Johann Tetzel, O.P. (1465–11 August 1519) was a Roman Catholic German, Dominican friar and preacher. In addition, he was a Grand Inquisitor of Heresy to Poland, and later became the Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany. Tetzel was known for granting indulgences in exchange for money, which allow a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven, a position heavily challenged by Martin Luther. This contributed in part to the Protestant Reformation.
Tetzel was born in Pirna, Saxony, and studied theology and philosophy at the University of Leipzig. He entered the Dominican order in 1489, achieved some success as a preacher, and was in 1502 commissioned by Giovanni Cardinal de 'Medici, later Pope Leo X, to preach the (Christian) Jubilee indulgence, which he did throughout his life. In 1509 he was made an inquisitor of Poland and, in January 1517 was made commissioner of indulgences for Archbishop Albrecht von Brandenburg in the dioceses of Magdeburg and Halberstadt.
He acquired the degree of Licentiate of Sacred Theology in the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in 1517, and then of Doctor of Sacred Theology in 1518, by defending in two disputations, the doctrine of indulgences against Martin Luther. The accusation that he had sold full forgiveness for sins not yet committed caused a great scandal. It was believed that all of the money that Tetzel raised was for the ongoing reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica, although half the money went to the Archbishop of Mainz, Cardinal Albert of Brandenburg (under whose authority Tetzel was operating), to pay off the debts incurred in securing Albert's appointment to the Archbishopric. Luther began to preach openly against him and was inspired to write his famous Ninety-Five Theses, in part, due to Tetzel's actions, in which he states,
27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
Tetzel was also condemned (though later pardoned) for immorality. When he discovered that Karl von Miltitz had accused him of perpetrating numerous frauds and embezzlements, he withdrew, broken in spirit, wrecked in health, into the Dominican monastery in Leipzig. Miltitz was later discredited to the point where his claims carry no historical weight.
Tetzel died in Leipzig in 1519. At the time of his death, Tetzel had fallen into disrepute and was shunned by the public.
When Luther heard that Tetzel was mortally ill and on his deathbed, he wrote to comfort him, and bade him "not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father."
Tetzel overstated Catholic doctrine in regard to indulgences for the dead. He became known for a couplet attributed to him: "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs."
This oft-quoted saying was by no means representative of the official Catholic teaching on indulgences, but rather, more a reflection of Tetzel’s capacity to exaggerate. Yet if Tetzel overstated the matter in regard to indulgences for the dead, his teaching on indulgences for the living was pure Catholic teaching. German Catholic historian Ludwig von Pastor explains:
Above all, a most clear distinction must be made between indulgences for the living and those for the dead.
As regards indulgences for the living, Tetzel always taught pure (Catholic) doctrine. The assertion that he put forward indulgences as being not only a remission of the temporal punishment of sin, but as a remission of its guilt, is as unfounded as is that other accusation against him, that he sold the forgiveness of sin for money, without even any mention of contrition and confession, or that, for payment, he absolved from sins which might be committed in the future. His teaching was, in fact, very definite, and quite in harmony with the theology of the (Catholic) Church, as it was then and as it is now, i.e., that indulgences "apply only to the temporal punishment due to sins which have been already repented of and confessed" ....The Papal Bull of indulgence gave no sanction whatever to this proposition. It was a vague scholastic opinion, rejected by the Sorbonne in 1482, and again in 1518, and certainly not a doctrine of the Church, which was thus improperly put forward as dogmatic truth. The first among the theologians of the Roman court, Cardinal Cajetan, was the enemy of all such extravagances, and declared emphatically that, even if theologians and preachers taught such opinions, no faith need be given them. "Preachers," he said, "speak in the name of the Church only so long as they proclaim the doctrine of Christ and His Church; but if, for purposes of their own, they teach that about which they know nothing, and which is only their own imagination, they must not be accepted as mouthpieces of the Church. No one must be surprised if such as these fall into error."
The case was very different with indulgences for the dead. As regards these there is no doubt that Tetzel did, according to what he considered his authoritative instructions, proclaim as Christian doctrine that nothing but an offering of money was required to gain the indulgence for the dead, without there being any question of contrition or confession.
He also taught, in accordance with the opinion then held, that an indulgence could be applied to any given soul with unfailing effect. Starting from this assumption, there is no doubt that his doctrine was virtually that of the well known drastic proverb.
Martin Luther's Impression
According to Luther, after Tetzel had received a substantial amount of money at Leipzig, a nobleman asked him if it were possible to receive a letter of indulgence for a future sin. Tetzel quickly answered in the affirmative, insisting, however, that the payment had to be made at once. This the nobleman did, receiving thereupon letter and seal from Tetzel. When Tetzel left Leipzig the nobleman attacked him along the way, gave him a thorough beating, and sent him back empty-handed to Leipzig with the comment that this was the future sin which he had in mind. Duke George at first was quite furious about this incident, but when he heard the whole story he let it go without punishing the nobleman.
Luther also wrote that, at Halle, Tetzel claimed that an indulgence would wipe away the sin of a man guilty of raping Mary, Mother of God. However, Tetzel obtained affidavits from authorities at Halle, both civil and ecclesiastical, who swore to having never heard that story.