Early in 1518, Pope Leo X received information from Albrecht von Brandenberg about Luther's protest against the preaching on indulgences, including the fact that it was getting a considerable amount of traction in Germany. Leo took the obvious route, at least as far as we can tell; Luther was an Augustinian, and Leo was just installing a new Vicar General for the Augustinian Order, Gabriele della Volta, so he charged the new Vicar General with remonstrating with Luther, to try to get him to tone down his claims. It's unclear exactly what Volta did; we have no indication he wrote Luther himself, although that would be common, but he seems to have written Luther's confessor. But Luther by now had become an instant celebrity. Germany had about as high an opinion of the Italians as the Italians had of the Germans, which is to say, not much, and the heavily Italianate Roman Curia they regarded with suspicion. In addition, conciliarism had been popular in the German-speaking principalities, with the somewhat anti-papal edge that conciliarism sometimes had. The indulgence preaching, on the other hand, had been very unpopular. Students came from all over Germany to hear Luther speak. It was enough to start worrying the local Dominicans, and they also reported on Luther to Rome. In the meantime, a letter from Luther, probably encouraged by his superiors, arrived; it was polite, but it apologized for nothing, recanted nothing. Leo opened a preliminary inquiry, assigning investigators. So far everything had proceeded entirely routinely, at least on Rome's end. The primary complication was that the Elector of Saxony wanted any trial to occur in Germany, rather than in Rome. Cardinal Cajetan (who was the papal legate) and the Elector, while not being able to agree on this particular point, negotiated a compromise that might perhaps avoid a formal trial, by having Luther come before Cajetan; Leo agreed to this, and gave Cajetan the authority to decide the case. Luther would not back down, and appealed from the legate to the Pope; eventually Cajetan requested that the Elector send Luther to Rome (the Elector declined until he was more certain that Luther had actually taught heresy), at which point Luther began appealing from the Pope to a general council. All of this was reported back to Leo, who responded by promulgating a letter, to be read in churches, on the Catholic doctrine of indulgences.
While Luther's behavior was unusual, and the pope took an interest in the case, the process itself was relatively routine. Much more complicated, and consuming far more of the pope's time was the question of the imperial succession. In 1518, it was clear that Maximilian I was preparing his son, Charles, King of Spain, to succeed him, but Maximilian died very early in 1519. Besides Charles, the only other obvious candidate was Francis I, King of France. Both campaigned very hard, and some sources suggested that they did so in part with a steady river of bribes flowing toward the Electors. Neither was particular palatable to Leo, whichever one was chosen, would have to deal with a suddenly supercharged aggressive neighbor, either to the south, if Charles was chosen, or to the north, if Francis was chosen. At first, Leo looked to see if he could encourage the Electors in the direction of an alternative candidate -- perhaps one of themselves -- but when it became obvious that Charles had the upper hand, Leo decided to put his support behind Francis, deeming him the least bad of the two options. Eventually, Leo became convinced that the Electors would never vote for the French king, so he reverted to his previous plan and tried to back the Elector of Saxony. In the meantime, the pope's behavior had irritated almost all the Electors, including the Elector of Saxony, and they increasingly told that papal representatives that they had no business interfering with the process of the election. Charles won the election.
Through all of this, the question of Luther was wholly on the backburner. However Luther may have seen the matter, from the perspective of Leo everything involving Luther so far was nothing more than an interesting version of a rather routine process. The only definite problems that had been pinpointed were Luther's denial of the Treasury of Merits and his concomitant view that the pope had no authority at all to apply such merits in an indulgence; almost everybody was willing to grant that the theology of indulgences was in some ways obscure, so outside these two points, they were generally willing to leave the matter open. In addition, Leo seems to have had the impression for part of 1519 that Luther was near to recanting, and would eventually be in Rome to do so. In 1520, having received reports that indicated otherwise, Leo opened the inquiry process again, this time also including the Elector of Saxony, who had repeatedly failed to cooperate with attempts to move the process forward. Luther, meanwhile, was increasingly clear that he was breaking with the pope. In June, the pope published the bull, Exsurge Domine, censuring forty-one propositions in the Luther's writing, and issuing the penalty of excommunication for Luther if he did not recant within a certain period of the publication of the bull. It took time to publish the bull in Saxony -- the Germans were not at all cooperative -- but it was eventually done, and Luther, with his usual restraint, responded by writing a book, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist, and held a public bonfire where he burned copies of the bull.
