19. CAUSES of

 Desiderius Erasmus




A. Intellectual Causes








The Protestant Revolt in common historical parlance ushered in “Modern Europe.” Yet it was less a progressive reformation than a reaction to pagan naturalism in its secular aspect, while in its religious features it represented certain curious affinities for the Old Testament. In the pagan Renaissance was revealed openly and defiantly a latent attitude submerged since Christianity had won the Roman Empire and had brought the invading barbarians under its influence. Now this radical potentiality was stirred by some nostalgic yearnings of Humanists for the “Classical Age.” These led to a series of intellectual developments, gradually externalized in ecclesiastical and political history, which widened the breach begun by the “los von Rom” [free from Rome] movement of Bible Christianity into a bottomless pit of first a humanistic “Christianity,” then Rationalist Deism, followed by Agnostic Indifferentism, politely termed “Liberalism,” to terminate in blatantly atheistic Materialism. For the first revolt against the Vicar of Christ would in due time entail rebellion against Christ Himself, against Divine Providence, against God’s very existence; indeed, it would culminate in the antithesis of legitimate Humanism: a socialistic repudiation of man’s rational dignity.

Nature of theological Humanism. In the restricted theological sense here taken, Humanism, however, is not the cult of the liberal arts nor the study of the “humanities”; these are but by-products. Essentially,[p. 125] theological Humanism is a concentration upon man rather than on God, an overstress of the natural at the expense of the supernatural. It resulted in a world anthropocentric rather than theocentric, for the basic principle of Luther, Calvin, and Tudor was that man choose his religion for himself, instead of accepting a religion revealed and dictated by God. Luther’s superior-general, Giles of Viterbo, had well observed that “men should be changed by religion, and not religion by men.” Though the heresiarchs would not fully admit it, a corollary of their own subjective choice of religious truths would be a religion varying with individuals. A second principle of theological Humanism, then, became an individualism tending to anarchical subjectivism. Protestantism involved a desire to have the supernatural on one’s own terms, or failing that, contentment with the natural in the face of a divine invitation to the supernatural. Well were the initiators of this movement called “Protestants,” for basically they protested against too much subjection to God.

Genesis of theological humanism. Why did this attitude appear and attain such success? The history of the Renaissance with its rebirth of sensuality and scepticism has already supplied a partial explanation. Revival of pagan classics afforded a powerful inducement. License of thought and morals furnished ground for the germination of novel theological ideas. Yet examples are occasions rather than motives. Other more profound causes for the success of the Revolt must now be sought, without denying truth to the well-known estimate of the humanist Erasmus: “He laid the egg Luther hatched.”




The Scholastics were supposed to guard the outer theological defenses of the Catholic Faith. Against the revival of Humanism should have been opposed a new stress upon the supernatural, and to the irrationalist vagaries of the “Reformers” a sound philosophy ought to have been offered. But many Scholastics had forgotten the proper use of the powerful weapons at their disposal. They had deserted essentials for minutiae, and had obscured the proper interrelation of Faith and reason. Some Scholastics had adopted a stubborn and condemnatory attitude toward new ideas, or had ignored them instead of correcting or adapting them. This had been especially the case in regard to data of the physical sciences. In consequence, Scholasticism had been despised by renaissance scholars as completely outmoded. Had the hierarchy and the clergy been sufficiently aware that their arms had become blunted, they might have effected a thoroughgoing reformation of their intellectual resources. But they were lulled to sleep by the circumstance that some well-meaning but confused thinkers sapped the outer defenses of the Faith while refraining from any overt assault on faith itself. Instead [p. 126] of denying Catholic dogmas, Humanists usually claimed merely to criticize concomitant abuses; in place of contradicting clear propositions, they preferred to differ privately or mentally, presenting their own views under the guise of tentative academic theses with a routine profession of ultimate submission to authority. Many still had a healthy respect for the old theocratic censures, and even Luther hesitated momentarily before challenging the ancient “two swords” of Christendom, papal theocracy and the Holy Roman Empire. When, however, he did pull aside the veil, once he was sustained by the secular power, many crypto-heretics emerged from hiding. Christendom was already honeycombed with mental treason.

Scholastic doctrine, as generally presented to the youthful heresiarchs and their contemporaries, was unfortunately seldom the pure teaching of St. Thomas. Though the Angelic Doctor retained the allegiance of a restricted Dominican circle, his was scarcely the most popular or influential treatment. Instead, Nominalism in places had practically monopolized the title of Scholasticism. Though it had by no means received official sanction, it prevailed in universities increasingly secular. While Nominalists, no more than their humanist adversaries, were openly heretical, theirs was an insinuation of error by improper emphasis. With daring rationalism, Nominalists attenuated the supernatural order, hinting that reason might sometimes conflict with Faith. They minimized the effects of original sin, insinuating that grace was not entirely necessary. They speculated idly whether God’s existence could be proved by reason alone, and whether some rationalist theories of Christian mysteries, though against Faith, were not intrinsically more plausible. And the subtler the dialectical reasoning, the more brilliant the savant.




Moral reaction against the shameless sensuality of humanist secularism and the sterile quibbling of decadent Scholasticism soon appeared. A mystic school had endured in scholastic theology which had deprecated preoccupation with philosophy and stressed the ascetical aspects of theology. In this tradition had been the theologians of St. Victor, the Seraphic Doctor, St. Bonaventure, and more recently, the Brethren of the Common Life. Thomas à Kempis made many severe and legitimate criticisms of decadent Scholasticism in his popular Imitation of Christ. Much of this true mysticism was wholesome, and served as a useful counterpoise to speculation.

Mysticism, however, is a difficult and obscure field open to pitfalls. The difficulty of expressing contemplative experience in human language led to the use of metaphors susceptible of misunderstanding. [p. 127] Even though all did not reveal the latent Pantheism and Quietism of Meister Eckhart, others, such as John Tauler and Blessed Henry Suso, employed phrases that the unwary or the malicious might twist to their own destruction. Mystical theology, of course, could not be abandoned because some misused it, but in the undisciplined research of the universities not enough care was taken to prevent inquisitive and self-confident renaissance students from being misled by such material. Luther, in particular, was not so much influenced by the nominalist theology that he had been taught, as reacting against it and fortifying his stand with citations from mystic or pseudo-mystic works.

Pseudo-mysticism, then, was an important factor in the Revolt. Many theologians could not be persuaded to abandon St. Augustine for St. Thomas, nor Scotistic voluntarism for intellectualism. Yet St. Augustine was of all the Fathers the most vulnerable to misinterpretation, and the Subtle Doctor Scotus had been distorted by his own disciple, Ockham. Theologians of the pietistic or pseudo-mystic tendency thought that they did honor to God and the supernatural by exalting Faith at the expense of reason. Bradwardine had proclaimed theistic determinism, and John Mirecourt carried this opinion even to divine volition of sin. Nicholas of Cusa applied Eckhart’s principles of philosophy to reach an intellectual scepticism that could not but breed a voluntarist quietism. All this the devotees substantiated by specious passages from St. Augustine that denied human freedom and asserted the force of concupiscence. With the incautious revival of Platonism and neoplatonism, moreover, the way was open for aberrations that finally went as far as Pantheism. No need to tell such hardy inquirers that St. Augustine rightly interpreted was in substantial accord with St. Thomas, for many renaissance minds believed that they had discovered things unsuspected by men of the past. Generations of Christians could be utterly wrong, it seemed, as the man of the Renaissance confidently advanced to set the world aright.




