A year after Luther’s inaugural statement of theological grievances in 1517, he was finally summoned to Rome to recant his errors. This would not be the academic colloquium that Luther had demanded in his 95 theses, but rather, something akin to an ecclesiastical trial. His failure to recant before Pope Leo X or his representative could very well cost him his life. A century earlier, the Czech reformer Jan Hus was granted a safe-conduct protection to expound his theology before the Council of Constance, but the pledge was not honored, and Hus was imprisoned, tried, and burned at the stake during the Council in 1415.
But Luther was more fortunate in that he enjoyed the protection of Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, who put forward a somewhat safer scenario for Luther’s major encounter with Rome. In the fall of 1518, a general meeting [or “diet”] of the Holy Roman Empire was scheduled to take place in Augsburg, a German city in Bavaria. It was well known that one of the most powerful Cardinals in Rome, Thomas Cajetan, would address the assembly, most urgently on matters of financial support for wars against the Turks in eastern Europe. Frederick reasoned that Luther’s personal safety would be best assured in German lands where Cajetan, so to speak, would prosecute away from his home field. Luther’s confrontation would take place under the protection of his friends.
It is remarkable that this plan was approved by all parties, some with more reluctance than others. The Emperor Maximilian regarded Luther a trouble-making heretic, but he, like the many German princes, believed that holding the trial in Augsburg was a way of asserting power against the Italians. Resentment against Roman taxes is an undercurrent of the Reformation that should not be overlooked. Frederick the Wise shared the tax resentment, but he also seemed to have some affinity for Luther the person and protected him to the degree his was able.
The Diet of Augsburg did not go well for Cardinal Cajetan, whose ecclesiastical hubris may have blinded him to the problems he would face on German soil. The Diet itself addressed the “Turkish tax” issue, with German unanimity that no funds would be forthcoming. Moreover, the full extent of German animus poured forth; one representative protested how “German money in violation of nature flies over the Alps.” The Diet used the opportunity to complain about the poor quality of priests being sent to Germany, and the meeting ended with the Diet pleading “Let the Holy Pope stop these abuses.” [Metaxas, 143]
Having failed miserably at his first task, Cajetan then turned his attention to Luther. It is my conjecture that, having seen the depths of German resentment toward Vatican practices, Cajetan saw greater urgency in bringing Luther to his knees in submission. Frederick arranged for a private meeting between Luther and Cajetan, but he worried that Cajetan might have Luther kidnapped and spirited in chains to Rome. When Luther arrived in Augsburg, he was not invited to see Cajetan immediately, but met instead with Vatican officials who labored to convince him of the importance of his recanting his arguments from the 95 Theses. Luther, who had longed for the opportunity to bring his reforms to Church life, made it clear that having arrived before the highest authorities of the Church, he was not going away until his arguments had been addressed.
Luther’s ire was raised by his treatment from the Cardinal’s representatives, and he was more determined than ever to face off with Cajetan. He was angered that Cajetan’s entourage boiled down the conflict to what they considered a sole issue: disobedience to the pope, Leo X. Luther’s theses, by contrast, were a comprehensive treatment of multiple subjects on the matter of forgiveness, indulgences, religious disposition, and the pure intentions of the Bishop of Rome. He was further annoyed at thinly veiled personal threats, such as his potential loss of the protection provided by Frederick. If anything, his pre-Cajetan briefings had solidified his determination to have it out here and now; he was, at this point in his life, ready to die on principle.
Finally, on October 12, 1518, the two men met face to face for the first time. Luther could not know that Cajetan carried no portfolio from Leo to debate Luther’s theses; his one task was obtaining a recant from the Augustinian monk. Cajetan attempted to treat Luther as a wayward son whose mischief was causing more trouble than he realized. But as Luther pressed for specific examples of his errors, Cajetan went beyond his mandate and highlighted this one, that Luther denied the pope’s right to access the merits of Christ and the saints and utilize them for the sale of indulgences. Luther replied, and in doing so he shone the light on the issue probably most to the heart of the Reformation, the power of Sacred Scripture.
Luther agreed with Cajetan’s formulation, but then he asked the Cardinal where in the Bible were these privileges of the pope to be found in the first place. [Thus, the central question was posed: what is the ultimate authority by which all earthly religious matters are to be judged.] Luther believed in the collective holiness of the Church, but he could not countenance what the Church was doing with indulgences. Cajetan from the start had badly underestimated Luther’s academic acumen, and with no intention of conducting a long debate, he sprung a surprise on his opponent by producing an obscure 1343 papal bull from Clement VI, an authorization for the practice of indulgences to which Luther objected. He waved it about with repeated cries of “Do you believe this or don’t you?” Cajetan was certain he had thrown his knockout punch.
Unfortunately for Cajetan, Luther was familiar with the 1343 document, probably more so than the Cardinal. More to the point, Luther was growing conscious of the influence and direction of his arguments for the future of the Church. He would not give Cajetan a yes-or-no answer, but instead he asked for time to consider a nuanced response. This was not the response Cajetan had hoped for. His mandate from Rome called for the eliciting a yes-or-no on the question of obedience to the pope. Frustrated, the Cardinal waited for several days until Luther resumed their meeting. In this second encounter, Luther pointed out that the 1347 papal bull did not say what the Cardinal claimed it did. Luther later wrote that “Cajetan was all of a sudden confused, and since he did not want to appear confused, he pushed on to other things and shrewdly wanted to bypass this subject.”
But as they continued, Luther came to a shocking realization. Metaxas records it this way: “And yet in all of this, Luther’s greatest fears were realized. He saw that the Cardinal cared not a fig for the Holy Scriptures, and quite seriously maintained that church decrees superseded them. The theological foolishness of this, and the disturbing evidence of it, were horrifying to Luther. He saw now what he had deep down feared but desperately hoped could not be true: that the greatest minds of the church were genuinely unaware of having become unmoored from the rock of the Scriptures and were even indifferent to this.” [p. 150]
Cajetan’s second point of contention with Luther in this meeting was Luther’s contention that it was one’s faith that produced God’s forgiveness. Luther had begun his reform with the idea that forgiveness and redemption could not be purchased; now he was progressing to more radical examination of the redemptive process within the sacrament of Penance. The Church taught, and still teaches, that forgiveness is rendered by the mediating absolution of the priest. Luther contended “it was the faith that mattered more than the priest’s actions,” [p. 151], basing his argument on Romans 1:17.
If Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, Luther was now crossing the Tiber…in the opposite direction.