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Money (Part 1)
“Money is our madness, our vast collective madness.” (D.H. Lawrence)
What is money? The common definition is that it is a “medium of exchange”. In other words it is a mechanism that enables us to buy or sell whatever we need or want at any given time. This is possible because money is also a “store of value”.
That does not mean that the bank notes, coins, digital currencies, etc., we use are themselves inherently valuable. Euro coins contain no precious metals, for instance, being composed mainly of steel and copper alloys.But we all believe that the money circulating in society is valuable, and so our trust in the financial system keeps it going. Without that shared faith in money our complex civilisation would quickly collapse.
There is one big drawback with money though - we can’t take it with us. For a prosperous person who believes in an afterlife, or suspects there might be something else when we die, that is an unavoidable fact.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”. He was half-right. Taxes can be avoided or evaded. Death cannot.
Despite this obvious reality, some people have so much faith in money that they think it could be useful in the next world. Here are two examples.
The papal indulgence
In 1515 the recently-elected pope, Leo X, decided to raise money for an important project he had inherited from his predecessors. This was the construction of a magnificent new basilica in Rome to replace the ancient seat of papal power and prestige, then falling into disrepair.
Leo saw an opportunity to boost the budget for this ambitious project through a fund-raising drive among European Catholics. In return for their donations he offered participants an extraordinary spiritual benefit:
A plenary indulgence to those who would penitently confess their sins and contribute according to their means to the building of a new St. Peter’s.
When the fund-raising campaign reached Germany the local organiser, Johann Tetzel, made sure that potential buyers understood exactly what a plenary indulgence could do for them.
When you die the gates of punishment shall be shut, and the gates of the paradise of delight shall be opened: and if you shall not die at present, this grace shall remain in full force when you are at the point of death.
Medieval Catholics believed that after death they faced three possibilities. Unrepentant sinners were sent to hell where they had to suffer everlasting torment at the hands of the devil and his angels. In contrast, those who died in a state of grace immediately entered the ranks of the blessed with whom they could enjoy the raptures of heaven forever. Everyone else went to purgatory.
As the name implies, purgatory was a temporary stop on the road to paradise where those not quite ready for the heavenly delights were purged of their sins. Purgatory was “a provisional hell”, where souls would undergo the same terrible suffering as their inferno-bound counterparts, but at least it did not go on forever. Nevertheless who wouldn’t want to avoid the place if they could? This is what those promoting the indulgence were banking on. As Tetzel put it in his sales pitch:
Won’t you part with even a farthing to buy this letter? It won’t bring you money but rather a divine and immortal soul, whole and secure in the Kingdom of Heaven.
The price of the indulgence letter was calculated at about one per cent of annual income, so more than Tetzel’s “farthing” but still affordable by many. In the city of Duderstadt where average earnings were 100 Rhenish guilders per annum, penitent punters would have had to pay about a guilder to secure their places in heaven.For someone earning around €30,000 today, that works out at around €300. Not a bad deal if you were concerned about the fate of your soul in the afterlife.
However a young Augustinian friar named Martin Luther was appalled at this blatant hawking of spiritual favours by the pope. He outlined his objections in a public letter to his archbishop. Luther had a particular problem with how the indulgence would be seen by ordinary folk who, he stated:
believe that when they have bought indulgence letters they are then assured of their salvation. They are likewise convinced that souls escape from purgatory as soon as they have placed a contribution into the chest.
His letter made its way to Rome and into the hands of Leo X himself. The result was the Reformation, a political and social revolution that overturned Europe’s religious uniformity and paved the way for centuries of division and conflict.
Leo’s plan may have led to a massive rift in European Christianity, but there is another question I would like to focus on here. What if you could parlay your earthly financial status into some everlasting spiritual benefit that would make eternity a lot easier for yourself? Isn’t that what the promoters of Leo’s indulgence scheme were really selling: the chance to “take it with you”?
But now? Surely in our secular materialistic world that combination of avarice and religiosity is so rare as to be almost non-existent.
Enter Jimmy Savile.
Balancing the books
Elsewhere I have described the late disc jockey as “a byword for sexual depravity on an almost unimaginable scale”. Jimmy Savile was a Roman Catholic who believed in an afterlife. Being a clever fellow, he came up with a plan to get into heaven after he died. He believed he could achieve this by ensuring that, at the end of his life, his good deeds would far outweigh his sins.
Savile spoke about his salvation strategy many times in public and in private. Following his death, a BBC colleague recalled a conversation he had with the celebrity DJ on this topic:
‘I once listened bemused as Savile expiated at length in the BBC canteen on the reasons why St. Peter wouldn’t dare bar him from heaven,’ he said. “What do you mean he’s led an immoral life?” God would say to him. “Have you any idea how much money he’s raised for charity? Or how many hours he’s put in as a porter at that hospital? Get them doors opened now and quick!”’
Savile never revealed the true nature of his “immoral life” while he was alive. He did relate numerous episodes of his sexual “conquests” – but he included only enough details to create the impression in the public mind that he was nothing more than a roguish jack-the-lad with an eye for the girls.
Nevertheless, as far as his Church was concerned, even what Savile was prepared to admit publicly was undoubtedly sinful. Yet in October 1981 Pope John Paul II awarded the DJ a papal knighthood for his charity fund-raising activities.If Savile ever needed official recognition that his plan to get past St. Peter might actually work, this was surely it.
Of course he knew he was guilty of a lot more than colourful sexual peccadillos. But he must have convinced himself that, no matter how many youngsters he defiled or raped, as long as he devoted himself to endless fund-raising for hospitals and other good causes he would be OK in the end. As his biographer wrote:
If his charitable deeds were designed to salve a guilty conscience, there is evidence he knew he had to raise a lot to balance the ledger.
In its essence, Savile’s strategy was not far removed from Pope Leo’s indulgence scheme. Both rested on the assumption that accumulating money, whether for oneself or for others, could yield spiritual dividends in the next world. It presupposes that God is like an accountant who calculates the good and the bad in an individual’s life. In this imagined scenario, when God tots up the two columns in the celestial ledger, He can see straightaway if the soul before Him is eligible for heaven or should be flung into hell. And, as Savile and many other medieval Catholics believed, using money to do “good” boosts your credit in God’s eyes.
But whether or not a rich person is an atheist or a believer, they must surely realise this is nonsense. It is not as if money is equivalent to grace, is it? Yes, money can make life very comfortable if you have lots of it to spend on pleasurable things. Who would not like to travel first class, or stay in a five-star hotel, or enjoy a private box at the opera or the football game? But the money itself is not much use - and we can’t take it with us.
So why do we seek more of something that, even in our material world, has no real substance or inherent worth?
Why do we covet money?
‘Common sides’, European Central Bank [https://www.ecb.europa.eu/euro/coins/common/html/index.en.html], 1 Jan. 2022.
Will Durant, The Reformation: A history of European civilization from Wyclif to Calvin, 1300-1564 (New York, 1957), p. 138.
Quoted in Durant, The Reformation, p. 138.
Quoted in Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A history (New York 2005), p. 123.
Reinhold Kiermayr, ‘How Much Money was Actually in the Indulgence Chest?’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 17/3 (Autumn, 1986), pp. 303-318.
Gottfried G. Krodel (ed.), Luther’s Works, vol. 48, Letters I (Philadelphia, 1963), p. 46.
Quoted in Dan Davies, In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile (London, 2014).
Daily Telegraph, 26 Oct. 2012.
Evening Echo, 22 Oct. 1981.
Davies, In Plain Sight.