B. Disciplinary Causes







The papal theocracy was the “Old Regime” to the Protestant Revolution. Papal primacy in Church and state was still acknowledged in theory, but at least in its latter prerogative practically disregarded. The failure of nationalist monarchs to pay more than lip service to the Sacerdotium and Imperium had been demonstrated in their indifference toward the Crusade, their cynicism regarding ecclesiastical admonitions or even censures, and their espousal of Machiavellianism by returning to large-scale civil war within Christendom. And theirs was no longer the ignorant and brutal violence of petty feudal lords, for the supposedly enlightened self-interest of these budding benevolent despots could  [p. 128] muster powerful physical force and dominate public opinion. And it must be said of the papal theocracy that, unlike the Old Regime of 1789, it exercised its control through moral rather than physical power. All that sustained it in its position as the acknowledged international court of Christendom was reverence for its spiritual primacy; should this be repudiated, the whole social order would be shaken. Though questioning of the temporal position of the papacy did not intrinsically involve rejection of papal spiritual leadership, distinction was not easy for a Europeon mentality which had so long fused and confused spiritual and temporal in the Christian Commonwealth, the unique “City of God.”

Preoccupation of renaissance popes with Italian politics contributed to this confusion, especially when viewed by an ultramontane clergy and laity subjected to a nationalistic monarch or propaganda. The ordinary means for securing moral unanimity in the Church on basic questions, the ecumenical council, had been rendered suspect by the abuse of the conciliar theory at Constance and Basle. The exercise, if not the very existence, of papal spiritual primacy had been challenged, and might be easily brought into question again. Hence, the frequent appeals of the heterodox, the rebellious, or the selfish scholar or ruler to the decisions of a “future general council” in order to evade present submission to papal authority. Finally, excessive compromise with the Renaissance by certain popes, either in their own lives or in the conduct of their subordinates, had failed to regain for the theocracy either the intellectual or the moral leadership that it had once enjoyed. The theocracy had been born of reform; now reformation would be tried in spite of it.




Clerical morality continued to invite revolt. A sufficiently large number of prelates and clerics were neglecting to counteract the charm of renaissance sensuality by exemplary lives. Some were even giving bad example, aping the Humanists themselves in immorality. Others were so devoted to secular pursuits and their own ease, that, although their personal character was beyond serious reproach, they had little care for their flocks. Enough has been said to indicate that disregard of clerical dress and clerical celibacy was common; that prelates like Hermann von Wied, archbishop of Cologne, paralyzed reform efforts—he said Mass but three times in his life, and those times dubiously, for he knew no Latin. George of Bavaria was fairly typical of imperial prince-bishops with his hoard of sees, abbeys, and canonries at the age of thirteen. For what they are worth, the moral statistics retailed by Father Hughes are worth consideration once more. It is rather significant that [p. 129] whereas between 1049 and 1274, there were seventy-four canonized bishops, only four secular prelates received this honor between 1274 and 1521. Again, of 150 saints or beati between 1378 and 1521, those from the mendicant orders numbered 115.1 Of course no statistics can measure the state of grace or God’s hidden workings, but these are at least in accord with the common rumor of contemporaries. It would seem that lay domination of the secular clergy was stifling sanctity, and that only a free clergy could be a holy one.

1. Philip Hughes, History of the Catholic Church (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1947) , III, 484.

Clerical wealth has been estimated in the German Empire as comprising a third of the total,2 although this must include those corporate possessions which were really held in trust for the social and charitable works of Christendom. But the income of the Roman curia from Germany, estimated at 220,000 gulders annually, far exceeded the imperial revenues. Prelacies and better benefices were monopolized by the nobility, leaving lesser clerics to constitute a “spiritual proletariat.” A majority of the 1,400,000 clerics and nuns were not concerned with parochial ministrations in Germany—in Breslau in 1500 two churches had 236 clerics attached! 3 Elsewhere, the sees of Rouen and Winchester had revenues of 12,000 florins, while Aquileia, Cologne, Mainz, Trier, Salzburg, Canterbury, and York had over 10,000. Some forty European sees had revenues in excess of 3,000 florins. On the other hand, the Italian sees, constituting about three hundred of the existing 717 sees in 1418, were comparatively poor.4 And it was the princely sees that were most in the public eye, had the greatest capacity for good, and proved the greatest temptation to avaricious men. Though the poor and sick were still benefiting by this wealth in clerical hands, many of the administrators were now regarded as useless parasites by lay plutocrats who, however, had little intention of assuming this public burden when they exclaimed: “Why cannot this be sold and given to the poor?”

2. Charles Poulet and Sidney Raemers, Church History (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1934), II, 3.

3.  Joseph Lortz, Die Reformation in Deutschland (third edition; Freiburg: Verlag Herder, 1949), I, 86.

4. Hughes, op. cit., pp. 539-40.




C. Political Causes







Dynastic nationalism was the dominating trait of the political scene. This was the nationalism of royal families striving to make each state its own ultimate norm. This type of nationalism had been developing during the Renaissance; by the time of the Protestant Revolt, the process was virtually complete in England, France, and Spain. What contributed [p. 130] to its rise was the failure of the feudal nobility. Feudalism had at length degenerated into a nobility of privilege rather than of service. National monarchs, assisted by an alert and ambitious bourgeoisie, were taking over many of the nobles’ military and governmental functions, in the countries just indicated. But the nobles, deprived of their reason for existence, still exacted feudal dues from their serfs, for though reduced to a subordinate position, they were still too powerful to be destroyed. They, too, were a sort of parasite, but a very dangerous one. Though generally worsted in their struggles with the kings, they had not yet abandoned all hope of recovering their position. As courtiers plotting against the throne they could disturb, if not overthrow, national stability, and to placate them the monarchs left them social and proprietary privileges. They were apt for revolutionary teachings, avid of ecclesiastical wealth to bolster their own waning prestige and power. And in Germany, where the Holy Roman Empire had hindered the formation of national political unity, the magnates had become local despots at the expense of lesser lords and knights. Selfish advocates of “states’ rights” against national and international unity, they ensured that the religious revolt would produce a disruption of Christendom.

Anticlerical nationalism proceeded from this same spirit of antagonism toward supranational institutions. No organization was more international than the Catholic Church. As long as prelates, clergy, and laity recognized a spiritual primate outside the homeland’s borders, as long as the Church possessed its own language and literature, law and courts and taxing machinery, no national monarch nor local dynast could become what he longed to be, sole fountain of authority. It is natural, then, that various rulers would regard a new religion which would submit to their dictation as a potential ally, first to frighten and then to defy the theocracy. They might embrace it themselves or toy with the notion of forming a schismatical church.

Royal Absolutism was by far the prevalent theory, although in the form of one man acting as the personification of the state. Machiavelli had proposed a sketch of an absolute monarch responsible merely to his interpretation of the divine will, superior even to the moral law in “state questions,” acting from enlightened self-interest to impose his will upon his subjects by any means that might serve that end. Christian kings had already begun to resort to Machiavellianism in practice; only that very monarchical and yet democratic institution, the Catholic Church, stood in the way of open avowal. Having proceeded far toward controlling men’s bodies and goods, national despots aspired to dominate their minds as well. Gladly would they welcome Luther’s assertion that a “prince may be a Christian, but he should govern, not as a Christian, but as a prince.” This was virtually to make of the ruler a pagan [p. 131] or Moslem potentate. Abdication by Luther and Cranmer of ecclesiastical independence proved most welcome to unscrupulous princes who were to devise the slogan: cujus regio, ejus religio. And those rulers whose piety or interest barred them from apostasy, were prone to demand as a price of loyalty nearly equivalent disciplinary and financial autonomy from Rome. Many reformers called upon Caesar; and to Caesar, willingly or no, they were soon obliged to go.




Commercial advance was stimulated by the discoveries which opened new fields for exploitation. The lure of immense riches put further strain upon the ecclesiastical prohibitions of usury and profiteering, and the scramble for colonies disregarded papal efforts at mediation. The missionaries, it has been seen, found their work prejudiced by the impression created among the natives by greedy or tyrannical merchants, planters, or slave drivers. When Protestantism extended an indirect blessing to the new capitalistic order in Europe, many merchants and bankers and producers were readily persuaded to seek pretexts for religious change.

