|It is popularly accepted that at Wittenberg on 31st October 1517 Martin Luther published the titles of the ninety-five theses he was willing to debate publicly. Some of these had to do with his opposition to the selling of plenary indulgences.
The selling of plenary indulgences was a practice in which the Order of Saint Augustine – and even the reform-minded Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. - was involved, even if less so than that of some other religious orders, and dioceses of the Church, etc.
This was one of the first indulgences to be promoted for fund-raising in England, and caused hostility among the bishops. Indeed, their animosity and the Provincial’s ineptitude led to the effort’s being financially unsuccessful for the Austin Friars.
As Prior General, Giles of Viterbo O.S.A. obtained a plenary indulgence for the Augustinian General Chapter at Rimini, Italy in 1515, which was just two years before Luther posted his ninety-five theses; half of its income was to go to the building program of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and the other half to the Order.
In 1516 a second edict for granting plenary indulgences was obtained by the Austin Friars, this time intended for the benefit of the Augustinian priory at Oxford. By this period, numerous plenary indulgences were available in England, and this second Augustinian venture into the field in England drew no attention.
By 1520 Luther’s protest against the selling of indulgences was well known, yet in that year the Augustinian Prior General was writing to the English Augustinian Provincial at the behest of the Holy See to coax the Austin Friars to a better – and hence a financially more profitable - promotion of the indulgence.
Another plenary indulgence was granted to the Augustinian General Chapter of 1526, by which time the finances of the general administration of the Order in Rome was in dire straits because so many houses of the Order either had been closed or else had reduced means to pay their expected annual contribution to the Augustinian Curia.
The fact that the sale of plenary indulgences was still being approved and promoted by the Order of Saint Augustine at its highest executive level in 1526 – with the Church by then torn apart in Germany – indicates how thoroughly internal reform was necessary in the Order of Saint Augustine, and in the Church generally.
(Continued on the next page.)