Exsurge Domine (“Arise, O Lord” in Latin) is a papal bull issued 15 June 1520 by Pope Leo X (served 1513-1521) condemning Martin Luther’s 95 Theses as heresy along with any other works by Luther or those who supported him. Luther burned the bull publicly in December 1520 and was excommunicated in January 1521.
Martin Luther (l. 1483-1546) had posted his 95 Theses on 31 October 1517 and the work, submitted to Luther’s archbishop, had been sent on to Rome. The Catholic theologian Johann Eck (l. 1486-1543), a former friend of Luther’s, was the first to attack the 95 Theses as heresy and he was then joined by others, including Cardinal Thomas Cajetan (l.c. 1468-1534), who was among the first of the committee summoned to formally examine Luther’s claims and report their orthodoxy to the pope. Cajetan and his fellow committee members were in the process of enumerating Luther’s supposed errors for a comprehensive response when they were joined by Eck who insisted on issuance of the bull as quickly as possible.
After 1517, Eck had continued his attacks on Luther through 1518 and met Luther and his co-reformer Andreas Karlstadt (l. 1486-1541) in debate at Leipzig in 1519. To Eck, any delay by the Church in formally condemning Luther allowed his teachings to gain greater momentum and a wider audience. He was correct in this but, in his haste, he ignored the process of a careful, thorough examination of Luther’s works advocated by Cajetan and the others. The result was a poorly articulated list of 41 of Luther’s alleged heresies which sometimes misrepresent his teachings or ascribe to him claims made by others. The list was submitted to Pope Leo X who had no idea whether the list was an accurate representation of Luther’s claims, added the introduction and conclusion, and then ordered its publication.
The bull was personally delivered to Saxony by Eck who met stiff resistance from Luther’s supporters. Just as Eck had feared, Luther was already a popular figure and, unlike those labeled as “heretics” in the past, could not be silenced. Luther rejected the bull as anti-Christian and burned it, along with other Catholic works, at a public bonfire in December 1520, leading to his excommunication and rise to fame as the first Protestant Reformer. The document is understood as the first formal response of the papacy to the movement that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation and the last that would be issued in complete confidence of acceptance by all European Christians.
The following excerpt of Exsurge Domine is taken from Papal Encyclicals Online and A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions edited by Denis R. Janz, pp. 381-383. Omissions are indicated throughout by ellipses. Pope Leo X begins by calling on God, St. Peter, St. Paul, and the entire Catholic Church to arise and defend orthodoxy from heresy. He ends with a call for Luther to recant and return to the Church and, throughout, makes clear that, if does not comply, he will be excommunicated. Some points in the list of the 41 alleged errors are unclear, evidence of the haste that went into its composition. Each of the 41, however phrased, is a rejection of Lutheran doctrine.
Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter, as the head and your vicar and his successors. The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.
Rise, Peter, and fulfill this pastoral office divinely entrusted to you as mentioned above. Give heed to the cause of the holy Roman Church, mother of all churches and teacher of the faith, whom you by the order of God, have consecrated by your blood. Against the Roman Church, you warned, lying teachers are rising, introducing ruinous sects, and drawing upon themselves speedy doom…
We beseech you also, Paul, to arise. It was you that enlightened and illuminated the Church by your doctrine and by a martyrdom like Peter’s…
Finally, let the whole church of the saints and the rest of the universal church arise. Some, putting aside her true interpretation of Sacred Scripture, are blinded in mind by the father of lies. Wise in their own eyes, according to the ancient practice of heretics, they interpret these same Scriptures otherwise than the Holy Spirit demands, inspired only by their own sense of ambition, and for the sake of popular acclaim…
Let all this holy Church of God, I say, arise, and with the blessed apostles intercede with almighty God to purge the errors of His sheep, to banish all heresies from the lands of the faithful, and be pleased to maintain the peace and unity of His holy Church.
For we can scarcely express, from distress and grief of mind, what has reached our ears for some time by the report of reliable men and general rumor; alas, we have even seen with our eyes and read the many diverse errors. Some of these have already been condemned by councils and the constitutions of our predecessors, and expressly contain even the heresy of the Greeks and Bohemians. Other errors are either heretical, false, scandalous, or offensive to pious ears, as seductive of simple minds, originating with false exponents of the faith who in their proud curiosity yearn for the world’s glory, and contrary to the Apostle’s teaching, wish to be wiser than they should be…
In virtue of our pastoral office committed to us by the divine favor we can under no circumstances tolerate or overlook any longer the pernicious poison of the above errors without disgrace to the Christian religion and injury to orthodox faith. Some of these errors we have decided to include in the present document; their substance is as follows:
1. It is a heretical opinion, but a common one, that the sacraments of the New Law give pardoning grace to those who do not set up an obstacle.
2. To deny that in a child after baptism sin remains is to treat with contempt both Paul and Christ.
3. The inflammable sources of sin, even if there be no actual sin, delay a soul departing from the body from entrance into heaven.
5. That there are three parts to penance: contrition, confession, and satisfaction, has no foundation in Sacred Scripture nor in the ancient sacred Christian doctors.
6. Contrition, which is acquired through discussion, collection, and detestation of sins, by which one reflects upon his years in the bitterness of his soul, by pondering over the gravity of sins, their number, their baseness, the loss of eternal beatitude, and the acquisition of eternal damnation, this contrition makes him a hypocrite, indeed more a sinner.
7. It is a most truthful proverb and the doctrine concerning contrition given thus far is the more remarkable: “Not to do so in the future is the highest penance; the best penance, a new life.”
8. By no means may you presume to confess venial sins, nor even all mortal sins, because it is impossible that you know all mortal sins. Hence in the primitive Church only manifest mortal sins were confessed.