It is not uncommon to treat Exsurge Domine as a significant point in the history of the times, but while this would be convenient historically, I think it can be safely said that it is not. The bull is often criticized for not giving the exact kind of censure it is applying to each proposition. It in fact does the opposite, explicitly declining to do so, and for good reason; its concern is not to analyze propositions but to clarify why Luther is in danger of being penalized and what Luther would need to do in order to avoid it (namely, recant any of the ones he had actually taught and apologize for any points at which he might have said things that led people to wrong impressions about what he taught). The bull is also often criticized for not explaining why each proposition is censured, or for ignoring the positive and substantive views of Luther, but these are absurd; Luther may have seen himself as debating the pope, but Pope Leo X certainly was not debating Luther. Luther's works had been investigated by commissions; serious concerns had been raised; he had been given chances to retract anything that could get him into trouble, and had rejected them; there was, on Leo's part, nothing more to be said. Luther's excommunication was not even based on his having taught certain things; it is based on his refusal to acknowledge that his teachings must be submitted to authority. It is possible that if Leo had had any inkling of what is to come that he would have put more care and preparation into the bull; as it was, he did not have prophetic foresight, and therefore treated the matter as what it would have seemed to him at the time to be: a professor had become a celebrity by saying edgy things and then had refused to acknowledge his responsibilities as a Christian and a professor to submit his teaching to the Church; the process of trying to convince him even to compromise had been long and drawn-out, and had failed; so his certification for preaching and teaching was being removed and he was being given one last chance before the more severe penalty of excommunication. It was not a trumpet-blast against the Reformation; it was not a declaration of theological war against Luther and his followers; it was not an entry in a theological debate between the hierarchy and the reformers. Quite the opposite; Leo saw himself as the reformer, saw Luther as the kind of thing that needed to be addressed by reforms (this was why he was interested in Luther's case to begin with), and was trying to handle the corruption being spread by the popular German professor peaceably but firmly with the minimum amount of intervention or interference. It was just one step in a process; the bull was a standard pause in the process to allow recantation before punishment and also to give the person being investigated a chance to show that they did not meet the final criterion for punishment, obstinacy or refusal to repent. And Luther's response definitely showed that he met that criterion. Since Luther did not recant or apologize, on January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther. Papal representatives in the region were told to stand firm against Lutheran appeal to any other authority, and to request the Emperor that he be handed over to Rome, but that if Luther himself showed any desire to appeal to Rome, they should give him any reasonable guarantee of safe-conduct he required.
From the perspective of the pope, what was far more serious than anything Luther did was the refusal of Frederick, the Elector of Saxony to cooperate. The Elector insisted that Luther should be tried before a jury of 'learned men' to assess whether he was really guilty of heresy. This, of course, was unacceptable to the papal nuncios; it would have been equivalent to saying that the papal bull had no authority. It became worse when he temporarily convinced the Emperor Charles to go along with the idea of a further trial. It may seem odd to us to attribute the Protestant Reformation to Frederick III, but in a number of important ways, it was Frederick, not Luther, who created an actual crisis. Certainly this is how it would have seemed to Rome at the time. The papal nuncios were able to convince Charles that, contrary to the impression he had received from the Elector, Luther had been given legal process; however, Charles was going to the Imperial Diet at Worms and, while he issue an order to cooperate, he was not inclined to do more until he had consulted with the Diet. And the Diet in fact rejected the proposal simply to hand Luther over, primarily because it might cause unrest. Instead, Luther was to be brought to the Diet to be given a hearing. Luther defended his views before the Diet, and when the examiner pointed out that some of Luther's claims had already been condemned by the Council of Constance, thus requiring the view that a general council should err, Luther agreed and said that he would have to be convinced either by plain reason or the Holy Spirit. The Emperor was horrified, and not long afterward publicly apologized for not doing something about Luther and his followers sooner. He would likely have tolerated a preference of Church council over pope, which was a common view; to reject the authority of a general council, particular the Council of Constance, which was held through much of the continent as the great platform for the fight to reform the Church, was an intolerable confession of corruption. The Diet was slower to come around, but they eventually did pass an edict against Luther.