Ecclesiastical wealth would appeal to the same class as prospective loot. Princes, nobles, and burghers coveted property which, they felt, would bring greater returns under more efficient secular management. Such efficiency usually involved repudiation of the charitable uses to which the vested capital of sees and abbeys was still devoted with reasonable fidelity. And once confiscation had taken place in deliberation or in passion, an entrenched class of newly rich proprietors would find possession doubly sweet. They would be inclined to offer tenacious opposition to any restoration of the Catholic religion, which maturer deliberation might dictate on purely religious or moral considerations. Such men, reluctantly sometimes, but nonetheless surely, would sell their religion for gain.

Serfdom in many countries, notably in England and in Germany, had been giving way to a system of tenant farmers. But accompanying, if not precisely caused by the religious rebellion, agrarian uprisings were staged which proved unsuccessful. The enclosure movement began in England in favor of the landlords and capitalistic herders; in Germany and Denmark, peasant risings were suppressed by the magnates and serfdom reimposed. Perhaps one hundred thousand Germans had been slain. In both urban and rural districts, therefore, the religious revolts were accompanied by developments prejudicial to the economic interests of the majority.

Plutocracy. The assertion, “the Reformation was the rising of the rich against the poor,” therefore, contains a certain amount of truth. Though [p. 132] the great financial houses of the sixteenth century, the Medici and Fuggers, remained in the service of the Catholic Church, it might be argued that they were more of a liability than a help. The guilds were in a state of decline and became price-fixing and labor-regulating tools of the masters of capital. Secularism and more secularism was the progressive outcome of a society where economic interest readily became paramount. Such a society was diametrically opposed to the social spirit of Christianity. Luther’s revolt, followed by the staggering blows dealt by Calvin and Tudor, placed the Catholic Church on the defensive, forced her to adopt quasi-martial law, and obliged her to concentrate upon survival of her essential spiritual mission. Survive and reform she did, but for centuries she was denied a regulatory or even influential place in public life—to the loss of the poor and the lowly.





  Emperor Charles V




A. The Imperial Colossus








The empire of Charles V amply vindicated Wyndham Lewis’s designation of its master as “Charles of Europe.5 “For at the height of his power, Karl von Habsburg was Holy Roman Emperor, king of Germany, Italy, and Burgundy, king of Spain and the Two Sicilies, prince of the Netherlands, archduke of Austria, lord of both Americas. As head of the imperial dynasty he enjoyed influence over relatives: his brother Ferdinand was king of Hungary and Bohemia; his wife Isabella was princess of Portugal; his son Philip became for a time king-consort of England, and his sister Isabella was briefly queen of the Scandinavian Union of Kalmar. In Western Europe, only France lay outside his orbit.

5. D. B. Wyndham Lewis, Charles of Europe (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1931), Title.

Charles’s effective power, however, was considerably less than what one might imagine from this array of possessions. As Holy Roman Emperor, he was titular suzerain of Christendom, but only his dynastic possessions gave any substance to his prerogative. Though king of Germany, he had little real power over the territorial magnates. Despite his control of the richest industrial area of the Old World, the Netherlands, and his imports of treasure from the American New World, the emperor was seldom, if ever, out of debt; usually his revenues were pledged or mortgaged far in advance to the Fuggers or other financiers. The Spaniards might be the leading soldiers of the day, but they were averse to fighting foreign wars. But even when these and other liabilities are discounted, Charles’s prestige was immense and his influence formidable as ruler of the first “empire on which the sun never sets.” [p. 133]


Karl von Habsburg (1500-58) was born at Ghent, son of Philip and Juana of Castile, grandson alike of Emperor Maximilian and of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. He received a good education, Adrian Dedel, later Pope Adrian VI, acting as one of his tutors. He grew up reserved, taciturn, energetic, and determined, though reasonable and penetrating in judgment of men. Magnanimous and cultured, he did not lack a quiet and subtle humor. Tenacious of what he believed to be his rights, he remained modest and had some genuine humility. His Catholic faith was firm, and he was prepared to sacrifice all for it. His morality was not faultless, though he was ever faithful to his wife, that Empress Isabella whose beauty and charm so impressed St. Francis Borgia as courtier. To the ideal of a united Christendom Charles applied excellent talents of administration, shrewd diplomacy, and at times competent personal leadership in battle. In good faith he often erred by Caesaro-papism and excessive compromise, but he did persevere in the Catholic Church against what Napoleon in retrospect would judge his own political interest. Neither saint nor ogre, but above the average renaissance morality, he ended up a sincere penitent. Having come closest, perhaps, to “gaining the whole world,” he yet failed to create a European unity, though he did preserve his inherited territories intact. He failed to suppress Protestantism, but saved Catholicity from a destruction that, humanly speaking, seemed inevitable. Finally he gave the world a rare example of voluntary abdication, and “did not suffer the loss of his own soul.”


International unity bulked large in Charles’s plans. He was medieval enough to cherish the ideal of the Holy Roman Empire, and realistic enough to acknowledge that it remained but a “shadow” of its former self. But he dedicated the inherited resources of his fortunate legacies to infuse new life into the ancient institution. This infusion proved no lasting cure, but imperial majesty was prolonged so that Charles V may be considered the last emperor in fact as well as in name.

Catholic defense. Charles considered a duty incumbent upon him in virtue of his position as temporal head of Christendom. He quickly declared for the religion of his forefathers, and rejected what he deemed the presumption of an apostate monk in opposing his judgment to the views of a thousand years of Christendom. To this cause he pledged in knightly fashion all that he had, and if he was not above calculation and occasional niggardliness in execution of his vow, he did remain faithful to its substance until death. [p. 134]


The Turks under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-66) were then at the height of their power, and made their supreme offensive on land and sea during the sixteenth century. As has been noted, the emperor checked them on land before Vienna, and by his raid on Tunis prepared for his sons’ victory at sea: Lepanto (1571) . But defense was the most that Charles could manage, and the recurring Mohammedan menace proved to be a major obstacle to his suppression of Lutheranism.

German magnates, jealous of their local autonomy, either supported Luther or were lukewarm in the repression of heresy, lest imperial power be enhanced by effective police action. Once Charles overcame them on the battlefield, but eventually was betrayed by the treason of Maurice of Saxony.

The Valois dynasty in France, dreading the absorption of their realm into the encircling Habsburg dominions in Germany, Italy, and Spain, attacked Charles no less than five times. The emperor held his own, recovered Lombardy, and during the last year of his life heard of the French rout at St. Quentin, which confirmed Spanish ascendancy for a century. But by their alliances with both the Turks and the German Lutherans, Kings Francis I (1515-47) and Henry II (1547-59) made impossible the preservation of the religious and political unity of Christendom.

The Tudors in England weakly and inconsistently seconded the Valois and added to Christendom’s trials the fostering of both schism and heresy. English military intervention was minor and her naval power not yet developed, but Wolsey and Henry VIII did inaugurate something of the modern British diplomacy of balance of power on the Continent. Charles won a personal victory over Henry VIII by establishing the Catholic Mary and his own son Philip on the English throne. It was no fault of his that Elizabeth apostatized after his death, and Philip allowed himself to be taken in by her artful diplomacy.

B. The Imperial Burden

(1) DEFENSE OF ITALY (1515-30)

Francis I of France opened a half century of Habsburg-Valois conflict in 1515 by invading northern Italy. Victorious at Marignano, he acquired the imperial fief of the Milanese, key to Lombardy, and communications link between the Habsburg dominions in Spain and Germany. In 1516 Francis used his position to wrest from Pope Leo X the Concordat of Bologna, giving him control of French ecclesiastical patronage. Charles, who became king of Spain in January, 1516, felt obliged [p. 135] to acquiesce for the time being in the French conquest at the Peace of Noyon (1516) .

