Luther’s Excommunication: 500 Years Later

Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Church Thought / 24 February 2021

Paid Article

On January 3, 1521, the Bull Decet Romanum Pontificem, declared Martin Luther a heretic and excommunicate for he had not made the retractions required by a previous Bull, Exsurge Domine, of 1520.[1] Since then, in the Catholic world, he has been identified as the heretic par excellence, the one who tore apart Christian unity and demolished the priesthood and religious life.

Why return after half a millennium to this excommunication? Unfortunately, its consequences continue to be felt and to generate suffering.[2] As a matter of fact, in Canon Law excommunication ceases with the death of the person condemned,[3] but in this case the effects have been much more lasting, for almost five centuries. It seems that the Bull “excommunicated” not only Luther, but also condemned the Reformation.

The steps that led to these historical consequences are based on several events that were instigated by both the Church and by Luther: first of all the 95 Theses of Wittenberg and the conversation with Cardinal Gaetano, then the excommunication, and finally the trial at Worms in April 1521.

The Wittenberg Theses: Seeking confrontation

For a long time Luther’s 95 Theses of October 31, 1517, were considered a challenge to the Church. This would be demonstrated by their posting on the door of the Wittenberg church of All Saints. The episode, despite the fact that many consider it historical, is a legend. This is not an insignificant detail, because it undermines the interpretation, handed down for centuries, of the posting as a sign of Luther’s rebellion against the Church. We discussed this at length five years ago.[4]

The theses are an appendix to a letter Luther wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, who was responsible for the preaching of indulgences in Germany, which would raise funds for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther, a priest and university lecturer, was concerned about what was happening: people were rushing outside the borders of the Electorate to buy indulgences for themselves and for the dead.[5] In Wittenberg, the elector Frederick the Wise had forbidden them, to prevent the money from going abroad or ending up in the coffers of the archbishop, his opponent.

This article is reserved for paid subscribers. Please subscribe to continue reading this article