10/07/2014 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Citizens United and the Black Death


A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman - copyright Random House 2014

Every summer, for the past few summers, I have attended Oxford University's summer school program, studying (or reading, as they say at Oxford) history.

Next year, I have signed up for The Black Death - not the disease itself, but the class.

To prepare for it, some very good friends just bought me Barbara Tuchman's book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.

There were plenty of calamities in the 14th Century, and the Black Death, the pandemic of bubonic plague that swept Europe and most of the rest of the world starting in 1347, killing more than one-third of the planet's population, was clearly one of them.

We are always seeing interesting analogies between current events and history. The famous quote from George Santayana, that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it, seems to prove itself true over and over again. One might have thought that the clear analogy here is between Ebola and the Black Death.

Not so.

What struck me on reading the book was rather the impact of the selling of indulgences, another 14th Century favorite.

In a Papal Bull of 1343 (stick with this), Pope Clement VI sanctified the 'theory of indulgences'. That is, that for enough money, you could essentially buy your way out of any sin or buy license to commit one. Want to have an extra-marital affair? Here's what it will cost. Want to cheat and steal in your business? Here's what that one will run you. It was all deemed perfectly legal. Constitutional, one might say.

Now, in the 14th Century, what everyone was after was Salvation (with a capital S). They were all looking to escape from there rather unpleasant prospect of eternity in hell - burning, torture, hanging by your genitals... you name it. And, if you could buy your way to salvation for a few hundred florins, all the better.

Today, no one cares much about Salvation (outside of parts of the Deep South, that is). Everyone's goal now is power... and fame. And how do you get power and fame today? Why, the same way you got Salvation in the 14th Century. You buy it. That, after all, is what Citizens United, the Supreme Court case was all about. Do the rich have an inherent right to buy as much power and fame (21st Century Salvation) as they want? Clearly, the answer was yes.

But now comes the interesting part.

What was the long-term impact of unlimited Indulgence purchasing (aside from a lot of nobles being able to bugger owls at their will)?

Well, as it turned out, one of the things people really liked to buy for themselves or their children was positions of power (like Senate seats or Congressional seats today).

But when you put them up for sale, what happened? Well, not surprisingly, you started to get a lot of really inept and incompetent people ending up in those positions of power - paid for by the rich. (See the analogy here slowly unfolding).

To quote Tuchman:

Priests who could not read or who, from ignorance, stumbled stupidly through the ritual of the Eucharist were another scandal. A Bishop of Durham in 1318 could not understand or pronounce Latin and after struggling helplessly with the world Metropoilitanus at his own consecration, muttered in the vernacular, "Let us take that word as read"... The unfit clergy spread dismay, for these were the men supposed to have the souls of the laity in their charge and be the intermediaries between man and God. Writing of 'incapable and ignorant men' who could buy any office they wanted form the Curia, the chronicler Henry of Hereford went to the heart of the dismay when he wrote "Look... at the dangerous situation of those in their charge, and tremble".

Ironically, not a lot has changed 700 years later.

Look around you at the people who are elected to public office, spending hundreds of millions, no, billions to essentially buy their seats. That, after all, is what all the money 'contributed' to candidates is for - to buy seats and power. Do you see any politicians who seem 'incompetent' yet seem to get elected year after year? Hands down.

It may have seemed reasonable to the Supreme Court that the rich should be entitled to buy as much influence as they wish. It is, after all, their money to spend as they like. Clement VI also figured that the rich should be able to buy as much Salvation as they could afford. It was, after all, their florins to spend as they liked.

Clement's idea didn't pan out too well for the Catholic Church in the long run. It annoyed a lot of people, like Martin Luther, who married his dissenting view to a brand new technology - the printing press, and so shattered the Christian world. There is probably another Martin Luther out there who thinks that this idea of selling political power to the highest bidder is also not such a great idea. And instead of the printing press, she or he now has the Internet. Let's see how this one goes.