Leo X’s Papal Bull Exsurge Domine
“We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on…” Martin Luther
On the 3rd of January 1521 Pope Leo X issued his Papal Bull of Excommunication Decet Romanum Pontificem against Martin Luther. The excommunication followed Luther’s publication of his three masterful works published in 1520 To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and On the Freedom of a Christian.
The excommunication was the second act of a three part drama. The first part began with Luther’s publication of the 95 Theses on October 31st 1517. That launched a series of actions by the Papacy in which various representatives were sent to bring Luther back into line. Failing this the last of the inquisitors, Johann Eck became Luther’s and other Reformer’s constant nemesis for the next 25 years.
In the summer of 1520 Eck brought back to Germany Leo X’s Papal Bull Exsurge Domine which attacked and condemned Luther’s writings, a prequel to the formal excommunication. Eck was not well received and Luther’s movement began to gain more traction especially among much of the nobility and among other theologians.
The message of the Bull was clear, Luther, his works and those who supported him or published his works were condemned. In part it read:
“…we likewise condemn, reprobate, and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin, whether in Latin or any other language, containing the said errors or any one of them; and we wish them to be regarded as utterly condemned, reprobated, and rejected. We forbid each and every one of the faithful of either sex, in virtue of holy obedience and under the above penalties to be incurred automatically, to read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish, or defend them. … Indeed immediately after the publication of this letter these works, wherever they may be, shall be sought out carefully by the ordinaries and others [ecclesiastics and regulars], and under each and every one of the above penalties shall be burned publicly and solemnly in the presence of the clerics and people.”
Luther burning the Bull
Luther who received a copy in October of 1520 reacted in kind noting: “Since they have burned my books, I burn theirs. The canon law was included because it makes the pope a god on earth. So far I have merely fooled with this business of the pope.”
Neither the Bull dealt with the substance of Luther’s teachings, instead they were both heavy handed missives of Papal primacy and punishment on those that disobeyed. The Bull of excommunication read in part:
“Nevertheless Martin himself—and it gives us grievous sorrow and perplexity to say this—the slave of a depraved mind, has scorned to revoke his errors within the prescribed interval and to send us word of such revocation, or to come to us himself; nay, like a stone of stumbling, he has feared not to write and preach worse things than before against us and this Holy See and the Catholic faith, and to lead others on to do the same.
He has now been declared a heretic; and so also others, whatever their authority and rank, who have cared nought of their own salvation but publicly and in all men’s eyes become followers of Martin’s pernicious and heretical sect, and given him openly and publicly their help, counsel and favour, encouraging him in their midst in his disobedience and obstinacy, or hindering the publication of our said missive: such men have incurred the punishments set out in that missive, and are to be treated rightfully as heretics and avoided by all faithful Christians, as the Apostle says (Titus iii. 10-11).
III. Our purpose is that such men should rightfully be ranked with Martin and other accursed heretics and excommunicates, and that even as they have ranged themselves with the obstinacy in sinning of the said Martin, they shall likewise share his punishments and his name, by bearing with them everywhere the title “Lutheran” and the punishments it incurs.
Our previous instructions were so clear and so effectively publicised and we shall adhere so strictly to our present decrees and declarations, that they will lack no proof, warning or citation.
Our decrees which follow are passed against Martin and others who follow him in the obstinacy of his depraved and damnable purpose, as also against those who defend and protect him with a military bodyguard, and do not fear to support him with their own resources or in any other way, and have and do presume to offer and afford help, counsel and favour toward him. All their names, surnames and rank—however lofty and dazzling their dignity may be—we wish to be taken as included in these decrees with the same effect as if they were individually listed and could be so listed in their publication, which must be furthered with an energy to match their contents.
On all these we decree the sentences of excommunication, of anathema, of our perpetual condemnation and interdict; of privation of dignities, honours and property on them and their descendants, and of declared unfitness for such possessions; of the confiscation of their goods and of the crime of treason; and these and the other sentences, censures and punishments which are inflicted by canon law on heretics and are set out in our aforesaid missive, we decree to have fallen on all these men to their damnation.”
