March 11, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Renaissance Church: Start of the Protestant Reformation

John F. Fink(Sixth in a series of columns)

A split from the Catholic Church is the last thing Martin Luther had in mind in October 1517 when he composed his famous 95 theses, or theological statements, sent them to the bishops of Germany, and posted them on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany. However, he most certainly did have reformation in mind; he wanted to reform the Catholic Church.

As we have seen in this series, the Church needed reform. Several popes fought wars, and engaged in politics like secular kings. Many were more concerned with money than with religion.

When Julius II, the pope who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and who laid the cornerstone of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, died in 1513, he was quickly succeeded by the 37-year-old Cardinal Giovanni de Medici, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence. He took the name Pope Leo X.

A polished Renaissance prince, Leo X was known for his extravagance. Noted for his remark, “Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us,” he is said to have spent the equivalent of $25 million on his papal inauguration. Besides his pleasures, Pope Leo X also had to finance the building of St. Peter’s.

Early in 1517, a German nobleman, Margrave Albrecht of Brandenburg, approached Pope Leo about becoming the archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg. The pope was willing—for a price. Albrecht took out a huge loan to pay the fees demanded by Rome.

To help pay off the loan, he suggested a special campaign to sell indulgences to people who could free the souls of dead relatives and friends from purgatory by paying money. The money was supposed to go toward rebuilding St. Peter’s, but Rome agreed to split it with Albrecht so he could pay off his loan.

Johannes Tetzel, a Dominican friar, was appointed to preach the indulgence in Wittenberg. When he preached that people could buy salvation for a relative, it was too much for the Augustinian monk Martin Luther. He had other complaints about Church practices at the time, so he composed his 95 theses and sent them to the German bishops.

Archbishop Albrecht complained to Rome. Pope Leo, rather than paying attention to Luther’s criticisms, instructed the general of the Augustinians to silence him. Luther would not be silenced. Aided by the invention of the printing press, he began to circulate his writings widely. He became something of a folk hero.

But Luther went too far. He denied that the Mass was a sacrifice, rejected all the sacraments except baptism and the Eucharist, and denied the authority of the pope. Pope Leo followed up by condemning Luther on 41 counts. When Luther burned the papal document that threatened him with excommunication, Leo carried out his threat.

In 1521, Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet of Worms, a meeting of German nobles convened by Emperor Charles V. After Luther was denounced by the papal legate, he refused to recant his beliefs, declaring, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” †

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