When Dr. Eck left the scene of the Leipzig disputation he at once set off for Rome.
And with what aim? He had crossed the Alps to solicit the Pope's help against the man whom he boasted having vanquished. Cardinal Cajetan had preceded him. Both sought revenge.
But The Roman Curia was apathetic. How could the insignificant monk of Wittenberg shake the Pontiff's throne? Some were concerned because excommunication required the unpredictable civil powers to enforce it. Others were secretly appalled at the depths to which Rome had sunk and felt Luther's voice could be tolerated. Yet others felt sure that honours and preferments in the end would silence him. Many however were for an instant anathema.
Eck the indefatigable
In Rome the indefatigable Eck left no stone unturned to procure the condemnation of his opponent. He laboured to gain over every one he came in contact with. His eloquence raised to a white heat the zeal of the monks. He spent hours of deliberation in the Vatican. He melted even the coldness of Leo. He dwelt on the character of Luther. A man so obstinate and so incorrigible. Surely all attempts at conciliation were but a waste of time. He dwelt on the urgency of the matter. While they sat in debate in the Vatican, Eck played on their apprehensions. The movement, he warned, was growing by days, by moments, in Germany. To second Eck's arguments, Cajetan, now so ill as to be unable to walk, was borne every day upon a litter into the council-chamber.
Eck had another ally. This was no other than the banker Fugger of Augsburg. He was treasurer of the indulgences and therefore losing revenue through Luther's activity. This awoke in him a most vehement desire to crush a heresy so hurtful to the Church's interest-and his own.
Meanwhile rumours reached Luther of what was preparing for him in the halls of the Vatican. These rumours caused him no alarm. His heart was fixed. Because he saw in his heart a Greater than Leo. Wittenberg at that moment presented a very different scene from Rome. In the latter city all was anxiety and turmoil, in the former all was peaceful and fruitful. Visitors from all countries were daily arriving to see and converse with the Reformer. The halls of the university were crowded with youth - the hope of the Reformation. The fame of Melanchthon was extending. He had just given his hand to Catherine Krapp, and so formed the first link between the Reformation and domestic life. A new sweetness was infused into both. Further under God it was at this hour, too, that a young Swiss priest was not ashamed to own his adherence to that Gospel which Luther preached. He waited upon the interim Papal nuncio in Helvetia, entreating him to use his influence at head-quarters to prevent the excommunication of the doctor of Wittenberg. The name of this priest was Ulrich Zwingli. This was the first break of day visible on the Swiss mountains.
Meanwhile Eck had triumphed at Rome. On the 15th of June, 1520, the Sacred College brought their lengthened deliberations to a close by agreeing to fulminate the bull of excommunication against Luther. The elegancies or barbarisms of its style are to be shared amongst its joint concoctors, Cardinals Pucci, Ancona, and Cajetan. "Now," thought the Vulcans of the Vatican, when they had forged this bolt, "now we have finished the business. There is an end of Luther and the Wittenberg heresy." To know how haughty at this moment was Rome's spirit, we must turn to the bull itself.
"Arise, O Lord arise and be Judge in Thy own cause. Remember the insults daily offered to Thee by infatuated men. Arise, O Peter! remember thy holy Roman Church, the mother of all Churches, and mistress of the faith. Arise, O Paul! For here is a new Porphyry, who is attacking thy doctrines, and the holy Popes our predecessors! Arise, in fine, assembly of all the saints, holy Church of God, and intercede with the Almighty!"
The bull then goes on to condemn as scandalous, heretical, and damnable, forty-one propositions extracted from the writings of Luther. The obnoxious propositions are simple statements of Gospel truth. One of the doctrines singled out for special anathema was that which took from Rome the right of persecution, by declaring that "to burn heretics is contrary to the will of the Holy Ghost". After the maledictory clauses of the bull, the document went on to extol the marvellous forbearance of the Holy See, as shown in its many efforts to reclaim its erring son. To heresy Luther had added contumacy. He "had had the insolence to appeal to the General Council in the face of the decretals of Pius II and Julius II and had filled up the measure of his sins by slandering the immaculate Papacy". The Papacy, nevertheless, yearned over its lost son, and "imitating the omnipotent God, who desireth not the death of a sinner," earnestly exhorted the prodigal to return to the bosom of his mother, to bring back with him all he had led astray, and make proof of the sincerity of his penitence by reading his recantation, and committing all his books to the flames, within the space of sixty days. Failing to obey this summons, Luther and his adherents were pronounced incorrigible and accursed heretics, whom all princes and magistrates were enjoined to apprehend and send to Rome, or banish from the country in which they happened to be found. The towns where they continued to reside were laid under interdict, and every one who opposed the publication and execution of the bull was excommunicated in "the name of the Almighty God, and of the holy apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul."
Writing on the wall
These were haughty words. At what a moment were they spoken! The finger of a man's hand was even then about to appear, and to write on the wall that Rome had fulfilled her glory, had reached her zenith, and would henceforward hasten to her setting. But she knew not this. She saw only the track of light she had left behind her in her onward path through the ages. A thick veil hid the future with all its humiliations and defeats from her eyes. The Pope advanced with excomm-unications in one hand and fiats in the other.
Immediately on the back of this terrible fulmination came a letter to the Elector Frederick from Leo X. The Pope in this communication dilated on the errors of that "son of iniquity," Martin Luther. Leo was sure that Frederick cherished an abhorrence of these errors, and he proceeded to pass a glowing eulogium on the piety and orthodoxy of the elector, who he knew would not permit the blackness of heresy to sully the brightness of his own and his ancestors' fame.
There was a day when these compliments would have been grateful to Frederick, but he had since drunk at the well of Wittenberg, and lost his relish for the Roman cistern. The object of the letter was transparent, and the effect it produced was just the opposite of that which the Pope intended. From that day Frederick of Saxony resolved with himself that he would protect the Reformer.
Eck and Aleander
Every step that Rome took in the matter was marked by infatuation. She had launched her bull, and must needs see to its being published in all the countries of Christendom. In order to achieve this the bull was put into the hands of two nuncios, than whom it would hardly have been possible to find two men better fitted to render an odious mission yet more odious. These were Eck and Aleander. Eck, the conqueror at Leipzig, who had left amid the laughter of the Germans, now re-crosses the Alps. He bears in his hand the bull that is to complete the ruin of his antagonist. "It is Eck's bull," said the Germans, "not the Pope's." It is the treacherous dagger of a mortal enemy, not the axe of a Roman lictor.
Onward, however, came the nuncio, proud of the bull, which he had so large a share in fabricating. He came proudly regarding himself as a second Atlas, in his own eyes, who bore up the sinking Roman world. As he passed through the German towns, he posted up the important document, amid the coldness of the bishops, the contempt of the burghers, and the hootings of the youth of the universities. His progress was more like that of a fugitive than a conqueror. He had to hide at times from the popular fury in the nearest convent. Unpopularity closed his career sending him into permanent seclusion at Cobourg.
The other functionary was Aleander. To him was committed the task of bearing a copy of the bull to the Archbishop of Mainz, and of publishing it in the towns along the Rhine. Aleander had been secretary to Pope Alexander VI the infamous Borgia. No worthier bearer could have been found of such a missive, and no happier choice could have been made of a colleague to Eck. "A worthy pair of ambassadors," said some; "both are admirably suited for this work, and perfectly matched in effrontery, impudence, and debauchery."
To be continued.
Taken from Wylie's History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis