889, 210). For a critical scholarly study which shows him in a proper perspective, he had to wait the researches of our own time, mainly at the hands of Dr. Nicholas Paulus, who is closely followed in this article. In the first place, his teaching regarding the indulgences for the living was correct.
An indulgence, he writes, can be applied only "to the pains of sin which are confessed and for which there is contrition". "No one", he furthermore adds, "secures an indulgence unless he have true contrition". The confessional letters (confessionalia) could of course be obtained for a mere pecuniary consideration without demanding contrition. But such document did not secure an indulgence. It was simply a permit to select a proper confessor, who only after a contrite confession would absolve from sin and reserved cases, and who possessed at the same time facilities to impart the plenary indulgence (Paulus, "Johann Tetzel", 103).
These two snips are from directly taken from the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on Tetzel.The historical record, even from some Roman sources, proves that Tetzel was a main factor that sparked the Reformation. For instance, Roman historian Hartmann Grisar states,
"...in his sermons he advocated a certain opinion held by some Schoolmen (though in no sense a doctrine of the Church), viz. that an indulgence gained for the departed was at once and infallibly applied to this or that soul for whom it was destined."(Luther 1, p. 343).Grisar cites Cardinal Cajetan as a "great theologian" against Tetzel's teaching on this (also claiming Tetzel "was no great theologian"). Grisar though admits "the more highly placed Indulgence Commissaries did not scruple, in their official proclamations, to set forth as certain this doubtful scholastic opinion" (p. 344). This sort of apologetic answer downplays the fact that during this time period there was no official doctrine or dogma as to the effect of the indulgence upon those in Purgatory.
Roman historian Joseph Lortz states:
There is little doubt that Tetzel's preaching was well summed up in the phrase, "a coin in the box opens heaven to your soul," and there is no doubt either that the deal between Albrecht and the Curia as well as the lively trade in indulgences would have been condemned as the worst type of simony in the early Church [Joseph Lortz, The Reformation, a Problem for Today (Maryland: The Newman Press, 1964), p. 79].For excerpts from Tetzel's sermons, see this link, and for more information on Tetzel's financial interests in the selling of indulgences, see this link.
Note above, the Catholic Encyclopedia mentions "Dr. Nicholas Paulus." I'm familiar with Paulus, but as far as I know, the book has not been translated into English. I would be very interested in reading the study put together by Paulus (The New Catholic Encyclopedia states of Paulus,
With a genuine love for truth he sought to do justice to Luther's reputation, but he also helped to undo the legends about him: Luthers Lebensende (Frankfurt 1898); Johann Tetzel, der Ablassprediger (Mainz 1899); Hexenwahn und Hexenprozess im 16. Jh. (Frankfurt 1910); Protestantismus und Toleranz im 16. Jh. (Frankfurt 1911). His chief work, however, is Geschichte des Ablasses im Mittelalter (3 v. Paderborn 1922–23). Because of his search for the whole truth and his faithfulness to the facts, he prepared the way toward a new Catholic outlook on the Reformation.Keep in mind as well, Tetzel did attempt to defend himself and his practices in writing, so I would be curious to see if Tetzel was developing a defense for his earlier abuses, and how Paulus interpreted Tetzel's actions. I would also be curious to see how Tetzel preached and then compare it to the "fine print" of the confessionalia. In a book that gave an overview of many of the Luther studies done around the time of Paulus, note the following comment from Reu's Thirty Five Years of Luther Research:
Although Tetzel, who was commissioned for his special trade, and of whom Paulus treats in a monogravure (1889), later after his acquittal, taught that the indulgences "served solely in the case of punishment of sins that had been repented of and confessed," yet his instructions read, outside of indulgence for punishment of sin, of the plenaria omnium peccatorum remissio, and without repenting one could buy an indulgence upon the presentation of which any promiscuously chosen priest was forced once during lifetime and in the hour of death to grant to the professor a general absolution.
In the same way an indulgence for the dead could be had, for "as soon as the money clinked in the bottom of the chest, the souls of the deceased friends forthwith went into Heaven," was, according to Prierias, actually preached as "mera et catholica Veritas." Therefore, it was no trivial issue on which Luther's battle began; it was an institution, representative of the entire system which brought it forth, and because of whose abuses the entire world suffered.What's also interesting to do when an entry from the old Catholic Encyclopedia is cited is to compare that entry to the New Catholic Encyclopedia. In the old version, a most spirited defense of Tetzel is put forth, whereas in the New version, there's only a mention that certain charges against Tetzel were spurious. The main point of contention though remains the same. The old encyclopedia states:
As much cannot be said about his teaching regarding indulgences for the dead. The couplet attributed to him — As soon as the gold in the casket rings The rescued soul to heaven springs, like that attributed to Luther, Who loves not wine and wife and song Remains a fool his life long; though verbally spurious, can in both instances be in substance unfailingly traced to the writings of their respective authors. By Tetzel they are substantially acknowledged in his Frankfort theses. Here he accepted the mere school opinion of a few obscure writers, which overstepped the contents of papal indulgence Bulls. This opinion found no recognition but actual condemnation at the hands of authoritative writers, and was rejected in explicit terms by Cardinal Cajetan as late as 1517-19. By the teaching he laid himself open to just censure and reproach. To condition a plenary indulgence for the dead on the mere gift of money, without contrition on the part of the giver, was as repugnant to the teaching of the Church, as it violated every principle of elementary justice. "Preachers act in the name of the Church", writes Cardinal Cajetan, "so long as they teach the doctrines of Christ and the Church; but if they teach, guided by their own minds and arbitrariness of will, things of which they are ignorant, they cannot pass as representatives of the Church; it need not be wondered at that they go astray" (Paulus, "Johann Tetzel", 165). It was this deviation from the correct teaching of the Church and the obtrusive and disgraceful injection of the treasury chest, that led to abuses and scandals reprobated by such contemporaries as Cochlæus, Emser, and Duke George (Paulus, op. cit., 117-18). "Grave abuses arose; the attitude of the preachers, the manner of offering and publishing the indulgences aroused many scandals; above all, Tetzel is in no way to be exonerated" (Janssen-Pastor, "Geschichte des deutsch. Volkes", 18th ed., Freiburg, II, 84)In the New version, the Tetzel entry states:
Tetzel was orthodox in regard to indulgences for the living. In regard to those for the dead, however, he followed the teaching contained in the Mainz Instruction issued to preachers of indulgences. That is, he taught the then widespread, erroneous theological opinion that indulgences for the dead were gained independently of dispositions of contrition in the person seeking the indulgence, who also had the right to apply them absolutely to a specific soul in purgatory.
Addendum on "types" of Indulgences
For a good overview of Tetzel, see Brecht's first volume on Luther, around page 175 or so and following.
Tetzel's indulgence preaching focused on four chief graces:
1. The complete remission of all sins (including remission of the punishment in purgatory). Earning the right amount of grace for this was possible under certain conditions: contrition of heart, confession (or at least the intention of doing so), visits to 7 churches with particular prayers offered, monetary payment
2. The possibility of obtaining a confessional letter: this enabled a person to receive absolution from all sins (including those committed up to the time of one's death). This could be obtained without confession.
3. Buy a confessional letter that promised the person who bought it and his dead relatives "participation in all the church's goods, i.e, its prayers, fasts, alms, and other pious works." This could be obtained without confession.
4. "Remission of the punishment of sins for souls in purgatory by means of the Pope's intercession when one paid for these souls"