Charles I of Spain (1516-56) was at first occupied in securing possession of his kingdom, threatened by a serious uprising of the comuneros until 1523. At the death of Emperor Maximilian (1519), Charles, Francis, and Henry VIII of England became candidates for the imperial throne. The pope supported Francis in an effort to offset Habsburg preponderance, but German patriotic sentiment, fanned by Humanists and knights—and Fugger credit—prevailed on the Electors to choose Charles, June 18, 1519. Francis and Henry pondered an alliance at the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520), but Charles, pausing in England en route to Germany, won his uncle-in-law to adhere to benevolent neutrality. Crowned king of Germany at Aachen in October, 1520, Charles V called the Diet of Worms for the following spring. When the Diet or Reichstag convened, Charles rejected Luther’s appeal and placed the heresiarch under the ban of the empire. But the magnates displayed no zeal in executing the ban, and Charles was recalled to Spain by a critical phase of the Spanish disaffection. Deputizing his younger brother Ferdinand to act as his regent in Germany, Charles for a decade concentrated upon his Spanish and Italian problems.

The Milanese contest (1521-26) arose out of Francis’s desire to annex Navarre and Naples. But Charles’s troops completely turned the tables by recapturing the Milanese (1522), and Francis was defeated and captured at Pavia in leading a counterattack (1525) . The king of France was released on his word of honor to preserve the peace; if he did not, he admitted, “hold me a worthless cad.” He proved to be a cad nevertheless and resumed the war, though without success. Meanwhile the Peasants’ Revolt in Germany and the Turkish victory over the Hungarians at Mohacs (1526) threatened central Europe.

Sack of Rome. Clement VII, another Medici, allied himself with King Francis to his own misfortune. For in 1527 Charles V’s unpaid troops mutinied under the French deserter, the duke of Bourbon, and compensated themselves by seizing Rome. Presence of Lutherans among the German contingents added to a desecration and destruction that shocked Christendom. Though Charles had not authorized the attack, he found himself the pope’s captor. He was not averse to extorting political concessions from Clement VII, but the situation enabled Francis I and Henry VIII to pose as liberators. Fortunately pope and emperor reached an understanding on their own, which was confirmed on Charles’s birthday by his imperial coronation at Bologna in 1530. It was the last papal coronation of an emperor-elect, and Charles was technically as well as practically “last of the emperors.” For the moment, [p. 136] Francis’s mother, Louise of Savoy, arranged a peace which confirmed Italy in Spanish possession for centuries. Charles V was now at last free to deal with Germany.

(2) GERMAN RECKONING (1530-47)

Lutheran stalemate. At the Diet of Augsburg, June, 1530, the emperor personally appeared and overruled Ferdinand and the magnates who wished to prolong the suspension of the ban against the Lutherans. These had already “protested” against Charles’s anticipated intransigence, and now formed the Schmalkaldic League of “Protestant” princes to resist enforcement by force of arms. Headed by Luther’s protector, Elector John of Saxony, and Philip of Hesse, a good general, the League was a serious danger in itself—even if it had not been abetted by Francis of France. Charles was disposed to attack notwithstanding, when news arrived that the Turks, whom he had already beaten back from Vienna in 1529, were again advancing in force. The emperor had no choice other than to postpone hostilities against the Lutherans by the Truce of Nuremburg, July, 1532, which left the religious status alone pending a still unsummoned ecumenical council. Then Catholics and Lutherans alike enlisted for the Balkan expedition. Actually,’the Turkish and French perils to his dominions would prevent Charles from terminating the Truce of Nuremburg before 1544.

Anti-Moslem crusade. Charles marched against the Turks, who, after a defeat, retreated rapidly. Austria and part of Hungary were saved, but the emperor dared not invade the Balkans with his heterogeneous army. Instead he used his reliable Spanish troops to deliver a blow in another area. In 1535 Charles and Admiral Andrea Doria stormed and captured Tunis, freed Christian captives, and temporarily relieved the pressure of the Barbary pirates in the western Mediterranean. But another raid on Algiers (1541) proved a failure.

French defeat. Charles had just returned from Tunis when Francis declared war for the fourth time. After an indecisive contest (153638), Charles offered generous terms of peace in order to allow him to put down a revolt in the Netherlands, heavily taxed to support the imperial expeditions. This done (1540), Charles V was about to turn his attention to Germany when Francis opened his fifth and last war (1541-44) . Charles this time marched to the Marne, thirty-six miles from Paris, and extorted from the frightened Francis a peace, which death prevented him from breaking again.

Imperial dies irae.” Now like a star halfback bottled up until the final quarter, Charles ran wild at last over the isolated Schmalkaldic League. In June, 1546, Charles had repromulgated the ban, and when the League defied it, mustered inferior imperial forces against the fifty-seven thousand [p. 137] Leaguers. But personal leadership by the emperor and the duke of Alba disrupted the forces of the League, which were brought to bay at Mühlberg, less than forty miles from the Lutheran center of Wittenberg. Surprising the Lutherans by forced marches, the imperialists charged across the river and routed them in an all-day battle, April 23, 1547. Charles, twenty-four hours in the saddle, announced: “I came, I saw, and God conquered.” Presently he rode into Wittenberg a year too late: Luther had died the preceding year. Asked to have the body disinterred, Charles retorted: “I war against the living, not the dead.” But the League was also dead, John Frederick of Saxony deposed, and Philip of Hesse in prison. At the Diet of Augsburg, September, 1547, the cowed rebels submitted and promised to accept the decrees of the Council of Trent which had at last opened its sessions in December, 1545.


Papal-imperial dissension robbed Christendom of the fruits of victory. Paul III had two grievances against Charles. The first was his justifiable dread of a dominant Habsburg Caesaro-papism that had already meddled in conciliar transactions. The second was an unjustifiable antipathy toward Charles because Paul’s illegitimate grandson had been killed in a petty attack on the Milanese. Instead of pressing forward negotiations with the Lutherans, Paul suspended the council and opened talks with Henry II of France, whose conciliar meddling had at least equaled that of Charles V, since he had prevented the attendance of the French hierarchy. But at Augsburg, Charles V, like another King Saul, sensed that the people were slipping away from him while he awaited the belated high priest. His exasperation is understandable; still, neither Saul nor Charles were justified in usurping priestly functions. In May, 1548, Charles upon his own authority issued the Interim of Augsburg which, pending conciliar decision, allowed the Lutherans to retain a married ministry and communion under both species. Although even the pope had spoken privately “off the record” of the expediency of making some such disciplinary concessions, Paul III was legitimately angered to see his consent presumed.

Lutheran escape. After Paul III’s death, his successor, Pope Julius III (1550-55), recalled Trent and even took the Interim under advisement in friendly correspondence with Charles V. But it was too late. Maurice of Saxony, who had first deserted the Lutherans to gain the electorate from Charles’s hand, now reached a secret understanding with Henry II of France. Simultaneously in 1551 they attacked. Both Charles and the Council of Trent narrowly escaped capture, and the Lutheran magnates were emboldened to retake the field. Charles and his brother Ferdinand rallied to the extent of restoring something of the Catholic position prior  [p. 138] to Mühlberg, but all hope of immediate suppression of Lutheranism had vanished and imperial supremacy was shattered. Weary and sick, Charles V allowed his brother who was already king of the Romans, to negotiate the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. For the moment it is enough to note in this brief political preview that this divided Germany between Catholic and Lutheran princes, according to the norm, cujus regio ejus religio. Though Charles refused the pact his formal approbation and withdrew from direct control of German affairs, this halfway compromise came into effect by default. It was perhaps the best that Catholics in Germany could have expected for that century, and the arrangement endured precariously until 1618.

Imperial twilight. Charles V, who had long realized that the responsibilities of his imperial and dynastic position were excessive for one man, had prepared a division of his dominions. According to the arrangements of 1555-56, his brother Ferdinand was to inherit the AustroBohemian-Hungarian territories, with the titles of king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor—actually technicalities prevented Charles’s formal resignation as emperor until the spring of 1558. Thus arose the line of Austrian Ilabsburgs which, with its Habsburg-Lorraine continuation, ruled in Vienna until 1918. To his son Philip (II) , Charles V made over the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and its American possessions. Even after his retirement to the monastery of Yuste in Spain (1556), Charles V remained the supreme Habsburg political mentor until his death. His last efforts were directed to the recovery of England through the accession of Mary Tudor, to whom he married his son Philip II. For his own lifetime the Catholic restoration was effected. It is interesting to speculate on the course of Christian unity had England, germ of the United States and the British Commonwealth, been permanently regained for the Catholic Church. During his years of retirement the last of the Valois-Habsburg Wars was victoriously brought toward its conclusion by the Spanish victories of St. Quentin (1557) and Gravelines (1558) . Charles V ended the life that at abdication he had termed “one long voyage” on September 21, 1558, after piously receiving the last sacraments. At least one panegyrist was found: St. Francis Borgia, who had known Charles both as courtier and Jesuit, wrote: “We have seen the end of the greatest man in the world.”





