THE BULL «EXSURGE DOMINE» BY LEO X
WITH WHICH HE THREATENS TO EXCOMMUNICATE MARTIN LUTHER
Rome, 1520 June 15th
Paper volume, mm. 288x217, ff. 4 (rubricelle) + 330, bound in pale-red leather; on the back at the top: LEON. X. BULLAR. A.V. AD IX. L. CLXX
ASV, Reg. Vat., 1160, f. 251r
The years between 1519 and 1521 were the «golden years» of the charismatic Luther (Oberman), rich with publications and speeches; the Augustinian monk from Erfurt seemed he had reached a «hypnotic sureness», aware and proud of his mission consisting in proclaiming out loud the truth of Christ’s Gospel against the Antichrist (the papacy of Rome), for a genuine and urgent reform of the Church: «Ecclesiam et ecclesiasticos – as he wrote in the Operationes in Psalmos in these years - oportet reformari». In 1520 Luther publishes An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation von des christlichen Standes Besserung (To Christian nobility of the German Nation: the enhancement of the Christian State), where once again he censures the evils of Rome and confesses that he wanted to «violently attack the Pope, as the Antichrist».
And in that same year, at Rome the trial against Luther was resumed (started in 1518, but suspended for various reasons concerning the papal policy in 1519). The condemnation of the Augustinian monk was now decided, besides hoped for by the Universities of Leuven and Cologne. Three commissions were created to examine the works of Luther, three consistories were held (of which one lasted eight hours), and in the end the condemnation was decided. The relative bull was read in the consistory on 1st June 1520 and it was decided to publish it.
The copy of the long text of the bull, on which, as well as Leo X, also Giovanni Eck and the Cardinals Benedetto Accolti and Giulio de’ Medici (the future Clement VII) worked on it, is found in the register of Pope Medici, mainly at his eighth and ninth year of papacy (Reg. Vat., 1160, ff. 251r-259v). The originals that were sent had an unfortunate destiny and were nearly all destroyed; as everyone knows, when Luther received the bull he burnt it on 10th December 1520 at Wittenberg, along with the books of canon right, a clear sign of his rebellion against Rome.
With the Bull Exsurge Domine, where Luther’s name is repeated several times, Leo X condemns the 41 propositions or errors, drawn from the works of the Saxon monk, such as «vel hereticos, vel falsos, vel scandalosos, vel piarum aurium offensivos, vel simplicium mentium seductivos»; the propositions that were condemned regarded the «fides fiduciosa», the justification, the grace, the ecclesiastic hierarchy, the efficacy of the sacraments, the purgatory, repentance, the indulgencies and the original sin. The Pope ordered all the Christian faithful to not keep, read, defend or print Martin Luther’s books that contained these errors, moreover he exhorted them to burn them publicly. With regard to the innovator of Eisleben, for whom the Pope declared he had worked very hard (Quod vero ad ipsum Martinum attinet - bone Deus! - quid praetermisimus, quid non fecimus, quid paterne caritatis omisimus ut eum an huiusmodi erroribus revocaremus?), it was announced that he would have been excommunicated, if he had not made an act of obedience within 60 days from promulgation of the Bull in Germany.
The papal document has a long harangue or preamble (a page and a half of the register), with the aim of producing a strong effect and to show the enormous amount of harm Luther’s works were doing to the Church (from line 1: Leo etc. Ad futuram rei memoriam. Exurge Domine et iudica causam tuam, memor esto improperiorum tuorum, eorum que ab insipientibus fiunt tota die, inclina aurem tuam ad preces nostras, quoniam surrexerunt vulpes quaerentes demolire vineam, cuius tu torcular calcasti solus [... ]). The reference to the «classical» texts of the excommunication bulls, from Innocent III onwards, are evident, but they produced in Luther’s soul the opposite effect of what they were supposed to. In fact, hurling back the accusation, he interpreted these words, steeped in biblical references that could not escape him, as if they were the Church’s cry to the Lord, so that He may set the Church free from the Antichrist, that is the Pope of Rome.