Deeper Into Jeopardy! XXII: 16th Century Thinkers – Final Jeopardy!

Jeopardy! category: Philosophy (22-09-2011)

FJ! Clue: In 1517 he wrote, “The treasures of indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the wealth of men”

Correct response

The gist: And that was just one among ninety-four other unflattering things he had to say. 

In 1517, Martin Luther posted his radically influential “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany. They were a list of short Latin sentences outlining the huge number of problems he had with the workings of the Catholic Church. The Church at the time was not technically the only game in town in terms of organized Christianity in Western Europe, but it wasn’t far off either, so Luther was putting himself at huge personal risk, not only spiritually but physically as well, by posting such a scathing document in such a public place.

Indulgence, specifically, is the practice of Church officials absolving the sins of their followers in exchange for money. Theologically speaking, they are a means of purifying one’s spiritual self by turning away from material pleasures (the sorts of things money can buy) and towards helping others and living modestly – they do not, according to Church dogma, lead to salvation of the soul, which can only be achieved through both big-B Communion and little-c communion with the divine. Historically, they had been a part of the Catholic Church since at least the third century CE, but corruption and abuse of the practice on the part of Church agents came to a head during the Middle Ages. Officials known as “pardoners” would be dispatched to raise huge sums of money implicitly or explicitly for specific Church projects (like cathedrals and Crusades), and they were known to make promises beyond what the Church considered acceptable – like eternal salvation. The Church made some attempts and some progress in reigning them in, but unscrupulous practices – in particular, those done by Johann Tetzel to raise money for St. Peter’s Basilica – sent Luther to his writing table. The thesis mentioned in the clue, along with his others, attacks the Church for taking advantage of its position to further its Earthly goals (and the Earthly goals of its individual members and agents) rather than its heavenly ones. The year after posting his theses, Luther would write a pamphlet titled “A Sermon on Indulgences and Grace” in which he expounds on his belief that faith, repentance, and good works, not tithing, are the true paths to salvation.

An inscription at St. Peter’s Basilica asking for indulgences “on every occasion for the living and the dead”

The clue: Right off the bat, we know that the tinker in question is from the early 16th century, and that he’s a male. The rest of the clue is just a direct quote (in translation) from Luther’s original work, so there’s no way around recognizing that indulgences were a matter of the Catholic Church. From there, it’s not a huge leap to get to Luther, history’s preeminent critic of Catholicism.

In Jeopardy!: Indulgences, of the Catholic variety, appear in just four clues other than this one in the J!Archive (plus seven others in the sense of satisfaction). All four of them have to do with Martin Luther and his Theses, and with provoking him into writing his work – so if it comes up, the correct response will almost certainly be one of Luther, the 95 Theses, or indulgences themselves. One also mentions “The Pardoner’s Tale,” one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is told by a clergyman responsible for collecting indulgences – but then the clue goes on to say that what the Pardoner took from people also made Luther mad.

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