Your RDA of Irony

Junk Mail of 1521

Guess what was in Martin Luther’s junk mail on this day in 1521? It was a big envelope with the exclamation “You May Already Be a Heretic! Learn How You Can Get a Free Trip to HELL!” Yes, Martin Luther had just received his very own Excommunication.

Pope Leo X had finally noticed the loss of Northern Germany and Scandinavia, a mere three years after Luther ignited the Reformation. The Pope had been preoccupied with redecorating the Vatican. Aside from having the aesthetic standards of a De Medici, Leo had an unrequited crush on Raphael and was always finding projects to keep that attractive, personable young man around. Unfortunately, in 1520 Raphael died of syphilis (the consequences of being so attractive and personable) and the Pope lost his major distraction.

Finally, the Pope would deal with that dangerous young man who threatened the supremacy of the Church. Of course, Leo picked the wrong man. The Pope could not be bothered with Luther; Leo was not interested in theology and was not prepared to debate some ill-tempered professor over the standard of living in Purgatory. However, Leo was concerned with young Charlie Hapsburg. By the age of nineteen, Charlie had inherited most of Christendom: he was the King of Spain,Sicily and Southern Italy. And that was just on his mother’s side. Being a Hapsburg, Charles also ruled Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and–for what it was worth in prestige–the nominal Holy Roman Empire.

The Pope tried to prevent Charles’ election as Holy Roman Emperor, a position that had long been regarded as a Hapsburg prerogative. Then, Leo refused to coronate Charles. The Pope evidently thought that a 19 year-old was unworthy of such power and responsibility. (Leo had been appointed a cardinal when he was 13, and the deMedici family had been bought their kid the papacy; but the young deMedici begrudged the even younger Hapsburg.)

By his futile and meaningless efforts, Leo had managed to offend his most powerful parishioner, the one man in Germany who was in a position to crush the nascent heresy. Not feeling terribly loyal to the Papacy, Charles proved initially quite tolerant of Luther. After all, the Church definitely needed reform; and wasn’t that Luther’s sole aim? Yes, Charles was wrong; but by 1521, the heresy had proved so popular in Northern Germany that only a civil war could crush it. Charles needed the support of the German princes of the North; he intended to conquer Italy if only to make his point to the Pope.

(Leo died without having the pleasure of meeting Charles. However, Pope Clement VII– Leo’s cousin–was persuaded by the German sack of Rome in 1527 to coronate Charles.)

So, after three years of ignoring the loss of northern Europe while alienating any support elsewhere, the Pope finally excommunicated Martin Luther. The most impact that Papal Bull might have had on Luther was a paper cut.

  1. Mary Ann Jung says:

    Luther needed the services of a friend of mine- a brilliant comic actor who, as various ridiculous church figures, sells “Get out Hell Free!” cards. That Bull was really a mouse.

  2. Mary Ann,

    Pope Leo was selling them–and Luther obviously wasn’t buying.

  3. Peggles says:

    I’m restating the obvious, but even as a nominal Catholic, I’ve always felt that the papal “bull” was perfectly named.

  4. To Mary Ann, Peg and any other reader who has had a Catholic education: What did the parochial schools teach you about Professor Luther?

    I knew a Lutheran who was taught Luther’s ideas but never edified as to his bawdy, cantankerous personality.

  5. Peggles says:

    Luther and the other Reformers were excoriated for leading people away from the “one true church.” The church’s corruption and excesses were never mentioned. Bear in mind, the official line at the time was that only Catholics could go to heaven. Everyone else would spend eternity in a warmer spot – and they did not mean Aruba. As a child in catechism, I cried when the nun informed the class that all non-Catholics would go to hell, because my father was a Baptist. Papal bull indeed!

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