Pensions Are Secure!

Cover page of Jakob Heerbrand’s polemic on the papal indulgence of 1525.

Jakob Heerbrand, Newer Bäpstischer Ablaß

Printed in 1580 by Alexander Hock in Tübingen

There are things that are important to mankind. Human beings are able to endure many things as long as they know that the time of suffering will pass eventually and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

But what is the tunnel and what is the light? This is a matter of definition, and every epoch has to find its own answer to this question. Let us have a look at this matter with regard to our age: Many people spend a huge part of their life with activities they do not like to do, simply for the sake of their economic survival. And while doing so, they look forward to the time that will come after their working life, which they hope to be able to enjoy as carefree pensioners.

However, it is not sure at all whether it will be possible to continue paying pensions in the same amount as they are being paid now. Everyone knows about the European nation’s population pyramids. But hardly any politician addresses the problem seriously. Everybody knows that disproving the assumption of secure pensions would lead to an uproar.


Contemporary portrait of Martin Luther. Kunstmuseum Basel. Photo: KW.

The Scandal about the Reformation

Martin Luther did not know this fear. He took away from his contemporaries the assurance of the path to eternal life. In early modern times, paradise was the equivalent of the light at the end of the tunnel. In a time when people still knew what real hunger, real misery felt like, when diseases were fatal and comfort was a word foreign even to noble families, when war, robbery and arbitrary decisions of the authorities dictated the terms of daily life, everybody longed for only one thing every single day that God gave him: the assurance of paradise.

A life without this paradise was pointless, hopeless and one could not but be overcome by despair about it. The big problem: The way to heaven was dependent on the adherence to numerous rules, which were just as difficult to integrate into daily life as the demands of today’s climate activists. Committing sins was inevitable and therefore every thinking human being saw his eternal bliss being threatened.


Why Indulgences Were Necessary

Of course, one could atone for one’s sins. One had to regret them from the bottom of the heart and then one had to make amends. These could consist of prayers, gifts to the poor (or to the church) or a pilgrimage.

In many cases, there was not enough spare time left in one’s daily life in order to pay for one’s sins. The church also came up with a solution for those cases: This solution was called the purgatory. It was kind of a place before paradise where nobody could commit any sins, and where the souls exclusively atoned for the sins committed during their life on earth. Once one had atoned for all sins, the path to eternal bliss was guaranteed.

Most people imagined this place before paradise as a reflection of justice as it was practised on earth, were people were tortured, burned, stabbed and where many more awful things were done to the human body. Yes, many were afraid of it. And therefore, they lunged at the shortcut, the indulgence.

If you said exactly determined prayers at an exactly determined day at an exactly determined place, heaven would spare you – at the Pope’s request – from some of your years in purgatory. The amount of years was calculated just as intricately as the cost of the certificates we can buy today in order to compensate the ecological damage we caused by taking the plane.

A Successful Business for the Church – A Reason for Annoyance for the Protestants

Of course, it was also possible to buy an indulgence, that is to say to save oneself years in purgatory by donating an amount of money that was dependent on the value of one’s possessions. And it was only human that ecclesiastical authorities took advantage of the willingness of their lambs to pay them money of their own free will.

In the opinion of the Protestants, this was a scandal! Not the church, but God gave people the gift of the path to paradise. Therefore, a Christian authority had to take control of the goods of the church, use them for the benefit of the country and force citizens by means of laws and punishments to live a life following the rules of God.

The Marburg Colloquy.

Discussions About the Right Path

Neither Protestants nor Reformed nor Calvinists had doubts about the existence of paradise and about the fact that there was a path leading to this paradise. What they argued about – often also with Catholics – was the path a human being had to take to reach paradise.

In order to understand how vehemently the debates about the right path were waged, we have to imagine that today’s politicians would actually dare to suggest that our pensions are not secure and that we have to find a new way to guarantee these pensions. Can you imagine to what extent this issue would be discussed in our popular media? Our newspapers would be flooded with articles on the topic. One talk show after the other would deal with the issue.

The talk shows of the 16th century were called disputations. Rulers and cities organised them everywhere. Theologians of different confessions argued on questions that had been determined beforehand. In many cases, the result of a disputation became the basis of a political decision.

The Lead of the Protestants

The Protestants won many disputations. There was a practical reason for it. Their best theologians – and as chancellor of the University of Tübingen, Jakob Heerbrand was among the absolute academic elite – delivered the arguments that were to be used during the discussions.

The paper that this article talks about has to be seen in this context. In Heerbrand’s opinion, the indulgence granted by “the Antichrist” – Heerbrand’s words – Pope Gregory XIII on the occasion of the holy year 1575 was “awful and terrible”. Nevertheless, he had it printed together with his commentary so that eager readers of his book knew the Catholic arguments as well as the Protestant counterarguments.

This method was extremely successful! The Protestants won most disputations. This only changed with the expansion of the Jesuit order. The order imitated the method of its opponents and provided its students with ready-made arguments on the most important disputed issues.

The Legacy of the Confessional Age

We have internalised one conviction from this era, namely, that there are winners and losers in a discussion – and that the winner is right. It will probably be a long time before we come to understand that complex issues like the sustainability of our pensions do not depend on beautiful words but on effective measures and exact calculations.


Click here if you would like to browse through Jakob Heerbrand’s entire book on the “papal indulgence”.

We bought this book in Thomas Rezek’s antiquarian bookshop in Munich.