"Wherefore, Most Blessed Father, I offer myself, prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness, with all that I am and have. Bid me live, slay me, call, recall, approve, condemn, as it may please you. I acknowledge your voice, as the voice of Christ, presiding and speaking in you." (Luther's letter to Pope Leo, May 30, 1518)
A peculiar letter exists from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X from the early days of the Reformation (May 30, 1518). This letter occurs around seven months after the posting of the 95 Theses. It was attached to a copy of Luther's Explanations of the Theses Concerning the Value of Indulgences (which itself was an appeal to Pope Leo), and actually served as a personal dedication of this writing to Pope Leo (See LW 48:64). The letter was sent to Rome through John Staupitz. The Explanations is just that: a detailed explanation of the 95 Theses, provided primarily for the Pope to demonstrate that Luther was a loyal son of the Church. The letter that accompanies The Explanations has been used throughout the years by Catholic apologists, probably more than The Explanations.
Luther's tone towards the Pope is surprisingly submissive, which, if you're familiar at all with Luther, seems quite out of the ordinary. Luther himself though does refer to his early career as characteristic of one who was obedient to the Papacy ("I was once a monk and a most enthusiastic papist"), which could indeed explain the letter. Henry O'Connor, a Roman Catholic writer, explains this letter to the Pope as one of Luther's "masterpieces of diplomacy" [Henry O'Connor, Luther's Own Statements (New York & St. Loius: Benziger Brothers, 1884), p.9].This letter interests me, particularly how it has been understood from the Roman Catholic perspective. Note some of the following perspectives from older Roman Catholic writers about this letter:
"A more complete expression of submission to the judgment of the Apostolic See could hardly be formulated, but Luther's actions thereafter did not correspond with his language. The insincerity manifested in his letter to Leo X can be explained only by the uncommon duplicity of his character" [Patrick O'Hare, The Facts About Luther, p.90].
"With such protestations of submission did he endeavour to deceive the Pope, but as Cardinal Gotti remarks, in this very letter he protests that he adopts no other sentiments than those of the Scriptures, and intends merely to oppose the schoolmen" [Alfonso Maria de' Liguor, iThe History of Heresies and Their Refutation, p.260].
"It is quite false that Rome belittled the whole affair as a monks' quarrel. On February 3, 1518, within three months of the publication of Luther's theses, the pope wrote to the general of the Augustinians that Luther would have to be excommunicated, if he could not be restrained. But Luther misled the pope by humble letters. He wrote to Leo, " Most Holy Father, prostrate at thy feet, I bring thee all that I am and all that I have. Give life, give death, cast me out, as may please thee. I shall recognize thy voice as the voice of Christ who lives in thee and speaks through thee." (May 30, 1518)" [Hermann Wedewer, A Short History of the Catholic Church , p. 152].
"His course of action, however, was quite at variance with these professions ; for ere long he began to teach, both in preaching and writing, doctrines quite opposed to Catholic dogma; such as, that man is altogether deprived of free-will by the fall of Adam, that faith alone is sufficient for salvation, and that of their own nature our best works are grievous sins. "[John Nicholas Murphy, The Chair of Peter, or The Papacy Considered in its Institution, Development, and Organization]
Going back even further, one also finds the earliest counter-Reformation Roman Catholic apologists citing this letter. The letter was used as a polemical tool, even in the Sixteenth Century. Saint Francis de Sales was familiar with this letter, and cites it via Cochlaeus ( de Sales only points out Luther's early allegiance to the Pope in his citation of it). Cochlaeus though states,
Therefore Luther, relying on the advice of his associates, published a Latin book, to which he gave this title: Resolutions of the Arguments Concerning the Virtue of Indulgences, Etc. And in that book, he declared ninety-five Conclusions in accordance with his new reputation, not - to be sure - so that he might reconcile the Pope and his adversaries to himself, or succeed in placating them whom he attacked most bitterly and extensively in this book itself; but rather so that he might enlist the reader on his own side, simulating a wonderful humility, submission, and reverence toward the Roman Pontiff. By this he was cunningly seeking both the reader's sympathy toward himself and hatred towards his adversaries. For he feigned that he was snatched and dragged into public view, entirely reluctant and unwilling, by his adversaries' wickedness. For he said, in the preface addressed to Leo X, 'Unwillingly I come into public, who am especially unlearned, and stupid in my wits, and devoid of learning.' But necessity drives me to squawk as a goose among swans. And so, in order that I may soften my adversaries themselves and may fulfill the desire of many, behold - I publish my trifles.' And below he said, Therefore, Most Holy Father' I offer myself prostrate at your most holy feet, with all that I am and all that I have. Give life, kill; call, recall; approve, disapprove; as it will please you I recognize your voice as the voice of Christ, presiding and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I will not refuse to die' [Cochlaeus, The Deeds and Writings of Martin Luther].Only a few months after this letter, one finds Luther making hostile comments towards the Pope. By December of the same year, O'Connor documents Luther stating that the Pope may be the true Antichrist, and that the Pope is "worse than the Turks." O'Connor then documents a letter from March 3, 1519 in which Luther says,
"Now most Holy Father, before God and every creature of His, I declare that I have not intended, and that today also I do not intend in any way to touch, or by any artifice to destroy the power of the Roman Church and of your Holiness; on the contrary, I most fully confess, that the power of this Church is above all, and that nothing, either in heaven or on earth, is to be preferred to it, except only Jesus Christ the Lord of all."By March 19, Luther writes a letter to Spalatin calling the Pope the Antichrist again. O'Connor concludes Luther is engaging in "downright hypocrisy." I've read one Roman Catholic e-pologist overview which explains these remarks as examples of Luther's subjective temperament of simultaneous contradiction and vacillation, "frequent profound mood changes," if not just simply doublespeak.
