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Luther and Heresy

Pope Leo X, age 37, a member of the great Medici family, became supreme pontiff in 1513, the year that Spain's Juan Ponce became the first European to sight Florida. And that year, Martin Luther, from Saxony in the Holy Roman Empire, was a young Doctor of Theology and member of the faculty at the University of Wittenberg. Pope Leo was a patron of the arts. He promoted the study of literature and poetry. Luther serious about his Christian faith, giving faith more importance than the intellectuality of reason.

Luther was among those who believed that it was by faith in Jesus Christ and God's grace that one was saved. In 1517 a priest arrived in Wittenberg selling indulgences for the sake of raising money for Pope Leo X. Indulgences involved salvation by another means: by payment in coin to a priest for relief from the guilt of sins, release from purgatory and assurance of a place in heaven. Luther responded with a letter to his Archbishop, asking the Archbishop to look at the propositions he had enclosed — the 95 theses that Luther is rumored to have also nailed to the door of the Wittenberg church — propositions that included Luther's opposition to indulgences. The Archbishop responded writing to Pope Leo.

Another disliking indulgences was Frederick III, the "Prince-Elector" of Saxony, whom Pope Leo looked upon with some favor. (Frederick was to be Pope Leo's candidate for Holy Roman Emperor in 1519.) Frederick had forbidden the sale of indulgences within his realm. But many were defying Frederick by crossing Saxony's border into neighboring Jüterbog or Thuringia to buy these indulgences. There were others who, like Luther, disliked seeing poor Germans giving up scarce coins that would go to Rome.

At first, Leo thought that Luther was raising a quarrel between the Augustinian and Dominican religious orders (most indulgence preachers were Dominicans), and he called on Luther’s superior to “soothe and quiet” him. But, in the spring of 1518, Luther went to press with pamphlets. Luther was using what dissidents in previous centuries had lacked: the printing press and a rise in literacy. Luther's writing went viral while those wishing to counter Luther's opinions had difficulty getting published, publishers having little interest in producing pamphlets for which there was little demand.

Luther was ordered to Rome to answer the charge within sixty days. His heresy was a denial of papal authority. Luther refused to leave Germany, claiming ill health and a fear for his safety. Although Leo could have enacted sterner measures against the recalcitrant monk, he chose the path of mercy and sent a personal envoy to meet with Luther and bring about his reconciliation.

Luther described the Church as its people. He announced that he was bound by Holy Scripture alone and that it was neither safe nor right for him to go against his conscience.

On June 15, 1520, the papacy ordered Luther's works burned, and the papacy gave Luther sixty days to recant to prevent his being excommunicated. After the sixty days passed, Luther was ordered to appear before representatives of the Pope and before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (also the King of Spain, whose subject Hernán Cortés was busy conquering Mexico). The meeting was scheduled for April 1521, at the town of Worms. On his way there, Luther passed through towns with jubilant crowds that had turned out to see him. At the meeting, Luther announced that he could not and would not recant anything, "for it is neither safe nor right," he said, "to go against conscience. God help me. Amen."

Charles V declared Luther a public outlaw and criminal, and he made it illegal to possess Luther’s books. Luther went into hiding in one of Frederick's castles, and there he began translating the New Testament from Latin into German, to make the Bible available to more people. Its first printing was in 1522.

Luther was appealing to the Holy Roman Empire's individual-minded middle class, the urban bourgeoisie, who were not inclined to accept childlike obedience to unreasoning authority. The bourgeoisie found Luther's belief in an individual's direct access to God attractive. They shared Luther's brand of discipline as opposed to the tradition of saintliness through poverty. With their help, Protestantism spread, while the Church maintained the loyalty of the aristocrats, the owners of estates and the more internationally-minded.

Christians with a variety of views were flocking to Luther's banner. There were those like Thomas Münzer who found no support for infant baptism in scripture and supported baptism only for believers. They were derisively called Anabaptists. Some others extended the rebellion to an advocacy of egalitarianism. Luther was unhappy about diversity in opinion. He was no defender of choice in religious conviction. He believed that God had spoken clearly and that no excuse existed for deviation. Truth for Luther was absolute and people who strayed from that truth were in error. Tolerance regarding religious ideas was not yet in fashion. Each dissenting group considered their dissent correct and others as straying from the Truth.

The Lutherans allowed their clergy to marry, making it possible for those women who had been the concubines or mistresses of priests to become honorable wives. In 1525, around the age of forty-three, Luther married a former nun, Katharina von Bora, and he was to father six children.

Arguments between the Lutherans and those who stayed with the Catholic Church continued. In keeping with the custom of debate in those times, spokesmen for the Church hurled vulgar epithets at Luther and his followers and Luther hurled epithets back. The Catholic intellectual Erasmus was an exception and limited himself to tempered observations. He saw Lutherans yielding no less to luxury, lust and greed than did Catholics, and he disliked the fanaticism that he saw in Lutheran evangelists. He held to the Catholic doctrine of free will, which some Reformers rejected in favor of the doctrine of predestination. Erasmus disliked some Catholics, but he said that "one bears more easily the evils to which one is accustomed."

Leo had died in December 1521, succeeded by Adrian VI, who held to the opinion that Luther was a heretic, and he was succeeded in 1523 by another Medici, Clement VII. It would be Clement who, in 1527, refused England's King Henry VIII to annul a marriage, which sent England and Scotland into the Protestant camp.


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