Many protestants will be surprised to learn that Martin Luther, who is most famous for jump-starting the "Great Protestant Reformation" by nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Saxony, was convinced that the Pope (at that time, Leo X) was morally innocent in the following threat of excommunication against him. Instead, Luther honestly thought that the Roman Curia was the real problem...
Leo issued his papal bull Exsurge Domine ("Rise up, O Lord"), threatening Luther with excommunication from the Church, which Luther received in October. Under the threat of excommunication, Luther heeded some council of the Augustinians, who wanted Luther to write a letter to Leo explaining that he never intended to attack him personally.Excerpts are then quoted from Luther's open letter to Pope Leo X, a letter which served to introduce Luther's treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, 1520.
It certainly is true that this open letter appears hospitable to Pope Leo. This is one of a number of letters from Luther written in the conventional, curialistic style which was the accepted means of dialog with Rome. Roman Catholic polemicists have been prone to seize these letters as proof that Luther was either a liar, two-faced, insincere, etc. In actuality, the letters were written by a man in a difficult life-threatening situation attempting to negotiate his survival, yet do so with the integrity of his convictions.
The open letter though in question is however, not as wonderful as a simple surfacing reading suggests. It was a suggestion by a Roman diplomat, Carl von Miltitz, a man who was supposed to bring Luther back to Rome, but actually sympathized with his cause against Tetzel. He had hopes of settling the controversy in Germany for Luther's sake. It appears to be his idea that Luther write a letter stating he had never attacked the Pope's person. But did Luther pull it off?
The editors of the Philadelphia Edition of Luther's Works point out ways in which this open letter wasn't as nice as some may think:
It is again a question whether the pope received this letter. It has been an interesting speculation for more than one writer, what the thoughts and feelings of Leo the Tenth might have been if he did receive and read it.
Schaff traces the progress of Luther in the three letters he wrote to the pope: “In his first letter to the pope, 1518, Luther had thrown himself at his feet as an obedient son of the vicar of Christ; in his second letter, 1519, he still had addressed him as a humble subject, yet refusing to recant his conscientious convictions; in his third and last letter he addressed him as an equal, speaking to him with great respect for his personal character even beyond his deserts, but denouncing in the severest terms the Roman See, and comparing him to a lamb among wolves, and to Daniel in the den of lions.” If the pope ever read it, “it must have filled him with mingled feelings of indignation and disgust.”
We may go even farther. Luther thinks of St. Bernard’s attitude toward Pope Eugene, and Bernard was Eugene’s superior in the Cistercian order and had been looked up to as “father.” Luther writes as a father confessor to a friend in trouble, and might have quoted Bernard’s words: “I grieve with you. I should say, I grieve with you if, indeed, you also grieve. Otherwise I should have rather said, I grieve for you; because that is not grieving with another when there is none who grieves. Therefore if you grieve, I grieve with you; if not, still I grieve, and then most of all, knowing that the member which is without feeling is the farther removed from health and that the sick man who does not feel his sickness is in the greater danger.” The pope was a humanist, not a spiritually minded priest; we may, therefore, believe that Charles Beard is not far wrong in his estimate of the possible effect of this letter upon him: “If Giovanni de Medici, the head of a house which had long come to consider itself princely, and the occupant of the Fisherman’s chair, when it claimed to be the highest of earthly thrones, read this bold apostrophe, addressed to him by a ‘peasant and a peasant’s son,’ he must have thought him mad with conceit and vanity. He was incapable of being touched by the moral nobleness of the appeal, and so audacious a contempt of merely social distinctions the world has rarely seen."Mentioned in this snippet is Charles Beard's Martin Luther and the Reformation in Germany. There we learn that Miltitz was attempting to have Exsurge Domine modified or abrogated. Beard states a "temperate statement" from Luther "could not make matters worse." Miltitz was also trying to get Luther's letter back-dated so it appeared to have been sent before Exsurge Domine was published in Saxony. Of this letter Beard states,
Luther's letter to the Pope, really written about the middle of October, but at Miltitz's request dated back to the 6th of September, in order that it might appear to anticipate the publication of the Bull in Saxony, is a very different document from those which had preceded it. It is respectful, but not servile: Luther's intense feeling of the difference of rank between himself and the Pope seems to have passed away, and he addresses him almost as an equal. He clears himself, so far as protestation of innocence can do it, of the charge of having attacked the Pope personally; but he more than makes up for this by the severest invectives against the corruptions of the Roman Curia and the vices of the sacred city. What end of conciliation could possibly be served by a passage like the following, which may be taken as a fair sample of the whole ? "Next, my Father Leo, beware how you listen to those sirens who make you no mere man, but a mixed god, so that you can command and exact whatever you will. It will not be so, nor will you prevail; you are a servant of servants, and, more than all men, in a most miserable and dangerous position. Let not them deceive you who pretend that you are Lord of the world; who permit no one, apart from your authority, to be a Christian; who babble that you can do what you will in heaven, hell, purgatory. These are your enemies, who seek your soul to destroy it, as saith Isaiah, 'My people, who call thee blessed, they themselves deceive thee.' They err who elevate you above Council and Universal Church; they err who attribute to you alone the right of interpreting Scripture. All these seek to set up in the Church their own impieties under your name; and alas! by their means Satan effected much in your predecessors. In a word, believe none who exalt you, but only those who humble you. For this is the judgment of God, 'He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted them of low degree.' " If Giovanni de Medici, the head of a house which had long come to consider itself princely, and the occupant of the Fisherman's chair, when it claimed to be the highest of earthly thrones, read this bold apostrophe, addressed to him by "a peasant and a peasant's son," he must have thought him mad with conceit and vanity. He was incapable of being touched by the moral nobleness of the appeal, and so audacious a contempt of merely social distinctions the world has rarely seen.
So, what do we make of Martin Luther and his Naiveté? It appears from the background that Luther was not at all naive. I've documented before Luther's distrust of the papacy during this time period. While Luther may not have publicly attacked the Pope, he certainly didn't naively trust him.