Martin Luther, Roman Catholic Prophet

By Gregory Sobolewski | Go to book overview

3
LUTHER AND THE
ROMAN CATHOLIC MAGISTERIUM
IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY

The books of those heresiarchs, who after the aforesaid year [1521]
originated or revived heresies, as well as those who are or have been
the heads or leaders of heretics, as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Balthasar
Friedberg, Schwenkfeld, and others like these, whatever may be
their name, title or nature of their heresy, are absolutely forbidden.

—Tridentine Index of Books, 1564 1

But if we are to speak the truth we cannot do otherwise than confess
that we are conscious of having been greatly wanting in fulfilling
the duties imposed on us; and indeed of having in no small part
been the cause of the very evils we have been summoned to mend.

—Cardinal Pole's Admonitio to the Council of Trent, 1546 2

Sixteenth-century magisterial assessments of Martin Luther can be divided into two areas: his person and his teachings. Given the indisputable charisma of the Wittenberg reformer, the rapid escalation of Catholic polemics against him, and the uneven coalescence of official Roman reaction to the events in Saxon Germany between 1517 and 1530, these two aspects are not always neatly divided. Thus the papal bull that sought Luther's recantation and proposed his excommunication, Exsurge Domine (1520), introduced both evaluations while the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent (1545–63) produced no explicit reference to Luther personally in their judgments against his theology. Nonetheless, these twin verdicts promoted an initially decisive and later probative locomotion of official Catholic teaching against the professor of Bible from the young University at Wittenberg.

In contending that Catholic magisterial statements of the twentieth century project an understanding of Luther as a prophetic reformer rather than a misguided renegade, I have introduced a spectrum of Catholic theological studies in order to appreciate any claim of a Catholic reconsideration of Luther, to establish current ecumenical

-56-

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