Expert Answer Forum
Pope Leo X QUESTION from Rev. H. Wallace Hudson, Jr October 27, 2000 What was Pope Leo X agenda towards Martin Luther after the 95 Theses and the Heidelberg Disputation?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on November 2, 2000 Dear Reverend Hudson,
Pope Leo's agenda was to curb the spread of Luther's heresies regarding indulgences, penance and papal authority. Luther's ninety-five theses (posted at Wittenberg in October 1517) do not directly attack papal authority, but his criticisms imply that the pope does not have the power to grant indulgences, thereby attacking Catholic doctrine. Martin Luther assured his critics that he was a faithful son of the Church and to the papacy. He did not see how he could possibly be said to be questioning the papacy. This however, was to change.
Pope Leo got word of Luther's theses by early 1518. He summoned Luther to Rome and had his Master of the Sacred Palace, Sylvester Prieras, prepare a theological refutation of his errors. (The Master of the Sacred Palace was the Vatican's top theologian). Luther's good friend Spalatin petitioned the emperor Maximilian and Frederick of Saxony to request that the pope allow Luther to be judged in Germany. The pope agreed and dispatched Cardinal Cajetan to Augsburg, and he arrived in October 1518. Because of imperial politics, the pope and Cajetan had agreed to try to settle matters in a fatherly way rather than in legal manner. They knew that there would be an election for the new German emperor, and they really wanted Francis I of France elected rather than Charles V of Spain. And since Frederick of Saxony was both an elector and Luther's protector, they did not wish to unnecessarily alienate him and lose a possible vote for their candidate. Luther and Cajetan had a series of encounters, but Luther's friends heard rumours that the cardinal was about to arrest him. So they urged him to leave town, which he did in the middle of the night. On November 9, 1518, Pope Leo proclaimed that the doctrine of indulgences must be held on penalty of excommunication.
It was about this time that Luther began to harbour conscious doubts about the authority of the pope, and he began to suspect the pope of being the Anti-Christ. In May 1519 he published Luther's Explanation of Proposition Thirteen Concerning the Power of the Pope in which he argued that the papacy was not founded by Christ, but that it was owed reverence just as all human authority does. This thesis he defended at the famous Leipzig debate (July 1519). Luther was going down a slippery slope of denying papal authority completely and affirming the pope was the Anti-Christ. He was forced to admit that, according to his terms, Scripture was superior to a Church council, which of course meant that it had more authority than the pope.
Meanwhile, the new emperor, Charles V was elected a day after that Leipzig debate ended, so the Vatican no longer felt obliged to court Frederick and placate him. It was free to take a harsher stance against Luther. In 1520, Pope Leo appointed three theological commissions to examine the writings of Luther and render judgment. They also advised him on how to deal with him. Johann Eck, in the third commission, recommended a tough line, which is exactly what Luther got. On June 15, 1520, the bull Exsurge Domine was promulgated. It gave Luther sixty days to recant of all his errors or else he would face excommunication.
By this time, the issue of indulgences had gone to the background. The real issue was papal authority. Martin Luther wrote Against the Bull of the Anti-Christ in October 1520, showing what his true colours were with respect to the Church. He then burned the bull Exsurge Domine in December 1521.
Because of these errors, Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther on January 3, 1521.
The Heidelberg disputation, as far as I am aware, was more of a footnote than a main event. It occurred early on in the affair, around April/May 1518 when Luther attempted to convince his fellow Augustinians of his beliefs. It may have won over some disciples, but as far as the immediate events were concerned, there was no direct effect on the Lutheran crisis.
Thank you for your question.
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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