As they addressed journalists about the Pope’s ecumenical visit to Sweden in October 2016, Rev Martin Junge (General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation) and Cardinal Kurt Koch (head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) waxed lyrical about how this event represented such a big step forward, “because Catholics and Lutherans are ‘no longer defining themselves in opposition to each other,’ but in communion with one another.”
They noted how the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s launch of the Reformation would give them an opportunity to send out strong signals that their two churches were moving “from conflict to communion.”
Junge and Koch seemed extremely cosy in the Vatican press office, until the obvious question was asked: what about the possibility of lifting Luther’s excommunication?
The Roman Catholic cardinal responded that this was not something the Church could actually do. “The Catholic Church cannot lift the excommunication because it’s just finished by the death of a person … .”
The Historical Facts
• Pope Leo’s bull, Exsurge Domine, condemned 41 errors of Luther (16 May 1520) and set a 60 day time limit during which Luther was required to make an act of obedience to the Pope. This time limit expired on 27 November 1520, after the bull had been posted on church doors in Meissen, Merseburg and Brandenburg.
• After Luther received the original document, he burned it with contempt on 10 December 1520, along with a copy of the code of canon law.
• On 3 January 1521, the Bull Decet Romanum Pontificem officially declared Luther a heretic, as well as his followers, and anyone who from then on accepted or helped Luther and his followers.
The Pope reserved for himself the possibility of acquitting the friar and ordered all the archbishops, metropolitans, bishops, Cathedral Chapters, canons and the superiors of regular orders to combat against Luther's and his followers' heresy to defend the Roman faith. On the same day the Bull was published, apostolic letters were sent to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albrecht (nominated General Inquisitor for all Germany) and to the Nuncios Caracciolo and Eck to granting them the appropriate powers to fight against and judge all the Lutherans.
• Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, where he was famously defiant. For his refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
With this kind of ‘death warrant’ upon him, only for the fact that he was protected by several powerful German princes Luther would never have died a natural death in 1546.
A few further facts should be considered; both historical and moral.
1. This is not the first time an inquiry has been made regarding the possibility of lifting the excommunication from Luther.
In March 2009 the Rev Günther Gassmann, a German Lutheran theologian and an international expert on church unity, urged the Roman Catholic Church to declare officially that its excommunication of Martin Luther no longer applies. Such a statement, argued Gassmann, “in these ecumenically less exciting times ... would be a remarkable step and a sign of hope and encouragement.”
2. However, while no such statement has been issued, Pope Francis made a major change in the way the Catholic Church treats women who have had an abortion. Until now, women who have had an abortion, as well as those who helped procure an abortion, were automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church and needed the permission of a bishop in order to lift the ban of excommunication. Pope Francis has now declared that any priest may absolve a woman of the sin of abortion during confession, effectively lifting the excommunication.
3. Plus minutes of a papal audience between Pius XI and a Jesuit priest who acted as a go-between with the Vatican and Mussolini reveal how the Italian dictator asked the pope to excommunicate Hitler. He never did.
4. All of which makes it both ironic and iniquitous that the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Martin Luther who, by his rediscovery of the biblical doctrines of salvation, delivered many souls from hell – but refused to excommunicate Adolph Hitler who, by his determination to rule over an increasingly vast earthly domain, destroyed millions of lives.
There is, of course, one voice who never called for this excommunication to be rescinded – and could he speak from heaven today would evidence no change of mind: Martin Luther himself.
The words of one of his hymns are most appropriate:
The Father hath received,
Their latest living breath,
And vain is Satan’s boast,
Of victory in their death.
Still, still, though dead, they speak,
And, trumpet tongued, proclaim,
To many a wakening land,
The one availing Name.