Thursday, January 18, 2007
How political leaders indulge their ambitions
Political leaders are invariably ambitious, and that ambition comes at a cost. In the early 16th century Albrecht of Brandenburg pulled off a series of political coups that left him as the head of the church in the German empire. But his ambition came at quite a cost, he was in debt to Pope Leo X and the great medieval banking house of Fuggers to the tune of 29,000 gulden.
But the wily Albrecht had a solution. He authorised the sale of papal ‘indulgences’ in the form of certificates guaranteeing the remission of sins in the regions under his control. The practice of using indulgences to offset sins was well established. Leading theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas, supported it with the explanation that the church in Rome had the equivalent of as a spiritual bank account that was substantially in credit, and this spiritual credit could be offered to mortal sinners. Initially indulgences were earned by spiritual endeavours such as taking part in a crusade, or visiting relics or shrines. But by the 16th century indulgences were being openly sold in a tawdry trade. They may have simply left the purchaser with a worthless piece of paper, but they offered an attractive way for Albrecht of Brandenberg (picture above) to pay off his papal credit card.
Meanwhile last week, following press criticism, Tony Blair tried to restore his green credentials by announcing he would offset carbon emissions from his family holidays, including their Christmas stay at Bee Gee Robin Gibbs' Florida villa. To offset the indulgence of his long-haul short break it is calculated that the prime minister will simply need to purchase carbon credits to the value of £90. In support comes today’s announcement that carbon offsetting is getting the 21st century equivalent of papal approval. The UK government is to define criteria for offsetting schemes that use certified credits. And in a remarkable reminder that there is nothing new under an increasingly strong sun, the UK government scheme introduces a gold standard for carbon offsetting, neatly reflecting the 29,000 gold coins that Albrecht of Brandenberg was in hock for.
Of course, Albrecht’s sin offsetting scheme ended in tears. While his chief spin doctor was giving a media briefing in Brandenburg he crossed paths with a troublesome activist called Martin Luther. It was obvious to Luther that the indulgences being sold by Albrecht made promises far beyond what was realistically practical. Martin Luther was so incensed that he wrote his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, and then, like any good activist, he posted them on the the 16th century equivalent of the internet - the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.
The rest is history, or more correctly the rest rewrote history. Luther’s stand against indulgences in October 1517 sparked the Reformation, and his proselytizing against Rome was taken up by Calvin in Geneva, and by Zwingli and Bullinger in Zurich. The first great split in the Christian Church had been the schism in 1054 between Rome and the Orthodox congregation, and the Reformation in the 16th century sparked the second great split, this time between Rome and the Protestant Church. This split changed the political map of Europe and the religious map of the world forever, and sparked wars and conflicts that continue today. As well as creating a religious movement, Martin Luther (left) also created a cultural movement that stretches from Bach’s St Matthew Passion to Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem. And it all happened because a greedy leader decided that indulgences were a cool way to finance his ambitions.
Now read how the Pope has another Regensburg moment
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