Luther’s Excommunication: 500 Years Later

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Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Church Thought / 24 February 2021


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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.

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