Today it will be exactly 500 years ago that Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X with the papal bull Decet Romanum Pontificam (January 3, 1521). How can we look back on this nowadays?
When we now look back on the process of Luther’s trial and excommunication with the current historical knowledge and the insight of contemporary theology and Church teaching, we can better distinguish the theological and the non-theological (read: political and economic) dimensions of this process, and value the theological dimension without the polemical logic of that time.
The trial in Rome of Luther for heresy began on the basis of the 95 theses, but with an extremely negative reading of the theses and exaggerated accusations of heresy against Luther by the curial theologian Prierias. Cardinal Cajetan, on the other hand, who spoke with Luther in Augsburg, was of the opinion that depending on the interpretation of the theses, the theological conclusion would not necessarily have to lead to accusations of heresy, and at least not as severely as Prierias. The eventual announcement of excommunication in the papal bull Exsurge Domine on the basis of various statements drawn from Luther’s work without consideration of context was mostly the work of the theologian Eck, who had an aggressive polemical approach and strongly wanted to see Luther condemned. This was after the failure of a more constructive dialogue between Luther and papal legate Von Miltitz resulting in a fragile agreement between them on reconciliation with Rome, a proposal which was abandoned when Eck managed to draw Luther back into polemical exchanges around their debate in Leipzig.
With the current theological knowledge we see clearly that the real theological issues between Luther and Rome are not to be found in the 95 theses, but in his later more polemical theological tracts such as The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Furthermore, we now understand better that Luther was also pushed towards this more polemical theological position because of the exaggerated and unfair accusations of Prierias and the polemical efforts of Eck. Here the statement of the Second Vatican Council on the historical separations and divisions between Christians could be applied: there was ‘fault on both sides’.
The story of the process that led to Luther’s excommunication is a story of strong accusations, escalation of polemics, and the failure of an effort of dialogue and reconciliation – in addition to various political and economic interests that muddled the theological dimension which should have been the core of a balanced process instead of a desire to condemn and polemicize.