Thursday, October 13, 2011

Revisiting the Reformation Pope: A Defense of Pope Leo X

Pope Leo X, the pope at the time of the Reformation, came in for a lot of abuse at the hands of the early Reformers.  For myself, I think we should be careful about judging Leo X based solely on what his enemies said of him.  After all, if one were to judge Obama solely on how World Net Daily says of him, or judge Bush solely on what CounterPunch said of him, you'd get a wildly skewed image of the president.  So I want to offer something of the other side: to show that while he certainly had his faults (and well-known ones), he wasn't a particularly terrible pope.

I. Pope Leo, Sultan Suleiman, and Brother Luther

Sultan Suleiman
Leo's writings show a true concern for the spiritual well-being and unity of European Catholics, he was deeply concerned with the oft-overlooked Eastern Catholics, and he was an advocate for those Christians living under the shadow of advancing Muslim troops.

This last point shouldn't be forgotten: Suleiman’s Ottoman army was intent on conquering all Europe (and Asia and North Africa) and placing it under Sharia law, and he’d been incredibly successful. Suleiman broke the peace treaty he'd signed with Hungary, and quickly devoured the entire country. By 1529, the Turks were to the gates of Vienna.  The Siege of Vienna occurred in 1529, and Turkish forces weren't decisively turned back until over 150 years later, in 1683.  Look at a map of Europe, and you’ll see how deep into the heart of Central Europe Muslim troops had come. This was truly an existential threat to Christianity:

The expansion of the Ottoman Empire: Suleiman's conquests are in light brown

Leo attempted to rally Christendom to fight off this threat, but was quickly undermined by both secular and ecclesiastical enemies. Specifically, he tried to get the European Christian nation-states to stop killing each other, and defend each other against the Ottoman invaders.  Both this and a proposed Crusade failed. One of the major limitations he faced was financial, which is why certain abuses (like the selling of indulgences) grew worse under his watch.

In addition to the existential threat to Christianity, there were threats closer to home. No one needed to tell Pope Leo that internal reforms were needed in the Church. He’d already begun them after several cardinals attempted to assassinate him.  I mention both of these looming threats because it's true that abuses happened under Leo's watch: things occurred that shouldn't have occurred, like the sale of indulgences.  Some of these abuses even happened with his knowledge and permission (although fewer than one would think from reading anti-Leonine tracts). And it doesn't excuse it that Leo was pulling out all the stops in a last-ditch attempt to save Europe: sin is still sin, even if it's well-intentioned.  But it's easy to be a critic. Do any of Leo's critics honestly think that they would have performed better, given the crises Leo found himself enmeshed in?  

Dutch Liever Turks dan Paaps medallions,
in the shape of the Islamic Crescent.
In the midst of all of this, a German monk named Brother Martin Luther begins stoking populist and nationalist sentiments: the very sort of nationalism Leo was asking be set aside to defend Christianity. It would be like the Southern U.S. states seceding from the North during the War of 1812, while Britain is bearing down on Washington, D.C. Worse yet, Germany isn't some fringe on the hinterlands, but is right in the heart of the Europe Leo is trying to save.

Worse yet again, the early Reformers purposely played upon this threat of Islam. For example, the Protestant Dutch openly allied themselves with the advancing Ottoman army under the slogan Liever Turks dan Paaps (“Better Turkish than Papist”). So understand the early Reformation through that lens.  This wasn't simply a dispute over how quickly to clean up the internal filth within the Church: this was about subverting the head of the Church at a time when the Church was fighting for Her life.

II. The Lutherans and the Papacy

Were there problems within the Church? Absolutely. Leo himself didn’t dispute that. To my knowledge, no one did. And don't forget, Leo invited Luther to debate his 95 theses in Rome. When Luther refused, he sent Cardinal Cajetan to debate him in Germany. That's, frankly, incredible.  He didn't quash the conversation, he invited it, and was ready to explain which of Luther's Theses were wrong, and why.

It’s important to remember that Leo wasn’t always hated, even by the Reformers. For example, when the controversy over Luther’s 95 Theses first broke out, Luther turned to Pope Leo to settle the dispute. In a May 30, 1518 letter to the pope, he said:
Therefore, most holy father, I prostrate myself at your feet, placing myself and all I am and have at your disposal, to be dealt with as you see fit. My cause hangs on the will of your Holiness, by whose verdict I shall either save or lose my life. Come what may, I shall recognize the voice of your Holiness to be that of Christ, speaking through you.
From Passional Christi und Antichristi (1521),
one of Lucas Cranach the Elder's woodcuts
contrasting Jesus Christ with Pope Leo X (as the Antichrist)

This turned out to be false.  When the pope disagreed with Luther, Luther immediately denounced him as the Antichrist (see, for example, his November 1520 treatise Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist). This was just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole slew of Reformational art depicted the pope as the antichrist, or one of the figures from Revelation, depicting the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon, and so on.   And Leo was accused of all sorts of wild sins and crimes which any reasonable reader today can spot as slander.  For example, he's claimed to have denied the Deity of Christ, yet there's absolutely no evidence to substantiate this claim.

