A plea for the overriding of the Excommunication Bull by Pope Leo X against Martin Luther and all his followers, and for the withdrawal of the Reformers´ condemnation of the Pope as “Antichrist“
I. The events of the years 1520/21
The tragic history, which made Martin Luther and Pope Leo X irreconcilable opponents, even 500 years after the events, calls for our attention. The Papal Bull of June 15th 1520 threatening the excommunication of Luther and his followers was followed by the real Excommunication Bull of January 3rd, 1521. The Empire‘s Convocation in Worms, which received the Excommunication Bull on February 13th by the Pope´s Legate Hieronymus Aleander and the appearance of Martin Luther in front of the Empire’s Convocation including Emperor Charles V, on April 18th, 1521 in Worms, led to the Edict of Worms , depriving Martin Luther and all his followers of all their rights. The confusing conflict took its further course, which is well known to everybody.
II. New light after the 2nd Vatican Council on the ancient events
We thank God, that ecumenical endeavours in the years after the 2nd Vatican Council in dialogues between Catholics and Lutherans have contributed decisively to the understanding of the events of that time in a new light. Many endeavours of the project “Doctrinal Condemnations – Church Dividing?” reached their highest point with the consensus on the Doctrine of Justification in Augsburg 1999. Therefore it seems to us that on the occasion of the commemoration of the public Excommunication Bull, 500 years ago, on January 3rd 1521, time is ripe for the Church banns of that time, which concerned not only the reformer, Martin Luther, but also all his followers, to receive a new judgement. This must include the condemnation of Martin Luther by Pope Leo X, as well as Luther‘s condemnation of the Pope as “Antichrist”.
With our proposal for the 500th Commemoration Day we are inspired by that important event of December 7th, 1965, when – on the last but one day of the 2nd Vatican Council – in the Assembly Hall of the Roman Council in the presence of Pope Paul VI, and at the same time in the Phanar of Constantinople with Patriarch Athenagoras I present, a declaration was proclaimed. It says, ‘One cannot pretend that these events were not what they were during this very troubled period of history. Today, however, they have been judged more fairly and serenely.
Therefore Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I declared that they likewise regret the mutually inflicted sentences of excommunication in the year 1054 and that they would remove both from memory and from the midst of the Church and ‘commit these excommunications to oblivion.’
We are conscious, that the two Church representatives, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I met with each other on equal terms, whereas in the year 1521 the Roman Pope, as the highest church authority, and the monk Martin Luther and his followers proceeded only with theological arguments to mutual exclusions. From the 41 articles of the Bull threatening excommunications it can be seen that at the time the differences at the beginning of the conflict between Rome and Wittenberg had graver and graver consequences. Finally, Martin Luther, in his Schmalkaldische articles of 1537, restated his accusation, already raised in 1520, that the Antichrist was seated on the papal chair, and even that the Roman Church had fallen into idolatry.
But during the ecumenical dialogues following the 2nd Vatican Council it became more and more apparent that these reproaches are no longer maintained by Lutheranism. The result of these dialogues was that Martin Luther, once accused of heresy, can be more profoundly understood as “witness to Jesus Christ”, as formulated in the Declaration of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Joint Commission (1983). Furthermore, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) of 1999 elaborated the message of the redemption by Jesus Christ as the basis of faith which binds very deeply not only Lutherans and Catholics but also the World Communions of Methodists, Reformed and Anglicans. Regarding the respective doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century it was then stated (No 41): ‘[Thus] the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: the teaching of the Lutheran Churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration.’
III. Consequences for the ecumenical present time and future
The Altenberg Ecumenical Group developes the following three proceedings:
1. In view of these hopeful developments and with a view to the 500th anniversary of the excommunication of Martin Luther January 3, 2021, we ask the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, in consultation with the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, to declare that the condemnations of the bull of excommunication of 1521 do not apply to today’s members of the Evangelical Lutheran Churches. We link this request with “The Worms Memorandum” of 6th March, 1971, which asked the Pope to announce “a clarification concerning the person and teaching of Martin Luther from today’s Catholic point of view in the interest of deepening ecumenical work”. What was not possible around 50 years ago should be achieved in the “Year of Ecumenism 2021”.
In the same way we request the President of the Lutheran World Federation, Archbishop Dr Musa Panti Filibus from Nigeria, together with the Executive Committee of the Lutheran World Federation to declare: The condemnation of the Popes as “Antichrist” by Martin Luther and Evangelical Lutheran confessional writings (Bekenntnisschriften: Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Schmalkaldische Articles, Tractatus on Power and Primacy of the Pope, Formula of Concordance) do not apply to the present Papacy and its ministers.
In a common act, perhaps taking place at the same time in different locations, both sides could extinguish from the memory of the Church and commit to oblivion the words and deeds, which led to the excommunication of Luther as well as to the “Antichrist” condemnations.
2. At the beginning of the time of Reformation the conflicts between Luther and the Pope took place mostly on German soil. They influence the ecumenical climate in Germany up to the present day. Therefore we ask the German Bishops Conference in consultation with the Central Committee of German Catholics as well as the Council and Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany for a common public statement regretting the events of the former time and hoping that the mutual condemnations, which led to the separation between the Churches, will be overturned. In this way they would support the concern to override the earlier condemnations and to prevent a relapse into mutual demarcations or even condemnations.
3. We invite all congregations, assembling in an ecumenical worship-event in or around the 2nd Sunday after Christmas, 3rd January 2021, to combine the joy of God´s coming into our world with an action of reconciliation with each other after 500 years. (A draft for this exists.) We are grateful for the cooperation of the local Christian churches (ACK) in taking up this invitation and their readiness to bring about its realisation, for example during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January or the week before Pentecost), so that in future we can walk the pilgrim path of justice and peace in reconciled diversity.
At the Feast of the Holy Spirit [Pentecost] we recall the words of the Apostle Paul, which are the Herrn-hut slogan of this year´s Pentecost Sunday for all of us: “In the one Spirit we are all baptised into one Body – Jews or Greeks, slaves of free – and we are all made to drink of the one Spirit“. (1 Corinthians 12, 13)
Altenberg (close to Cologne), May 31, 2020, at Pentecost
On behalf of the Altenberg Ecumenical Group (“Altenberger Ökumenischer Gesprächskreis”):
Pastor Hans-Georg Link, Cologne
Professor Joseph Wohlmuth, Bonn