 Augustinian Friar, Martin Luther




A. Antecedents








The German Reformation is to a great extent Martin Luther.”6 Martin Luder (1483-1546), son of Hans Luder and [p. 139] was born at Eisleben, Saxony on November 10, 1483. Luther ever manifested the coarse traits of the medieval Saxon peasant in his speech and manner. His parents did not spare the rod, but their puritanical cruelty is reported to have antagonized their son: “One day my father beat me so mercilessly that I was frightened and ran away from home. I was so embittered against him that he had to win me to himself again. And once my mother, on account of an insignificant nut, beat me till the blood ran.” Martin may have been fortunate enough, for it was said that Hans once slew a man in anger. Margaret was pious, but gloomy: “We grew pale at the mere thought of Christ, for He was represented to us as a terrible and angry judge.” 7

6. Margaret Ziegler, Lortz, op. cit., p. 148.

7.Hartmann Grisar, Luther (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1914), I, 3-9 ff.

Education. Hans Luder began as a poor miner but eventually prospered. Martin’s early training in the schools was a repetition of his home discipline, unless we are dealing with a persecution complex: “I was beaten fifteen times in succession during one morning at school, to the best of my knowledge without any fault of my own.” About his fourteenth year he received some instruction from the Brethren of the Common Life at Magdeburg, where for a time he begged bread by singing from door to door. A year later he went to Eisenach for Latin studies, and was befriended by a charitable woman, Ursula Cotta. By 1501 his father’s circumstances had so far improved that Martin was sent to Erfurt University to study the arts and law. The environment was immoral; whether Luther shared in this depravity is not certainly known, though once he seemed to admit as much to Emser.

Monasticism. At twenty Luther fell ill from excessive study, and during convalescence got tangled up in his sword, nearly killing himself. He attributed his escape to the Blessed Virgin. Then a friend’s death in a duel shocked him, and while still in this mood was terrified by a severe storm. When a bolt of lightning struck near by, he reported that he vowed: “St. Anne, save me, and I’ll become a monk.” Against his father’s doubts as to the genuine nature of his vocation, Luther fulfilled his pledge on July 17, 1505, by entering the Erfurt convent of the Augustinian Order. A year later he made his vows as “Friar Augustine.” The new religious had already received a master’s degree and was now rapidly advanced. On April 3, 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood, although he had scarcely begun theology. Overwhelmed by fear of rubrical error, he delayed his first Mass a month and then had to be restrained from leaving the altar. His father, grudgingly present, again voiced an opinion that Martin’s monasticism was a delusion. After some eighteen months of theological study, Luther was sent to Wittenberg University to study Scripture and to lecture on philosophy. In 1509 he received a bachelor’s degree in Scripture and commenced lectures on [p. 140] the Sentences of Peter Lombard. Finally on October 18, 1512, he was accorded a doctorate in theology and assigned to teach Scripture at Wittenberg in succession to his provincial, Father Staupitz, at the beginning of the following year.


Scrupulosity is the first marked trait in Luther’s character. His vocation seems to have partaken of the superstitious, and once a monk, Luther remained scrupulous over his confessions, repeating them continually until his novice master reminded him: “Recall the article of the Creed: I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Recurring terrors seized him. Besides the incident of his first Mass, it is alleged that during a reading of the Gospel of the man possessed, he fell on the floor, exclaiming: “It is not I; it is not I.” Scrupulosity reappears in his concern for emotional assurance of salvation. But it would be erroneous to consider Luther as ever beset with scruples, for he seems to have left his worries behind him whenever he plunged into active work. By reaction his conscience became, if anything, lax.

Colossal egotism was deeply rooted. From the first he was a glib, caustic lecturer, given to scurrilous and bitter attacks upon others, infallibly interpreting their motives, seeking laughs by vulgar or even obscene jokes. Later he poured forth unrestrained abuse, obscenity, and filth against the papacy, the bishops, and priests; against anyone, even of his own party, who opposed him. His rhetoric was heavy, vulgar, exaggerated, repetitious, for he wrote or spoke hastily on the spur of the moment or in the grasp of passion. Vain and jealous, he easily yielded to flattery. When he avowed faults, it might be accompanied with comparisons to those of the saints. At the height of his power he was dictatorial: “Dr. Martin Luther, God’s own notary and witness of His Gospel.... I am the prophet of the Germans.... I understand the Scripture a great deal better than the pope and all his people... . Not for a thousand years has God bestowed such great gifts on any bishops as He has on me. . . . I am not far behind many of the fathers.” 8

8 Ibid., IV, 327 ff.

Congenital lying is manifest before and after his break with the Church. Though some of his lies may have been the consequence of gradual self-deception, many more were clearly deliberate. He forged papal documents and misrepresented Catholic doctrine: “No pope, father, or bishop ever preached Christ; the Church taught that all were saved through Aristotle; that works alone counted; in the Church there was no personal contact with Christ, but all went through the hierarchy; the popes forbade marriage and considered it sinful.” To be [p. 141] sure, Luther was an expansive and voluble speaker who often used hyperbole and exaggeration. Yet convicted to his face of falsehood on several occasions, he merely poured forth loud torrents of abuse. He scrupled not to give contradictory advice and then later deny responsibility, as in the case of Philip of Hesse’s “dispensation” for bigamy.9

9 Ibid., II, 80 ff.

In general, judged by his own words alone, Luther’s character left much to be desired—though allowance must be made for his bravado and bombast. When one has enumerated his lack of avarice that endeared him to the common people, his bluff, hearty good-fellowship, his rough good humor when not vexed, his good qualities are nearly exhausted. Mentally he was brilliant, but superficial: a frenzied student, he later abandoned profound study and coasted easily on ready eloquence. A pioneer, if not the creator, of good modern literary German, he boggled not at slipshod or dishonest principles of translation in his version of the Bible. He was a man of little prayer, and that without resignation to the divine will. He preached mortification, but did not practice it after his break with the Church. As a monk, his self-description of excessive penances is contradicted by the testimony of fellow monks. Luther seems externally to have been an average monk, neither the saint of his own imaginings nor the demon of contemporary Catholic controversialists. It is greatly to be feared that he stifled his conscience in 1521-22, 1527-28, and 1537. At these times he fought what he describes as “temptations” which, he says, were violent at first and in later years ebbed away, though leaving a recurrent melancholy. It is not for the historian to examine Luther’s conscience; here it may merely be remarked that Luther reported the gist of these “inner voices” as follows: “Who called upon you to do things such as no man ever did before? . . . You are not called. . . . Even though the papacy be not without its sins and errors, what about you? Are you infallible? Are you without sin? . .. See how much evil arises from your doctrine.... Are you alone wise and are all others mistaken? Is it likely that so many centuries were all in the wrong? . . . It will not be well with you when you die. Go back, go back; submit, submit.” 10

10 Ibid., II, 79; V, 319 ff.

B. Lutheran Teaching


Predispositions. Though the humanism of Erfurt and theological nominalism of Occam, D’Ailly, and Biel were important negative influences against which Luther reacted, pseudo-mysticism furnished the chief positive impulse. From Tauler and other mystics Luther drew quietist conclusions that the spiritual man ought to await grace by faith [p. 142] alone without resort to prayer or good works. He interpreted his own scruples as some sort of “dark night of the soul”; his belittling of “pharisaic” external good works became “docility to the Holy Ghost”; his sweeping repudiation of any intrinsic justification of the human soul was his interpretation of Tauler’s Deus omnia in nobis operatur. Much also he drew from an anonymous tract, Theologia Deutch, which he erroneously attributed to Tauler. Luther deemed St. Augustine’s treatise, De Spiritu et Littera, not as contrasting inward grace, spiritus, with exterior, littera; but as teaching an absolute opposition between grace and faith to external good works.