It was an extraordinary and misguided document which failed to understand the significance of what was happening in the Church and in Europe. It was a document that echoes what every authoritarian structure does when challenged, it ignored the causes, it ignored the issues and simply condemned those involved. Instead of dialogue it chose retribution and destroyed the unity of the Western Church. Phillip Schaff, one of the great Church historians wrote about the Bull: “The bull of excommunication is the papal counter-manifesto to Luther’s Theses, and condemns in him the whole cause of the Protestant Reformation. Therein lies its historical significance. It was the last bull addressed to Latin Christendom as an undivided whole, and the first which was disobeyed by a large part of it.”
After his excommunication Luther appealed to Emperor Charles V who initially rejected it outright but reconsidered in light of the danger that the Empire faced if German states revolted. Charles invited Luther to the Diet promising him safe passage. The fact that Luther was able to appear at the council safely was in large part because of Elector Friedrich the Wise, his protector insisting that Luther not be imprisoned or outlawed without a hearing. Along the way Luther was greeted as a hero by townspeople, it was something like a victory parade.
When the hearings began the Archbishop of Trier asked Luther if he would recant his writings. Luther asked for time to consider and at 4 PM the following day was called back to the Diet, where before the Emperor and the Princes of Germany he stood alone.
The Archbishop demanded: “Explain yourself now. Will you defend all your writings, or disavow some of them?”
Luther provided a rather long answer regarding his writings, categorizing them and explaining them. Eventually the exasperated Archbishop asked: “Martin–answer candidly and without horns–do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”
Luther then gave the answer in German rather than Latin, which has reverberated nearly half a millennium:
“Since then your sere Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
Friedrich the Wise spirited Luther away in a staged “kidnapping” to the Wartburg Castle, allowing him to evade those that sought his life and to stabilize the Reformation in Germany.
I have always felt a closeness to Luther. He is one of my heroes. I recognize that he was neither perfect, nor do I agree with everything that he wrote or some of the things that he did. That being said, this very imperfect and often impetuous Monk, Priest and Professor is close to me. His “Theology of the Cross” makes more sense than others I have read, and his defense of the Eucharist was instrumental in my faith journey.
Luther, despite many in the Catholic Church who fight for him has not been “rehabilitated” nor the bans of excommunication removed. He has been called by some a “reluctant revolutionary.” I hope that Pope Francis will lift the excommunication despite the Roman tradition of not lifting such bans on those who have passed away.
Luther, like me was somewhat blunt, earthy and liked beer. In fact after Worms he wrote:
“I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And then, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip [Melanchthon] and my Amsdorf [Nicholaus von], the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a prince or emperor did such damage to it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”
In seminary Luther, his writings and theology were instrumental in coming to a catholic understanding of the the Christian faith. Now that understanding was much more interpreted in light of the Second Vatican Council and more progressive theologians such as Hans Kung, Bernard Haring and Yves Congar, but it was still catholic and a clean break from my Evangelical Protestant background and education.
Likewise, when I was ordained as a Priest in a more conservative Anglo-Catholic denomination in the mid 1990s I never dreamed that I would face a time where my writings would mark me as a “heretic” in the eyes of some in that church. Nor did I think that I would be told that I was “too liberal” and needed to leave that church. Before that I had been censured and forbidden from writing because I was “too Catholic” by another bishop. Like Luther I assumed that what I wrote and said were readily apparent. Since I have written extensively about that situation and don’t feel the need to go into detail here.
In 1996 I led a series of tours of Luther’s reformation sites in Germany, including Wittenberg, Heidelberg and Worms. I posed for pictures outside the door of the Castle Church as well as at the site where Luther gave his “Here I stand” speech. I was so familiar with the locations in Wittenberg that I was asked if I had ever been to them before. I could only say that I had never been there in person, but had been there many times in my mind. When at each location I felt a tremendous closeness to a man who had influenced so much of my spiritual journey.
As Luther wrote:
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”