In response to Martin Luther's 95 Theses, as well as his other works, Pope Leo X sent a papal bull threatening him with excommunication in June 1520. Luther publicly burned the bull at Wittenberg on 10 December 1520 and was officially excommunicated in January 1521.
Luther's 97 Theses, posted in September 1517 against the Church's reliance on scholastic theology, were ignored by church authorities until after his 95 Theses were popularized and he came to the attention of the pope. This then led to an examination of Luther's other works, which were condemned as heretical. An examination of Luther at Augsburg in 1518 and a debate between Luther and the theologian Johann Eck (l. 1486-1543) in Leipzig in 1519 furthered the rift between Luther and the Church, resulting in the 1520 bull.
Luther's rejection of papal authority in December 1520 widened this rift even further, leading to his excommunication in January 1521 and the subsequent events, including his appearance at the Diet of Worms, that inspired the Protestant Reformation.
Luther's Conflict with the Church
Martin Luther (l. 1483-1546) had posted his 95 Theses, in Latin, at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 as a simple call for scholarly debate among clergy on the matter of indulgences. A copy sent to his archbishop, Albrecht von Brandenburg, was passed on to the pope – elevating the theses to an official matter of the Church – while Luther's followers translated the theses into German and published them to a wide readership, which understood them as a challenge to papal authority.
By 1520, the theses – and Luther's other works and published sermons – had also been translated and had traveled outside Germany – so that he had significant support at home and abroad. The 1520 bull, Exsurge Domine ("Arise, O Lord"), was the pope's attempt at regaining control of a situation that was quickly spiraling out of control: a widespread challenge to the ecclesiastical authority and unity of the Church.
At this time, the Church was understood as the sole representative of God on earth. One was either within God's grace and assured of salvation according to church policy, or one was outside of it and in league with the devil. Excommunication meant one had transgressed church teachings and was now removed from God's grace and Christian fellowship, meaning one was effectively cut off from family, work, and friends as an unrepentant heretic. A member of the Church in good standing could not associate with one outside of God's grace.
Bull of 1520
Excommunication, therefore, was a serious matter, and an assembly was convened to make a case against Luther in 1520. Johann Eck, formerly a friend of Luther's but his avowed enemy after Leipzig, pushed for the wholesale condemnation of the man and his works. Other clergy involved in checking Luther's writings for heresy – including Cardinal Cajetan who had examined Luther at Augsburg – counseled for a systematic examination of Luther's works so a careful case could be built against him.
Eck, however, demanded all the works be condemned quickly, without specification of points, because of the threat Luther presented. There was no time to spare, Eck claimed, in silencing an obvious heretic whose popularity was increasing daily, and his argument prevailed. The 1520 bull, therefore, offered no detailed reasons for the condemnation.
Pope Leo instructed subordinates to post the 1520 bull publicly denouncing Luther as a heretic and ordered his works burned. This proved a challenging task due to Luther's popularity, especially in Germany, as the man who had challenged the pope. Clergy in good standing with the Church hesitated to post the 1520 bull for fear of reprisals but also because there was no reason given in it for condemning Luther.
Excommunication of 1521
Luther himself pointed this out in his written refutation of the bull, and when he burned it publicly in December, his defiance only increased his popularity. He was excommunicated by the bull given below on 3 January 1521, but this, like the bull of 1520, had no effect on people's admiration for Luther and only elevated his status to an even greater height as people began calling themselves 'Lutherans' and openly rejected the authority of the Catholic Church.
His excommunication in January 1521 led to his appearance at the Diet of Worms in April of that year where he defended his works and his vision, establishing himself as a Christian outside the authority of the Church. Luther's speech at the Diet of Worms encouraged others to come out against Catholic orthodoxy and so, in trying to silence Luther, the Church actually encouraged what became the Protestant Reformation.
The following text is taken from Papal Encyclicals Online, cross-referenced with passages from Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper and Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton. Some spelling has been altered for clarity. It is presented without commentary.
