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It’s not uncommon to hear Martin Luther pegged as the man who effectively split the Western Church. Along this line, Bishop Robert Barron remarks in a new documentary, “I think Luther was too polemical, and I think he fell into opposition [too] quickly with the Catholic Church.”

Barron suggests that if Luther were only more patient and cooperative, his reformation might have been avoided, and a Lutheran order of monks may have found a place in the Catholic Church. But is this historical portrait accurate?

Erroneous, False, Heretical

In late 1517, Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop of Mainz, wrote to Pope Leo X concerning Martin Luther’s opposition to indulgence preaching. Upon receiving the letter, Leo employed the expertise of his court theologian, Sylvester Mazzolini Prierias, who in turn examined Luther’s 95 Theses as an initial step in the canonical process against one accused of heresy.


Despite being a seasoned theologian, the 62-year-old Prierias responded without nuance or sympathy. Composing his so-called “Opinion” of Luther’s Theses in three days, Prierias simply repudiated Luther’s concerns wherever they conflicted with his Thomistic theology. Luther’s Theses were dismissed as erroneous, false, and heretical.

Yet Luther had no desire to attack the papacy. Statements such as thesis 50 suggest Luther believed Leo would curb the church’s indulgence abuses after having them brought to his attention. Unfortunately, this would not be so. From Prierias’s perspective, the infallible character of the universal church subsisted in the Roman Church, and was personified by the pope. Prierias asserted that “the Roman church is representatively the college of cardinals, and moreover is virtually the supreme pontiff,” and that “he who says that the Roman church cannot do what it actually does regarding indulgences is a heretic.”

Eager to demonstrate his superior theological acumen to the Wittenberg professor about whom the masses were beginning to talk, Prierias turned his “Opinion” into a polemical tract full of bitter acrimony—his Dialogus, printed in Rome that June. He then drafted the official citation, which commanded Luther to appear in Rome within 60 days.

Infallible Pope

It was immediately obvious to Luther that to obey the papal summons would likely lead to a martyr’s stake. But before he faced that dilemma, Luther appeared before the diet of the Holy Roman Empire in Augsburg. Over three days, Luther sought to discuss indulgences with another papal representative, Cardinal Cajetan. Surely now Luther’s concerns would get the consideration they warranted, right? But no such opportunity was granted him. The message to Luther was clear: Recant and submit. Faithful ministers of the church do not question the pope.

In his written response to Prierias, Luther asserted the church and council are capable of error; holy Scripture alone, as Augustine affirmed, is truly infallible. Therefore, Luther argued, it is surely appropriate to employ Scripture as a basis for theological disputation about a matter like indulgences, which had yet to be dogmatically defined. But before the ink was dry on these sentences, Rome had already concluded Luther was guilty of heresy.

It’s important to recognize that the doctrine of papal infallibility was never officially sanctioned during the Middle Ages, even though its champions like Prierias upheld the idea. “The supreme pontiff cannot err when giving a decision as pontiff, i.e., when speaking officially [ex officio],” he wrote, and also, “Whoever does not rest upon the teaching of the Roman church and the supreme pontiff as an infallible rule of faith, from which even holy Scripture draws its vigor and authority, is a heretic.”

In his Epitome—a summary of statements against LutherPrierias had said, “Even though the pope as an individual can do wrong and hold a wrong faith, nevertheless as pope he cannot give a wrong decision.” These statements were disturbing enough to Luther, but Prierias pushed him over the edge by going a step further:

An undoubtedly legitimate pope cannot be lawfully deposed or judged by either a council or the entire world, even if he be so scandalous as to lead people with him en masse into the possession of the devil in hell.

Such a diabolical defense of the papacy at all costs led Luther to conclude Rome had become nothing less than antichrist.

Extraordinarily, Prierias had found this statement in the pages of canon law. Reading it, Luther concluded Rome had lost its mind and its soul. He called Prierias’s citation a “hellish manifesto.” In Luther’s view, the villain was not Leo X but the papal office, which marginalized Christ’s Word in favor of its own power, even claiming the prerogative to lead God’s people into the netherworld.

Line in the Sand

On June 15, 1520, Leo X issued the papal bull Exurge Domine, condemning 41 errors from Luther’s writings and sermons. If Luther didn’t recant within 60 days, he would be arrested and brought to the fires of holy recompense. Luther would recognize the pope’s authority, or face the consequences. What did he do? He did what was natural to him. He wrote:

Farewell, thou unhappy, lost, sacrilegious city! Let us hand this Babel over to the servants of Mammon, the unbelievers, apostates, pederasts, devotees of Priapus, robbers, simonists, and all the other wild prodigies with which this pantheon of godlessness is filled to the brim. Let it become a dwelling place of dragons, lemures, vampires, and ghosts, and, in keeping with its name, become an everlasting chaos.

Painful Farewell

Despite his bravado, this farewell was painful for Luther, as he admitted. But the die was cast. Luther and Rome would proceed along divergent paths. Despite his attempts to dialogue with superiors about church abuses surrounding indulgences, Luther had been summarily rejected and informed that the pope he questioned was above questioning.

This is the historical context in which Luther took his stand against the Roman church. Did Luther ever provoke his interlocutors? Undoubtedly. His indiscretions are well documented. But was it Luther’s decision to split the church, or was he pushed out? The evidence seems to support the latter.