Inadequate guidance by his provincial, Johann von Staupitz, prevented Luther from recognizing the errors into which he was falling. Staupitz himself was a Humanist, pious enough, inadequately trained in theology, imprudent and vacillating, and burdened with a thousand cares of office. Luther became his protégé: apparently Staupitz pushed the brilliant young monk through his course, dismissed his doubts blandly, resigned his scriptural professorship to the neophyte, promoted him to the second dignity in the province, that of rural vicar, and repeatedly defended or excused him to higher authorities. Although Staupitz never left the Church and was subsequently disillusioned about Luther, he long served as a buffer between the rebel and premature correction. He permitted Luther to undertake a multitude of labors beyond his emotional strength, and presently Luther was simultaneously lecturing on Scripture in the University, preaching in the parish church, supervising the rural houses, writing tracts and carrying on academic controversies. Luther admitted that in this hyperactivity he seldom found time any longer for saying his Mass or divine office: he was becoming physically wasted and nervously tense.

The Observantine quarrel seems to have been Luther’s point of departure. The congregation which he had joined was a reformed branch of the Augustinian Order, which enjoyed autonomy for that reason. Staupitz proposed reincorporation with the main body, hoping, it seems, thereby to become vicar-general for all the German Augustinians. This move was resisted by the Observantine group who upheld the intentions of the founder, Andreas Proles (d. 1503) . Luther at first adhered to this faction and went to Rome (1510-11) on their behalf. But soon after his return he changed over to Staupitz’s side and became professor of Scripture—it is hard to resist the surmise of a “deal.” At any rate, Luther seemed self-conscious about his change of sides, and defended himself by branding the Observantines as pharisaic worshippers of external minutiae. He regaled the young students with caricatures of the Observantines, and gradually extended his accusations to other religious orders, the secular clergy, and the hierarchy. [p. 143]

Doctrinal development. Meanwhile in his Scriptural lectures and commentaries, Luther was groping for his own speculative idea. His development from “extraneous righteousness” to “fiducial faith” may be traced in his lectures on the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians between 1513 and 1519. The process was gradual; according to Luther, not until 1519 did he make his vaunted “discovery” of fiducial faith alone: “Our salvation or rejection depends entirely on whether we believe or do not believe in Christ.” God does all; man does not even co-operate; indeed, his every act is a sin, though if he retains faith, God will cover his iniquities over as with a cloak. His conclusion—expressed with hyperbole not to be taken quite literally—pecca fortiter; crede fortius. [“sin boldly; [but] believe more boldly still”]


Pessimistic side. Luther practically identified original sin and concupiscence; in other words, confused sin with its effect. Since all were aware from experience that concupiscence remains even after the sacraments of baptism and penance, Luther concluded that these sacraments were unable to remove either original or personal sin. This led him to four pessimistic assertions: 1) Original sin remains after justification. 2) All movements of concupiscence are sins, since the soul is entirely subject to the body, which in turn is wholly dominated by concupiscence. 3) This being the case, it is impossible to obey God’s law. 4) Hence, concupiscence is invincible and the human will is entirely enslaved.

Optimistic assumptions. The only genuine justification, Luther at length decided, is by means of faith. His justifying faith is essentially a complete confidence in the mercy conceded to man by Christ’s merits. It is of the utmost importance that each one consider this as applied to himself in particular: to experience faith, to feel it. But when asked in what this faith consisted, Luther replied vaguely that the anguished desire to have faith is faith; the acknowledgement of complete impotence before concupiscence is faith, etc., and his own faith would cause him continual anxiety through life. Often he bade his disciples to renew, to stir up their faith. Is, then, justification a process of renovation of the interior man? No, this renewal is merely an impulse toward the merits of Christ whereby a man believes more firmly. On the contrary, “the Christian is just and holy by a foreign and extrinsic holiness; he is just by God’s mercy and grace. . . . This mercy and this grace are not in man; faith is not a habit or quality in the heart; it is a divine benefit. It consists in an external indulgence toward us. The Christian is not formally just. Doubtless sin is no longer condemned, but it remains. You discover no trace of purification, but only a satanic blackness,” that is, in the soul. When it was objected that faith must be a quality of some sort, he replied: “Doubtless faith is a quality as well, but it does not  [p. 144] justify as a quality; it is only by its relation to Christ’s merits.” In a strictly Lutheran system of justification, then, man seized the justice of God by faith, and it was imputed to him thereafter as a protective covering for the sins which still actually remained in his soul.

Role of grace. Though Luther retained the use of the theological term, “grace,” his teaching practically destroyed it in the Catholic sense. When Luther speaks of actual grace he is so vague that no trustworthy statement can be garnered. He seems to despise a mere created help and speaks of the Holy Ghost operating in man in such wise as to border upon pantheism. Habitual grace, as Scholastic teaching described it, was for Luther an absurdity. His most precise statement is perhaps the following: “I understand grace in the sense of a favor of God, but not in the notion of a quality in the soul. It is any exterior good, that is, the favor of God as opposed to His anger.” Although Luther’s explanation of gratia is etymologically correct, he erred theologically in asserting that for man to be in the state of grace meant no more than to be in God’s “good graces.” Lutheran grace is God’s favor, imputed extrinsically to man, but not productive of any real intrinsic justification.11

11 J. Paquier, “Luther,” Dictionnaire de Theologie, XVIII, 1146 if.


The Church for Luther is “altogether in the spirit . . . altogether a spiritual thing.” Like Wycliffe and Hus, Luther contended that the Church was essentially an invisible society of “true believers”: “The Church is believed in but not seen; . . . she is a society of hearts in faith.” Hence, there was no real need for a hierarchy or priesthood, and he reduced his clergy to mere “ministers of the word . . . without jurisdiction in the legal sense.” But after his early hopes for voluntary organization of Lutheran congregations were disappointed, Luther acquiesced in state control in that he termed the prince membrum praecipuum ecclesiae. Subsequent Lutheran “bishops” were practically state superintendents. Luther, moreover, took the Church out of public life; well could he say: “In the past the pope was all in all; now the prince is all in all.” Yet Luther was intolerant of all who disagreed with him and introduced for such his own brand of excommunication, committing Catholics and Anabaptists alike to the abyss. Once he jokingly referred to himself as the “Lutheran pope,” by which remark, the Protestant Paulsen justly observed, he reduced himself ad absurdum, for all his antipapal activity and strictures redounded on himself.

The Bible, as interpreted by Luther, was to be the sole rule of faith: “Dogma is true only insofar as it agrees with Scripture; in itself it is of no authority. But the truth of Scripture is one, that is, attested internally.. . . The Scripture must rhyme with faith; .. . without Scripture faith soon goes.” Dr. Luther had no detailed theory of inspiration and admitted historical errancy; the canon of Scripture amounted to his own judgment. He cast out the Epistles of James and Hebrews along with the Old Testament “apocrypha,” and rated other books “A” or “B” insofar as they best expressed Lutheran teaching. Though Catholic translations had preceded Luther’s German rendition, his was the first that was of high literary merit. Yet it was often deliberately unfaithful to the original, the most notorious case being his addition of “alone” to “faith” in Romans (3:20; 4:5).