In the meantime, there were other things of concern, and despite having considerably less than an affection for each other, Charles and Leo formed an alliance to deal with an increasingly aggressive France. With his usual tendency not to be public about things, Leo did not even mention it to anyone until the French invaded the Papal States, at which point he asked the College of Cardinals to support a possible treaty that in reality had already been signed, and then published it to the world. Learning about the treaty, Francis was furious and threatened to seize Rome itself. Pope Leo, in the meantime, interdicted France and turned his thought to how he might drive a wedge between Francis I of France and his most important current ally, Henry VIII of England. Good fortune in retaking Milan soon made the latter less important, however, as it led to a cascade of small but important victories. France was still fighting, but it seemed a good turn. Leo was overjoyed.
He was also ill, and did not feel well through much of the war. In the latter part of 1521, he had multiple severe bouts of fever, and suddenly died around midnight in the morning of December 1. Having been young when elected, he was only forty-six. There was widespread talk of his having been poisoned, but there is no evidence of this. He had always had some health problems and he had been repeatedly sick over the past year. After death, he was not widely commemorated; the treasury having been drained by expensive wars, the funeral was not lavish, and Leo had many enemies even among the College of Cardinals.
Leo was a man with a natural tendency to secrecy and to a careful guard on his privacy, characteristics that led even his allies sometimes to regard him as treacherous and underhanded, although his own view seems to have been that some things should be secret in the cause of peace. He was also very indecisive and inclined to handle problems by temporizing. This makes him a very difficult person to read. We do not know fully know many of his motivations. He lacks the brilliant cunning and ruthless force of will that characterized Alexander VI and Julius II, but it would be a mistake to regard his consistent reluctance to fight as incompetence or weakness; he was levelheaded and able to make good use of an opportunity, thus standing with them as a pope marking in some ways the high point of the Renaissance Papacy. Many of the criticisms brought against him show themselves to be hollow when examined. But things were afoot that no one had seen before.
The Renaissance was from its very beginning an Age of Reform. Reform is its dominant concern, and one of the things it had had difficulty working out is what exactly reform should involve when it came to the Church. By the reign of Leo X, however, the essential elements had fallen into place: general councils, crusade against the Turks, humanistic books-and-buildings evangelism, maintenance of the Papal States to keep the Church independent of the government of the European states. People had had disagreements about whether and to what degree these should be qualified, and what else should be added, but there had been broad agreement about these things. But now the Renaissance reformation met something which it had not met before, and for which it was not prepared: a politically well-placed counter-reformation. The rise of the Lutheran movement created a large body of reformers who did not care about, indeed, sometimes actively opposed, all of these things, and who had political protection. There is a reason why the thing that turned the government of the Holy Roman Empire against the Lutherans, despite the fact that the Empire was not particularly inclined to side with the pope, was Luther's rejection of the authority of general councils. Before Leo X, there was one movement of reform, with its variations. From now on out, the Renaissance will see a life-and-death struggle between two opposed and completely inconsistent families of approaches to reform, which, like the fight between the red dragon and the white dragon in the old Welsh legend, would topple every night the building of the day.
The problem the Renaissance reformation will have is that the Lutherans, whether due to the acumen of Luther or merely his good fortune in staking out a position, in divesting themselves of the commitment to general councils and to war against the Turks had thereby rid themselves of the two anchors around the neck of Renaissance reform. However they may have looked on paper, both had from the beginning been sinkholes. Everybody wanted to do both, but nobody really knew how to do either. Endless quantities of time, effort, and money had been poured into both, with even very anemic results only forthcoming due to a mix of papal genius and sheer luck. The Renaissance approach to reformation was better entrenched than the Protestant approaches to reformation of which the Lutheran approach was just the first, a fact that future popes would use, sometimes to very good advantage. But it would also be fighting its rivals with commitments that sapped its energy and slowed it down, whereas its rivals had no such disadvantages.
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