Through the power given him from God, the Roman Pontiff has been appointed to administer spiritual and temporal punishments as each case severally deserves. The purpose of this is the repression of the wicked designs of misguided men, who have been so captivated by the debased impulse of their evil purposes as to forget the fear of the Lord, to set aside with contempt canonical decrees and apostolic commandments, and to dare to formulate new and false dogmas and to introduce the evil of schism into the Church of God – or to support, help and adhere to such schismatics, who make it their business to cleave asunder the seamless robe of our Redeemer and the unity of the orthodox faith. Hence it befits the Pontiff, lest the vessel of Peter appear to sail without pilot or oarsman, to take severe measures against such men and their followers, and by multiplying punitive measures and by other suitable remedies to see to it that these same overbearing men, devoted as they are to purposes of evil, along with their adherents, should not deceive the multitude of the simple by their lies and their deceitful devices, nor drag them along to share their own error and ruination, contaminating them with what amounts to a contagious disease. It also befits the Pontiff, having condemned the schismatics, to ensure their still greater confounding by publicly showing and openly declaring to all faithful Christians how formidable are the censures and punishments to which such guilt can lead; to the end that by such public declaration they themselves may return, in confusion and remorse, to their true selves, making an unqualified withdrawal from the prohibited conversation, fellowship and (above all) obedience to such accursed excommunicates; by this means they may escape divine vengeance and any degree of participation in their damnation.
I. [Here the Pope recounts his previous Bull Exsurge Domine and continues]
II. We have been informed that after this previous missive had been exhibited in public and the interval or intervals it prescribed had elapsed [60 days] – and we hereby give solemn notice to all faithful Christians that these intervals have and are elapsed – many of those who had followed the errors of Martin took cognizance of our missive and its warnings and injunctions; the spirit of a saner counsel brought them back to themselves, they confessed their errors and abjured the heresy at our instance, and by returning to the true Catholic faith obtained the blessing of absolution with which the self-same messengers had been empowered; and in several states and localities of the said Germany the books and writings of the said Martin were publicly burned, as we had enjoined.
Nevertheless Martin himself – and it gives us grievous sorrow and perplexity to say this – the slave of a depraved mind, has scorned to revoke his errors within the prescribed interval and to send us word of such revocation, or to come to us himself; nay, like a stone of stumbling, he has feared not to write and preach worse things than before against us and this Holy See and the Catholic faith, and to lead others on to do the same.
He has now been declared a heretic; and so also others, whatever their authority and rank, who have cared naught of their own salvation but publicly and in all men's eyes become followers of Martin's pernicious and heretical sect, and given him openly and publicly their help, counsel and favor, encouraging him in their midst in his disobedience and obstinacy, or hindering the publication of our said missive: such men have incurred the punishments set out in that missive, and are to be treated rightfully as heretics and avoided by all faithful Christians, as the Apostle says (Titus iii. 10-11).
III. Our purpose is that such men should rightfully be ranked with Martin and other accursed heretics and excommunicates, and that even as they have ranged themselves with the obstinacy in sinning of the said Martin, they shall likewise share his punishments and his name, by bearing with them everywhere the title 'Lutheran' and the punishments it incurs.
Our previous instructions were so clear and so effectively publicized and we shall adhere so strictly to our present decrees and declarations, that they will lack no proof, warning or citation.
Our decrees which follow are passed against Martin and others who follow him in the obstinacy of his depraved and damnable purpose, as also against those who defend and protect him with a military bodyguard, and do not fear to support him with their own resources or in any other way and have and do presume to offer and afford help, counsel, and favor toward him. All their names, surnames, and rank – however lofty and dazzling their dignity may be – we wish to be taken as included in these decrees with the same effect as if they were individually listed and could be so listed in their publication, which must be furthered with an energy to match their contents.
On all these we decree the sentences of excommunication, of anathema, of our perpetual condemnation and interdict; of privation of dignities, honors, and property on them and their descendants, and of declared unfitness for such possessions; of the confiscation of their goods and of the crime of treason; and these and the other sentences, censures and punishments which are inflicted by canon law on heretics and are set out in our aforesaid missive, we decree to have fallen on all these men to their damnation.
