The way it usually plays out: Tetzel gets thrown under the bus for his significant role in the indulgence controversy. But what about Rome? Were they at fault as well? Below are some sobering words from Roman historian Jospeh Lortz on the culpability of the pope and Rome:
The full disintegrating power of the abuse of indulgences was revealed in that affair which became the occasion of Luther's first public appearance.
In 1513 the twenty-three-year-old Albrecht of Brandenburg, youngest brother of the prince elector Joachim, was elected archbishop of the important diocese of Magdeburg by the cathedral chapter. (Albrecht's predecessor had been a Saxon, who also occupied the see of Mainz.) It was an old tradition that the same young man be installed as administrator of the collegiate church in Halberstadt. Finally, in 1514, Albrecht was elected by the cathedral chapter of Mainz to be archbishop of this diocese also, and prince elector. He had undertaken to support the collegiate prebend at his own expense. We have already learned how Mainz was in need of cutting down its expenditure. Within the space of ten years the archepiscopal see had thrice fallen vacant, and each time the confirmation dues to Rome for the see and the pallium had amounted to 14,000 ducats.
Now Albrecht had to apply to the pope not only for confirmation of his election to Mainz but also for permission to occupy this see while retaining that of Magdeburg and the administration of Halberstadt. Such an accumulation of benefices was unheard of, in Germany at least, and was in fact forbidden by canon law. But Leo X was not going to be hindered too much by canon law when political and financial advantage was at stake. With his decisive connivance the ambassadors from Brandenburg were granted confirmation on payment of an additional 10,000 ducats. Moreover it was the curia who made this proposal acceptable to the ambassadors, for they suggested a method by which Albrecht might raise all or part of the sum to be paid. They would make over to the archbishop of Mainz the sale of the St Peter's indulgence in the archdiocese of Mainz and in the Brandenburg territories, allowing him a half share in the proceeds. The contract was perfect; a deal was made with the Fuggers who, in return for a share in the income from the indulgence, advanced the archbishop 29,000 Rhenish guilders - and the whole shameful business was complete.
That this let loose the Reformation storm is highly symbolic and an expression of historical retribution, for all the corruption in the Church of that time had its chief cause in the fiscalism of the curia, which was rotten with simony. In the case just mentioned, the curia, contrary to canon law, in return for cash, and in the hope of gaining political advantage, were allowing a young, worldly man to hold an irresponsible accumulation of benefices. In so doing they turned indulgences into a means of exchange in big business. The executive organ of this business carried on between the custodian of the merits won by Christ's blood and a worldly prince of the Church was a bank. Corruption could scarcely have been more blatantly expressed. We are struck with amazement to discover that Catholic theologians are still so hide-bound by formalism that they can discuss whether or not this affair was simony according to the strict letter of canon law. Even to raise such a question is to create religious confusion. Anyone can see that the whole affair is utterly at war with the Spirit of Christ.
As a result of various delays, it turned out that the preaching of the indulgence, taken over by the prince elector of Mainz, did not start until the beginning of 1517. For the most part the monetary yield was little enough.
The indulgence preachers of the elector of Mainz based their sermons upon his instructio summaria.
This short guide provides an exact illustration of what has just been said about the abuses of the indulgence system. Its theory can be justified; but the tendency has to be sharply rejected, for, by the use of pious formulae, it was rapidly turning the indulgence sermon into sheer commercial advertising. Money, which was of secondary importance, became the central thing; the atmosphere of the sale-room prevailed everywhere; there were pompous and solemn openings, and then bargain clearances at the end.
The Dominican, Tetzel, subcommissar general of the archbishop of Mainz, faithfully followed out the spirit of this instruction. There is no doubt that he taught:
As soon as your money clinks in the bowl
Out of purgatory jumps the soul.
Admittedly it is also certain that he never claimed that an indulgence could expiate future sins. This calumny was first set going by Luther in his pamphlet Against Hans Worst in 1541.
Tetzel was very weil paid; but he cannot be charged with any serious misdemeanours. He was not one of those indulgence preachers of whom Eck compliained that they paid their mistresses with certificates of indulgence and confession. But he was one of those, piloried by Emser, for whom repentance and contrition had become eclipsed by money. In fact, for the sake of financial gain he stressed in a dangerous way the mitigation of the demands of the gospel of redemption.
Joseph Lortz, The Reformation in Germany vol. 1(New York: Herder and Herder, 1949) pp. 225-227.