What had Pope Leo done to warrant such harsh treatment at Luther's hands?  He'd ordered Luther to recant on 41 of the 95 Theses. That is, after offering to address Luther's concerns personally, and after sending Cajetan to handle things, Leo responded as to which opinions could be held in good faith, and which couldn’t. He didn’t just condemn them all, nor did he condemn Luther for asking questions.  He gave a clear answer: the exact sort of answer we expect the pope to be able to give when someone raises a theological challenge.

Here we arrive at another point that often gets overlooked. It wasn’t as if Luther’s 95 Theses were all equally brilliant, even by modern Protestant standards.  After all, how many Protestants today agree that “the pope does excellently when he grants remission to the souls in purgatory on account of intercessions made on their behalf,” as Luther argued in Thesis 26 of his 95 Theses?

And when he says in Thesis 30, “no one is sure of the reality of his own contrition,” we’re hearing the pains of someone suffering from scrupulosity, not an accurate description of healthy Christian spirituality. When David offers up his “broken and contrite heart” in Psalm 51:17, he knows he’s contrite. So some of Luther’s theses were great, some were permissible views, and some (specifically, forty-one of the ninety-five) were outright wrong and needed to be recanted. Luther wouldn’t budge on any of them.

Ultimately, it came time to denounce Luther's errors.  But even here, Leo wasn't some giddy heretic-basher.  He expressed himself, rather, as a heartbroken father. From Exsurge Domine:
Pope Leo X
“As far as Martin himself is concerned, O good God, what have we overlooked or not done? What fatherly charity have we omitted that we might call him back from such errors? For after we had cited him, wishing to deal more kindly with him, we urged him through various conferences with our legate and through our personal letters to abandon these errors. We have even offered him safe conduct and the money necessary for the journey urging him to come without fear or any misgivings, which perfect charity should cast out, and to talk not secretly but openly and face to face after the example of our Savior and the Apostle Paul. 
If he had done this, we are certain he would have changed in heart, and he would have recognized his errors. He would not have found all these errors in the Roman Curia which he attacks so viciously, ascribing to it more than he should because of the empty rumors of wicked men. We would have shown him clearer than the light of day that the Roman pontiffs, our predecessors, whom he injuriously attacks beyond all decency, never erred in their canons or constitutions which he tries to assail. For, according to the prophet, neither is healing oil nor the doctor lacking in Galaad. 
But he always refused to listen and, despising the previous citation and each and every one of the above overtures, disdained to come.”
Leo offers up the cry of a desperate parent who feels like they’ve tried everything with a stubborn teenager. Certainly, some Catholics paid Luther back eye-for-an-eye.  When Luther used scatological language to describe King Henry, St. Thomas More used it right back at him.  But Leo stands out as someone who, for all his faults, rose above the pettiness of much of the Protestant-Catholic in-fighting.  It's hard to deny that he loved Luther, and truly wanted the best for him, and for the whole Church.  Again from Exsurge Domine:
It is our hope, so far as in us lies, that he will experience a change of heart by taking the road of mildness we have proposed, return, and turn away from his errors. We will receive him kindly as the prodigal son returning to the embrace of the Church. 
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. 
It was in response to this overture that Luther denounced Leo as the Antichrist in November 1520.  And even then, even after Luther began to denounce Leo personally as the Antichrist, it wasn't until January of 1521 that Luther was finally excommunicated.  

Does this make Leo sinless in the whole affair? Certainly not.  In fact, his biggest failing seems not to have been permitting the sale of indulgences, but trying to save Christian Europe by his own diplomatic powers and negotiating skills, rather than simply hoping in God.  But the idea that Leo was some horrible monster that Luther just had to run away from is flatly untrue.  He was a flawed pope and a sinner, as all popes have been, certainly.  But the Antichrist?  Hardly.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the historical background. I am beginning to understand some of the history which was going on (Crusades / Battle of Laponto (sp?) / Turkish Invasions / etc.) ... but for some reason, I didn't put all of that together.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. This is absolutely wonderful.

    You'll pardon if I suggest this for your reading pleasure. I strongly suspect your ability to breakdown the argument would be helpful in addressing the issues the curate writes upon (in a more skillful way than I).

    http://thecuratesdesk.org/2011/10/09/of-catholic-anglicanism-and-romanism-which-catholic-is-catholic/

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