The sacraments remained for Luther but symbols to excite faith, though he inconsistently retained baptism and the Eucharist as necessary. To obviate the difficulty that faith could not be excited in infant baptism—which he retained on the authority of tradition against the Anabaptists—Luther argued that these infants were given a moment of reason. Throughout his life he defended a garbled notion of the Real Presence, and supported his position with arguments from tradition and reason which he otherwise repudiated. His explanations involved “impanation”: Christ’s body remains with or in the substance of bread; and “ubiquity”: Christ’s body is omnipresent, although present “to you” only at the moment of the Supper. But he rejected transubstantiation and the sacrificial character of the Mass as prejudicial to Christ’s passion. Though Luther clung to the pathetic relics of his belief in the Real Eucharistic Presence, Melanchthon had discarded such views even during Luther’s lifetime. Nonsacramental confession, without absolution, Luther regarded as optional; needless to say, it did not survive. Matrimony was for Luther a mere civil contract, in all things subject to the civil law. Under certain circumstances he admitted divorce. He tolerated concubinage “in exceptional cases,” and once advised bigamy to Henry VIII, while actually giving it his secret approbation in the case of Philip of Hesse.

Secularism received a powerful stimulus from Luther through his exaltation of the civil authority to the degree of absolutism, and his favoritism of lay over clerical callings. He himself abandoned his vows to marry the ex-nun, Catherine Bora, and he condemned virginity as impossible and monasticism as a fraud. To the relief of the poor, Luther was sincerely devoted, but he was grieved to see the nobility pay slight attention to their needs. Destruction of Catholic schools in northern Germany long proved irreparable; Erasmus asserted: “Wherever Lutheranism prevails, there we see the downfall of learning.” Yet Luther never really understood the world. He would speak contemptuously of whole classes, of lawyers, and of merchants. He defended serfdom. He  [p.146] condemned usury, indeed, but also the taking of any interest whatsoever. It was a strange legacy of otherworldliness and laicism that Luther left to his disciples.





 Martin Luther, Professor of Scripture




A. The Indulgence Controversy (1517-18)









Remote occasion. About 1506 Bramante approached Pope Julius II with a plan for erecting the largest church in the world, a new St. Peter’s. This project, even more grandiose in original design than in eventual execution, was adopted, for the existing thousand-year-old structure was beyond repair. But immense sums would be needed. According to longstanding legitimate custom, indulgences were granted to those who would contribute to this work and fulfill the usual conditions of confession and Communion. At length the Christian Tower of Babel was raised, and may yet survive the Lutheran revolt that it unwittingly provoked.

Proximate occasion. Leo X renewed his predecessor’s indulgence but such was the resentment of German princes and prelates to inroads upon their revenues, that by 1514 only a few dioceses were open to indulgence preaching. But Archbishop von Gemmingen of Mainz died in March, 1514, and advancement to this primatial see with direct jurisdiction over half of Germany was ardently sought by Albrecht von Hohenzollern. This young prelate was already archbishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt, palatinates which he wished to retain because their lands adjoined those of his brother, Elector Joachim of Brandenburg. Though heavily in debt to the Fuggers, Albrecht secured election to Mainz on the understanding that payment would soon be made. The tax for installation in Mainz was 14,000 ducats, and the papal chancery would require an additional 10,000 to issue a dispensation for plural holding of sees—in all, a sum estimated at $2,500,000 would have to be raised. Genial Jacob Fugger, however, recalled that Leo X had belonged to the Medici banking house; surely he would appreciate a sound investment. Accordingly Herr Fugger offered to advance his bond for 29,000 Rhenish gulden at once to the papal chancery, if the new archbishop would allow indulgence preachers to enter his as yet untapped jurisdiction. Then when the collection was in, Fugger would take half to reimburse himself for his loan and risk. Leo X did prove agreeable; in fact, in view of the unexpectedly low returns in the wake of Luther’s agitation, it turned out to be a good financial transaction for the papal treasury. Albrecht paid his debts, was named cardinal in 1518, and enjoyed his three sees till his death in 1545. But it proved to be a very bad deal for millions of souls. [p. 147]

Execution. Though the papal bull authorizing indulgence preaching for Mainz-Magdeburg was issued on March 31, 1515, the archbishop did not put it into operation until assured that his deal was safe. Not until January, 1517, did his subcommissioner, Friar Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), actually commence his preaching. Though Tetzel knew the doctrine of indulgences well enough, he was not averse to a little inaccurate dramatization by way of salesmanship on the theme:

“As soon as the coin in the basket rings,

     the soul out of purgatory springs.”

[Sobald das Geld in dem Kasten klingt, die Seele aus dem Fegefeuer springt]

One day Staupiz smilingly reported Tetzel’s antics to his vicar, Martin Luther. The latter rejoined bitterly: “This Tetzel, I’d like to punch a hole in his drum.” He did—in a memorable Halloween prank.


Wittenberg manifesto. Though Luther had preached in an orthodox fashion on indulgences as late as 1516, this was not the case with the ninety-five Theses which he posted on the door of the church of the ducal castle at Wittenberg on All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517. These “tentative propositions” of a professor of the local university contained the assertions that the indulgence has no value before God, that it remits merely canonical penalties, and that the Church possesses no treasury of merit. While copies of these Theses were widely circulated, Luther sent similar Resolutiones to the archbishop of Mainz and Bishop Scultetus of Brandenburg, professing entire submission to their authority in what he termed a protest against curial abuses. The archbishop, unable to obtain any definitive opinion on Luther’s views from his own theologians, sent them on to Rome. Bishop Scultetus requested Luther not to publish his pronouncements, but the latter forgot his previous declaration to abide by the episcopal good pleasure.

Luther’s popularity. His protest against abuses had struck a responsive chord among many Germans who had little understanding of the theological issues involved. Within a short time Luther was saluted as a national hero by the humanists and others. Tetzel, indeed, came out with 110 Antitheses early in 1518 in which he defended Catholic doctrine, although including in this category some scholastic opinions. Luther’s popularity, however, made it impossible for Tetzel to continue his preaching, and he retired to his Dominican convent at Leipsic where he soon died brokenhearted at the consequences of his imprudent statements. In his “Sermon on Indulgences” Luther dismissed him with an ironical remark; his challenge to debate unaccepted, he seemed master of the field.

A rebel’s immunity. By January, 1518, the summary of Luther’s ideas forwarded by the archbishop of Mainz had reached Rome. The pope evidently gave it but slight attention, and turned it over to Gabrielle [p. 148] della Volta, the Augustinian general, with instructions to admonish Luther about refraining from further preaching. Volta sent corresponding directives to Staupitz who, if he mentioned the matter to Luther at all, made light of it. In the elections of the Proles Congregation during April, 1518, Luther’s friend Lang was chosen to succeed him as rural vicar. Far from being rebuked, Luther was permitted on this occasion to stage a debate to defend these theses: 1) Man’s works are all mortal sins, since his free will is powerless to do good. 2) To receive grace one must first despair of himself. 3) Not good works, but belief in Christ denotes the truly just man. At another debate at Wittenberg, Luther publicized his “theology of the Cross”: the just man lives by faith and not good works. Yet in May he was still writing submissively to the pope and emperor, avowing that “all the heretics fell through inordinate love of their own ideas.” At the same time through the influence of the court chaplain, George Spalatin (1484-1545), a future Lutheran, he established himself in the good graces of his territorial sovereign, Elector Frederick “the Wise” of Saxony (1486-1525). By the summer of 1518, then, Luther was still the idol of the hour, and so far as the German public knew, in good standing.

B. Break with Authority (1518-21)


Curial inquiry. During March, 1518, the Dominicans had denounced Luther to Rome and in June Friar Silvestro Mazzolini, alias Prieras, prepared a hasty, exaggerated, and caustic indictment of the Theses to the apostolic camera. In July Luther was cited to appear at Rome within sixty days. He received this summons on August 7 along with Prieras’s pamphlet. After asking the elector to have the investigation held in Germany, Luther denounced Prieras’s vulnerable critique. Meanwhile the elector secured papal permission for a discussion at Augsburg before the papal envoy then in the city for the imperial diet. This envoy was Tommaso de Vio, Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534), Thomist of Thomists.