9. As long as we wish to confess all sins without exception, we are doing nothing else than to wish to leave nothing to God’s mercy for pardon.
10. Sins are not forgiven to anyone, unless when the priest forgives them he believes they are forgiven; on the contrary the sin would remain unless he believed it was forgiven; for indeed the remission of sin and the granting of grace does not suffice, but it is necessary also to believe that there has been forgiveness.
11. By no means can you have reassurance of being absolved because of your contrition, but because of the word of Christ: “Whatsoever you shall loose, etc.” Hence, I say, trust confidently, if you have obtained the absolution of the priest, and firmly believe yourself to have been absolved, and you will truly be absolved, whatever there may be of contrition.
12. If through an impossibility he who confessed was not contrite, or the priest did not absolve seriously, but in a jocose manner, if nevertheless he believes that he has been absolved, he is most truly absolved.
13. In the sacrament of penance and the remission of sin the pope or the bishop does no more than the lowest priest; indeed, where there is no priest, any Christian, even if a woman or child, may equally do as much.
14. No one ought to answer a priest that he is contrite, nor should the priest inquire.
15. Great is the error of those who approach the sacrament of the Eucharist relying on this, that they have confessed, that they are not conscious of any mortal sin, that they have sent their prayers on ahead and made preparations; all these eat and drink judgment to themselves. But if they believe and trust that they will attain grace, then this faith alone makes them pure and worthy.
16. It seems to have been decided that the Church in common Council established that the laity should communicate under both species [take both bread and wine in communion]; the Bohemians who communicate under both species are not heretics, but schismatics.
17. The treasures of the Church, from which the pope grants indulgences, are not the merits of Christ and of the saints.
18. Indulgences are pious frauds of the faithful, and remissions of good works; and they are among the number of those things which are allowed, and not of the number of those which are advantageous.
19. Indulgences are of no avail to those who truly gain them, for the remission of the penalty due to actual sin in the sight of divine justice.
20. They are seduced who believe that indulgences are salutary and useful for the fruit of the spirit.
21. Indulgences are necessary only for public crimes and are properly conceded only to the harsh and impatient.
22. For six kinds of men indulgences are neither necessary nor useful; namely, for the dead and those about to die, the infirm, those legitimately hindered, and those who have not committed crimes, and those who have committed crimes, but not public ones, and those who devote themselves to better things.
23. Excommunications are only external penalties and they do not deprive man of the common spiritual prayers of the Church.
24. Christians must be taught to cherish excommunications rather than to fear them.
25. The Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, is not the vicar of Christ over all the churches of the entire world, instituted by Christ Himself in blessed Peter.
26. The word of Christ to Peter: “Whatsoever you shall loose on earth,” etc., is extended merely to those things bound by Peter himself.
27. It is certain that it is not in the power of the Church or the pope to decide upon the articles of faith, and much less concerning the laws for morals or for good works.
28. If the pope with a great part of the Church thought so and so, he would not err; still it is not a sin or heresy to think the contrary, especially in a matter not necessary for salvation, until one alternative is condemned and another approved by a general Council.
29. A way has been made for us for weakening the authority of councils, and for freely contradicting their actions, and judging their decrees, and boldly confessing whatever seems true, whether it has been approved or disapproved by any council whatsoever.
30. Some articles of John Hus, condemned in the Council of Constance, are most Christian, wholly true and evangelical; these the universal Church could not condemn.
31. In every good work the just man sins.
32. A good work done very well is a venial sin.
33. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.
34. To go to war against the Turks is to resist God who punishes our iniquities through them.
35. No one is certain that he is not always sinning mortally, because of the most hidden vice of pride.
36. Free will after sin is a matter of title only; and as long as one does what is in him, one sins mortally.
37. Purgatory cannot be proved from Sacred Scripture which is in the canon.
38. The souls in purgatory are not sure of their salvation, at least not all; nor is it proved by any arguments or by the Scriptures that they are beyond the state of meriting or of increasing in charity.
39. The souls in purgatory sin without intermission, as long as they seek rest and abhor punishment.
40. The souls freed from purgatory by the suffrages of the living are less happy than if they had made satisfactions by themselves.
41. Ecclesiastical prelates and secular princes would not act badly if they destroyed all of the money bags of beggary.
…Therefore let Martin himself and all those adhering to him, and those who shelter and support him, through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father. Let him abstain from his pernicious errors that he may come back to us.
We enjoin, however, on Martin that in the meantime he cease from all preaching or the office of preacher.
Luther’s rejection and public burning of the bull in December 1520 was a dramatic repudiation of papal authority and was only made possible by the support he had from powerful nobles as well as the population of Saxony in general who had been won to Luther’s side largely thanks to the printing press of Johannes Gutenberg (l. c. 1398-1468) and Luther’s expert use of it. Unlike the earlier so-called proto reformers such Jan Hus (l. 1369-1415), who was burned at the stake as a heretic for many of the same claims Luther made, Martin Luther was able to reach a wide audience through print which put the issue before the public and, for the first time in Europe, allowed for an open challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church.
Exsurge Domine has sometimes been characterized as the last papal bull issued to a unified Christian Church, but this claim is inaccurate. The Church had already split in the Great Schism of 1054 into the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches and splintered again during and after the Bohemian Reformation (c. 1380-c. 1436) when Bohemia won religious freedom. Exsurge Domine can, however, be considered the last papal bull issued in full expectation of compliance because, after Martin Luther’s Speech at the Diet of Worms in April 1521 made him a celebrity rebel, every subsequent writ from the papacy would be challenged, ignored, or rejected by the Christians who came to identify themselves as Protestants.