IV. We add to our present declaration, by our Apostolic authority, that states, territories, camps, towns and places in which these men have temporarily lived or chanced to visit, along with their possessions – cities which house cathedrals and metropolitans, monasteries and other religious and sacred places, privileged or unprivileged – one and all are placed under our ecclesiastical interdict, while this interdict lasts, no pretext of Apostolic Indulgence (except in cases the law allows, and even there, as it were, with the doors shut and those under excommunication and interdict excluded) shall avail to allow the celebration of mass and the other divine offices. We prescribe and enjoin that the men in question are everywhere to be denounced publicly as excommunicated, accursed, condemned, interdicted, deprived of possessions and incapable of owning them. They are to be strictly shunned by all faithful Christians.
V. We would make known to all the small store that Martin, his followers, and the other rebels have set on God and his Church by their obstinate and shameless temerity. We would protect the herd from one infectious animal, lest its infection spread to the healthy ones. Hence we lay the following injunction on each and every patriarch, archbishop, bishop, on the prelates of patriarchal, metropolitan, cathedral and collegiate churches, and on the religious of every Order – even the mendicants – privileged or unprivileged, wherever they may be stationed: that in the strength of their vow of obedience and on pain of the sentence of excommunication, they shall, if so required in the execution of these presents, publicly announce and cause to be announced by others in their churches, that this same Martin and the rest are excommunicate, accursed, condemned, heretics, hardened, interdicted, deprived of possessions and incapable of owning them, and so listed in the enforcement of these presents. Three days will be given: we pronounce canonical warning and allow one day's notice on the first, another on the second, but on the third peremptory and final execution of our order. This shall take place on a Sunday or some other festival, when a large congregation assembles for worship. The banner of the cross shall be raised, the bells rung, the candles lit and after a time extinguished, cast on the ground and trampled underfoot, and the stones shall be cast forth three times, and the other ceremonies observed which are usual in such cases. The faithful Christians, one and all, shall be enjoined strictly to shun these men.
We would occasion still greater confounding on the said Martin and the other heretics we have mentioned, and on their adherents, followers and partisans: hence, on the strength of their vow of obedience we enjoin each and every patriarch, archbishop and all other prelates, that even as they were appointed on the authority of Jerome to allay schisms, so now in the present crisis, as their office obliges them, they shall make themselves a wall of defense for their Christian people. They shall not keep silence like dumb dogs that cannot bark, but incessantly cry and lift up their voice, preaching and causing to be preached the word of God and the truth of the Catholic faith against the damnable articles and heretics aforesaid.
VI. To each and every rector of the parish churches, to the rectors of all the Orders, even the mendicants, privileged or unprivileged, we enjoin in the same terms, on the strength of their vow of obedience, that appointed by the Lord as they are to be like clouds, they shall sprinkle spiritual showers on the people of God, and have no fear in giving the widest publicity to the condemnation of the aforesaid articles, as their office obliges them. It is written that perfect love casteth out fear. Let each and every one of you take up the burden of such a meritorious duty with complete devotion; show yourselves so punctilious in its execution, so zealous and eager in word and deed, that from your labors, by the favor of divine grace, the hoped-for harvest will come in, and that through your devotion you will not only earn that crown of glory which is the due recompense of all who promote religious causes, but also attain from us and the said Holy See the unbounded commendation that your proved diligence will deserve.
VII. However, since it would be difficult to deliver the present missive, with its declarations and announcements, to Martin and the other declared excommunicates in person, because of the strength of their faction, our wish is that the public nailing of this missive on the doors of two cathedrals – either both metropolitan, or one cathedral and one metropolitan of the churches in the said Germany – by a messenger of ours in those places, shall have such binding force that Martin and the others we have declared shall be shown to be condemned at every point as decisively as if the missive had been personally made known and presented to them.
VIII. It would also be difficult to transmit this missive to every single place where its publication might be necessary. Hence our wish and authoritative decree is that copies of it, sealed by some ecclesiastical prelate or by one of our aforesaid messengers, and countersigned by the hand of some public notary, should everywhere bear the same authority as the production and exhibition of the original itself.
IX. No obstacle is afforded to our wishes by the Apostolic constitutions and orders, or by anything in our aforesaid earlier missive which we do not wish to stand in the way, or by any other pronouncements to the contrary.
X. No one whatsoever may infringe this our written decision, declaration, precept, injunction, assignation, will, decree; or rashly contravene it. Should anyone dare to attempt such a thing, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.
Written at St. Peter's, Rome, on the 3rd January 1521, during the eighth year of our pontificate.