Augsburg trial. Armed with an imperial safe-conduct and an electoral recommendation, Luther arrived at Augsburg on October 7, 1518. He was in an exalted frame of mind, convinced of his doctrine, and resolved not to recant, even if he must “die like Hus.” From October 13 to 15, the cultured cardinal listened patiently and not unkindly to the incoherent ravings—extra formam, too—of this “German beast,” as he later called him. At last Cajetan condensed his demands to retractation by Luther of his denial of a treasury of merit in the Church as a basis of indulgences, and of his assertion that the sacraments are efficacious only by faith. But Luther refused unless refuted by Scripture, tradition, or reason. Since  [p. 149] he would not listen to any of these when they differed from his own opinions, Cajetan laid down this ultimatum: “I do not ask many phrases of you; I demand from you merely a single six letter word: revoco.” This was too much for Luther who, with Staupitz’s connivance, left the town secretly on October 20. All that remained of Luther in Augsburg was a placard appealing from “the pope badly informed and the judges chosen by him, to a pope who should be better informed.” Cajetan reported the results of the inquiry to the elector, advising him to send Luther to Rome or banish him. Frederick replied that he was not yet convinced of Luther’s error, and that he feared to bring ill repute on Wittenberg University. Meanwhile Luther had prepared another stand by issuing a new appeal on November 28, 1518, “from the pope ever subject to error, to an ecumenical council.” On December 13, however, the cardinal promulgated a papal bull of the preceding November which clearly defined papal power to remit guilt and punishment due to actual sins through indulgences in virtue of the treasury of merit of Christ and His saints: to the living per modum absolutionis; to the dead, per modum suif ragii.

Altenburg conference. Pope Leo X now sought Luther’s submission through diplomatic channels. He sent the lay chamberlain, Karl von Miltitz, with the Golden Rose decoration for Elector Frederick in an effort to persuade Luther’s protector to permit examination of the case at Rome. Miltitz, a superficial and liberal Humanist, represented the whole dispute as trifling at a conference with Luther during January, 1519. Exceeding his instructions, Miltitz persuaded Luther to submit his case to the “arbitration” of some German bishop. Luther promised to keep silence and to write a submissive letter to the Holy See; he did neither.


Imperial interlude. Emperor Maximilian died on January 12, 1519, and Leo X, lulled into inactivity by the groundless optimism of Miltitz, devoted his chief attention to defeating the candidacy of Charles of Spain. The pope favored the election of either Francis of France or of Elector Frederick—so little did he realize the latter’s vital support of Luther. Albert of Mainz, already cardinal, was also offered legatine power over all Germany in exchange for his electoral vote. But the cardinal now shared the aroused German patriotism—or did not dare defy it—and he refused. On June 28, 1519, Charles was elected unanimously.

Leipsic debate. Meanwhile Bishop Eyb of Eichstädt urged a professor of Ingolstadt University, Johann Eck (1486-1543), to challenge Luther. Eck, who until the Council of Trent carried on the [p. 150] anti‑ Lutheran campaign almost singlehanded, attacked Luther early in 1519 in a work called Obelisks from the marks used to indicate Lutheran errors. Luther replied in the same vein with Asterisks and dared Eck to debate. The contest was held from June 27 to July 14, 1519, at Leipsic, before the elector’s cousin, George of Saxony-Meissen. For the first four days, Luther’s ally, Andreas Bodenstein alias Carlstadt (1480-1541) was routed by Eck when he tried to prove that man cannot do any good work, whether in the state of grace or not. On July 4 Luther replaced Carlstadt to defend his indictment of papal primacy. Whereas Carlstadt had been hurried and confused, Luther displayed an insolent rhetoric, while Eck went the whole route in a sonorous voice and trenchant logic. He forced Luther into open admissions that he held neither papal primacy nor infallibility to be of faith; that ecumenical councils can err and have erred; that individual Christians might be right against ecclesiastical authority; that the Bible was open to private interpretation; and that he approved of some Hussite condemned propositions. Eck was the evident victor; the forthright Margrave George, arms akimbo, snorted at Luther’s teaching: “A plague on it.” Eck had at last pinned Luther down, and sent this incontrovertible evidence on to Rome.

Lutheran propaganda. Aware that the die must soon be cast, Luther, by now assured through Sickingen and Hutten of armed support from the knights and humanists, grew bold in inflammatory polemics during 1520. In rapid succession appeared Von dem Papsttum zu Rome, branding the pope as Antichrist, denouncing curial exactions, and appealing to an invisible German Church independent of papal and episcopal direction; An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, again denouncing papal abuses, hinting at a lay priesthood, and appealing to the emperor and princes to break with Rome; and Von der Babylonischen Ge f angenschaft, proposing to free Germany from the “papal and sacerdotal bondage.” In pseudo-mystic strain he wrote his Freedom of a Christian Man, asserting: “I say that no pope or bishop or any other man has a right to impose even one syllable upon a Christian man except with his consent.” Luther waxed more confident; he wrote Spalatin: “alea jacta est; Franz von Sickingen and Sylvester von Schaumburg have freed me from every fear; I no longer desire any reconciliation with the Romans for all eternity.”


Papal excommunication. Urged on by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici and Johann Eck, Pope Leo X on June 15, 1520, at last issued the clarion call that prepared for the Catholic revival: Exurge Domine et judica causam tuam. This papal bull condemned forty-one Lutheran errors, directed him to burn his books, cease teaching, and submit within sixty [p. 151] days under pain of ipso facto excommunication. On the other hand, mercy was promised for prompt compliance. Promulgation was entrusted to Eck. This proved unfortunate, for Luther, though he well knew that the bull was genuine, could pretend for a while that it was a forgery of his adversary. Yet he tried to avert condemnation by writing an apologetic letter to the pope—antedated September 6 to make it fall within the sixty days of grace—in which he charged that Eck had calumniated him for “some insignificant chance expressions on the papacy.” But by November Luther was again appealing to a “free Christian council,” and on December 10 burned the papal bull, the Code of Canon Law, and Eck’s writings. During the Christmas holidays he encouraged the students of the university in a dramatic parody of the papal court. But on January 3, 1521, Leo X pronounced definitive sentence of excommunication in the bull, Decet Romanum Pontificem.

Imperial ban. That same month Emperor Charles V opened his first Diet or Reichstag at Worms. On February 13 following the papal legate to this assembly, Monsignor Girolamo Aleander (1480-1542) reminded the body of its duty concerning the repression of all notorious heretics, such as Luther had now become. And indeed Luther was duly cited to Worms on March 6, although assured of a safe-conduct to and fro. Luther set out under great emotional strain for what proved to be a triumphal progress. Like Hitler during his early campaigns against the unpopular “Dictat von Versailles,” Luther denounced “Roman tyranny” in fanatical tirades to cheering crowds hypnotized by his appeals to German patriotism against the foreigner. Yet on his first appearance at Worms, April 16, Luther seemed hesitant and fearful, and asked time to reconsider. Assured during the interval of the continued support of the elector and the Knights, he displayed a brazen defiance on April 18. Asserting that the Germans were victims of papal laws and teachings of merely human authority, he also claimed that German property was being devoured by curial rapacity. He concluded: “If I have spoken evil, give testimony of the evil.... I have spoken.” Since he was again deaf to invitations to recant, the emperor on April 26 bade him depart, warning him that his safe-conduct had but twenty-one days to run. On May 8 Charles V placed the ban of the empire upon Luther, declaring him an outlaw under death sentence. Luther’s protests of an unfair hearing and violation of his safe-conduct are patent falsehoods. He was in no danger, for on May 4, by prearranged plan, the elector’s retainers kidnapped him and hid him in the remote Saxon castle of Wartburg until March, 1522. This ruse was adopted to enable the elector to plead ignorance of Luther’s whereabouts. As has been seen, it was soon unnecessary, for not until the year of Luther’s death was the emperor to be free to take up arms against the Lutherans. [p. 152]

19. Causes of Protestantism ;   20. Emperor Charles of Europe;   21. Luther and Lutheranism;   22. German Lutheran Revolt

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