"Hier stehe Ich. Ich kann nicht
The moment Martin Luther said those words has been called
one of the greatest moments in the modern history of man. Refusing to admit guilt for what
he had repeatedly published over the prior four years, Luther, a German monk, was directly
challenging the authority and teachings of Western Christendom and the man believed by
Catholics to be the human representative of God on Earth: the Pope, more specifically Pope
Leo X. Luther was doing just what his ancestors, the Goths, had done centuries before:
challenging the power of Rome. But in the 16th century, Rome was not a symbol of Roman
Authority, but of Christ and Christianity. Luther's words and actions would change the
course of history.
In order to finance wars and entice young men to fight, the church
began selling "indulgences" around the time of the Crusades. The concept behind
an indulgence, a simple sealed letter, was straightforward: Anyone purchasing an
indulgence would receive "complete absolution and remission of all sins," and
"preferential treatment for future sins." Although the idea or purchasing
salvation was appealing to nearly everyone, some questioned the promise the indulgence
made and the uses of the money raised. Those concerns and doubts increased as popes began
spending more money on art, extravagant churches (like St. Peters in Rome) and what many
thought were unnecessary luxuries. The position of pope was not universally worshiped.
Anti-papal feeling was high, especially in Germany, a country whose reputation in western
Europe was bolstered by the discovery of movable type by Johann Gutenberg in Mainz and by
the tremendously powerful Fugger Bank. The abuses by the clergy deeply distressed some
leading philosophers, like Erasmus, the Humanist. Even church leaders were critical of
their own. One abbot described the behavior of his fellow monks this way:
"The whole day is spent in filthy talk; their whole time is given
to play and gluttoney. They neither fear nor love God, they have not thought of the life
to come, preferring their fleshy lusts to the needs of the soul...They scorn the vow of
poverty, know not of chastity, revile that of obedience...The smoke of their filth ascends
Another monk noted that "many convents...differ little from public
brothels." Descriptions such as these were far from rare.
Luther's role began a day before All Saints Day, on October 31, 1517.
Luther posted his "Ninety-Five Theses" on the door of the Castle Church at
Wittenberg. Luther's argument was simple: selling "pardons" like souvenirs
trivialized sin. He criticized the pope for claiming to be able to reach beyond the grave
and "spring" a soul from purgatory. Following the posting of the
"Ninety-Five Theses" the sale of indulgences plunged outside of Saxony, the
region surrounding Wittenburg.. And as word spread across Western Europe, spontaneous
demonstrations for or against Luther erupted. According to one historian, "Luther had
done the unthinkable - he had flouted the ruler of the universe."
Various archbishops called for heresy proceedings against Luther to
begin immediately. Meanwhile, Luther continued to publish other pamphlets, condemning
everything from relics and pilgrimages to the Holy City of Rome and extravagant claims of
the powers of the saints. With the advent of movable type, Luther's ideas spread quickly.
His confidence grew and so did his isolation. Pope Leo X finally summoned Luther to Rome.
The Pope insisted Luther issue a public retraction and swear to never
again question papal authority. He flatly refused. With the help of the German King
Frederick 'the Wise,' Luther escaped Rome and when he returned to Wittenburg, he recorded
his encounter with the Pope. The more Luther wrote, the more the Pope knew something
needed to be done. The pope issued a Papal Bull (called so because it carried the papal
symbol, a bull) excommunicating Luther. Luther burned the papal bull, claiming if the
Church was burning his writings (which they were) he would burn theirs.
Although Pope Leo reacted slowly to Luther from the beginning (Leo was deeply distressed
over the recent death of his favorite artist, Raphael), Luther was called before the
Imperial Diet of Worms in April, 1521. Many believe the birth of the modern world