English 233: Introduction to Western Humanities - Baroque & Enlightenment

Glossary of terms:


A vicar in the most general terms is one who serves as a substitute, and thus represents whatever he or she substitutes for.  This is the idea that appears in titles like "vice-president" and "viceroy." The idea of "the vicarious" is crucial in several ways in Christianity.  The most central is that Christ serves as a sacrificial substitute for sinful humanity, in accomplishing the reconciliation (or atonement) between God's justice and sinful humanity.  Secondarily, under the Doctrine of Apostolic Succession, the apostle Peter and his successors as Bishop of Rome function as designated substitutes for Christ as head of the Church on earth.  Beyond this, the pope's appointees as bishops represent him in administering their respective dioceses.  And the priests under their jurisdiction thus, in turn, represent (ultimately) the pope.

We meet this aspect of the idea of representation through vicars in connection with the dispute over indulgences. The conservative doctrine was that the pope's authority in indulgences extended only to the remission of temporal punishments imposed by himself. These "punishments imposed by the pope himself" were the penitences that were or would be assigned by priests in their administration of the sacrament of penance.

This was a way of saying that indulgences could not affect the sufferings of souls in purgatory (whose punishment was not "temporal"), to say nothing of those in Hell (whose punishment was eternal): these punishments were reserved for God alone.  It also meant that indulgences could not remove the guilt attaching to sin  only the punishment due for that guilt.  (Guilt for Original Sin was affected only by Christ's Atonement in the crucifixion, as transmitted to the individual soul through the sacrament of Baptism.  Guilt for individual sins  i.e., those committed in the course of one's life  could likewise only be erased by divine activity, specifically, by grace.).

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      This page last updated 11 October 2000.