Luther would not give Cajetan the satisfaction, a point that would cause the Cardinal much frustration and embarrassment when he returned to Rome. [“You only had one job….”] Specifically, Cajetan sought an admission from Luther that the pope’s authority was the last word on indulgences, and thus Luther must stop demanding academic and theological examination of the practice. The Cardinal laid out several papal directives composed throughout the medieval era defending the practice of indulgences. Luther countered that these documents depended solely on the authority of the popes, without the ultimate authority of the bible. Cajetan retorted that the pope enjoyed ultimate authority, even in matters of biblical interpretation.
Luther was astounded by this line of argument. As a theologian, he was quick to see that if all serious matters of faith and practice were circumscribed by the pope acting independently, what was the point of Church universities and academies, the very places Luther wished to take the indulgence question for study and debate? But Cajetan’s position raised two more significant points—one might call them the heart of the Reformation. First, from the Cardinal’s argument, what is implied about the role of the Bible itself as an authoritative source in Catholic life? Was the Bible simply a source for cherry picking isolated statements to support ecclesiastical disputes of the day? Or was the Bible to be understood as in the words of Hebrews 12:4, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”?
The second of Luther’s takeaways from his encounter with Cajetan was the latter’s seeming denial of human participation in Church governance. Cajetan’s demand called for Luther to pledge obedience to the pope, and only the pope. Luther countered that the Church lived as an organism of leaders and faithful. He did not deny a papal or Petrine ministry, but again his mastery of the Scripture included the history of the early Church as recorded in St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and the letters of St. Paul, in which Paul, according to Galatians 11ff, met Cephas [i.e., Peter] and “withstood him to his face” for Peter’s indecisiveness over the matter of accepting Gentiles into the Church of Christ.
Let us take the long view of what was happening at this critical junction in history. Luther’s own history reveals a man of religious neurosis who found salvation in the pages of sacred scripture. His personal encounters with the Bible proved to be the guiding direction of his life. He assumed, then, that the reading of the Bible was both the privilege and the obligation of all the baptized. Put another way, he came to appreciate what we might call individual spirituality, with an attendant freedom of conscience. The issue of freedom of conscience and the lawful demands of Church authority were not resolved in Luther’s day, and Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae, “Declaration on Religious Freedom,” would bring the issue to contemporary consideration in 1965.
On the other side of the ledger was the pressure upon the Church from inside and outside sources—good and bad—to provide leadership in the Western Roman Church when events began spinning out of control. A century before Luther, the Council of Constance deposed three men claiming to be rightful popes at the same time and legislated that in the future a pope was obligated to call a reform council every five to ten years. For a time, the world’s bishops were, hypothetically at least, equal to if not superior to a sitting pope. Geographic impracticality as much as anything restored the supreme influence back to the papacy. But consequently, future popes were loath to convoke reform councils, such that there was no concentrated effort to address critical issues arising in the late Medieval and Renaissance period.
Luther was not the first nor the only academic to address the need for reform. He was, however, among the first to profit from new technology, notably the printing press; from a growing sense of regional patriotism and a resentment of outside imposition of taxes; from a growth of spiritual communities made up of individuals who cultivated intense personal experiences of meditation, independent of the larger Church structure. The famous religious classic The Imitation of Christ developed in this milieu, known today as the Devotio Moderna.
By the end of the unproductive meeting of Luther and Cajetan, it became clear to all involved that a serious and dangerous feud was developing. Again, Luther profited from his timing; his religious order, his university, his countrymen, and his protector Frederick saved him from being seized by Cajetan’s soldiers and dispatched to Rome for trial and burning. Perhaps feeling invulnerable to threat, Luther engaged in another public debate, this time with a fellow German scholar, Johann Eck, who proved to be a much better opponent than Cajetan [Eck spoke German, for starters.] Eck put the question to Luther, is the papacy of divine or human origin? Eck was able to position Luther’s answers with those of previous heretics, notably Jan Hus, who had been burned at the stake at the above-mentioned Council of Constance.
Luther now understood his precarious situation. As Carlos M.N. Eire writes in Reformations, “Luther was aware that in the eyes of the church he kept attacking, he had become a rebel and a heretic.” Again, from Eire, “Everyone now prepared for the inevitable bull of excommunication from Pope Leo X, the flames, and the stench of Luther’s roasting flesh.” [p. 157]