How then does one interpret this letter? Insights into Luther's character gained from Roman Catholic apologists include, "insincerity," "uncommon duplicity character," "deception," misleading the Pope by "humble letters," a theologian who was well on his way to teaching heresy already, and one who manipulated both friend and foe by his cunning and placating means. If these don't work, there is always the psychological approach that explains Luther's words as a mood swing. The earlier Roman Catholic apologists simply took the easiest method: Luther was a heretic. Heretics lie. Luther was a liar.
I admit, trying to interpret why Luther would write something isn't always an easy task. I mentioned all of these possibilities to contrast them with an interesting tidbit of information from a book by Heinrich Boehmer. Boehmer presents information that I believe should factor in to the explanations offered above:
"At the same time Luther was also putting finishing touches on the work which, on Staupitz' advice, he was to present to Pope Leo X as a proof of his orthodoxy and loyalty to the Holy See—the Resolutions. On May 30 he was able to send a fair copy, accompanied by a letter to the pope, to Staupitz for forwarding. We still possess one page of the rough draft of this letter written in his own hand, which sheds an interesting light upon the state of his mind at this time. In the draft he writes that he turned to the pope only in order to show the German inquisitors (that is, Tetzel and his fellow Dominicans) that he was not afraid of them. 'I know that man can think of nothing unless it be given to him from above. But least of all can that be said of the pope, of whom it is written: The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord. Therefore, Holy Father, I lay my work at your feet in all confidence. Whatever your decision may be, it will in any case have its origin in Jesus, without whom you cannot propose or speak anything. If you condemn my book to be burned, I will say: As it has pleased the Lord, so it has happened. If you command that it be preserved, I will say: Praise be to God! I lose nothing if it is burned, and I gain nothing if it is not burned. Christ does not need me. He can raise up children from the very stones and destroy mountains in the twinkling of an eye. This, my faith in my Lord Jesus Christ, is enough for me. May He, the Lord, preserve you and lead you, not according to your pleasure or that of any other man, but according to His will, which alone is good and to be praised eternally. Amen.'
In the fair copy the long section dealing with the insolent boasting and threatening of the German inquisitors, primarily Tetzel, with the name and the power of the pope, has been entirely omitted. However, instead of the declaration that it was immaterial to him what the pope did with his book, the fair copy now reads: 'For my own protection I let my book go out under the protection of your name, Holy Father, so that all well-meaning readers may know with what pure intentions I have sought to fathom the nature of ecclesiastical power and what reverence I hold toward the power of the keys. If I were as they describe me, the illustrious Elector Frederick of Saxony certainly would not suffer such a pestiferous boil in his university, for he is probably the greatest zealot for Catholic truth there is at the present time. Nor would the exceedingly intelligent and very diligent men of this university have tolerated me. Therefore, Most Holy Father, I cast myself at your feet with all that I am and possess. Raise me up or slay me, summon me hither or thither, approve me or reprove me as you please. I will listen to your voice as the voice of Christ reigning and speaking in you. If I have deserved death, I shall not refuse to die. For the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof; blessed be He forever. Amen."
Thus in the fair copy he completely changed the conclusion of the letter. All expressions which were peculiarly indicative of his state of mind during these days he struck out and substituted phrases expressed in the conventional, curialistic style. Thus the whole letter, instead of being an open avowal of his inner independence of all human authorities, has now become a profession of his absolute subjection to the authority of the pope. Yet he permitted to remain one sentence which is altogether at odds with the new conclusion; "I cannot recant." Can we make him alone responsible for these changes which are so completely contradictory to the convictions which he elsewhere expressed so frankly and freely? No! The reference to the Catholic zeal of the Elector, which is altogether lacking in the first draft, betrays the hand of a courtier who was more familiar with the style of the Curia than was Luther. This courtier can have been none other than his friend Spalatin, who on later occasions was frequently obliged, generally at the command of the Elector, to cast into court language such high official letters and documents before they were forwarded. This is not to say that the Elector already had a hand in the matter in this instance. It is quite possible that Spalatin rendered him this friendly service on his own risk and responsibility." [Heinrich Boehmer, Road To Reformation: Martin Luther to the Year 1521 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), pp. 212-214].Boehmer's additional information sheds a bit more light on the circumstances of the letter. By locating Luther's mindset in either devious maliciousness or psychological mood changes, Rome's apologists ignore the "the conventional, curialistic style" and the accepted means of dialog with Rome. Luther's friends certainly knew the rules of dialog. This may indeed account for the tone of the letter. Boehmer makes an important point when he notes Luther will still not recant, even with the submissive language offered to the Pope.
Boehmer didn't prove that Spalatin influenced Luther to change his letter, so my Roman Catholic friends will probably still either view Luther one of the ways mentioned above. Of course, Boehmer's explanation is only a theory, yet, it makes a bit more sense to remember to consider the politics of the Reformation, which can be overlooked when one only sees Luther as either a deviant or a man with psychological problems.