The letter from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X was written in 1520 in which Luther appears to try to clarify his intentions and his feelings surrounding the controversy of the Reformation. The Reformation took place beginning in 1517 when Luther made a case to change Catholic ideals and rules. The audience that Luther is writing for is singularly Pope Leo X although it was presumably a document that was spread to the rest of the Catholic Church. At the time when Luther wrote this letter, he had been trying to separate and reform Catholicism and had criticized the Catholic Church and the Pope specifically for a number of reasons. Martin Luther had originally been a monk who criticized the Pope’s extravagant spending on art and building. Luther seems to be apologizing for creating and waging a war and expressing his respect and love for the Pope.
It is clear that Luther is expressing his sincere reverence for Pope Leo X and an explanation for why he has acted the way he did. He attempts to clarify that no matter what other people might tell the Pope, Luther has never spoken ill of him and always maintains him in the highest regard. To clarify his respect for the Pope he states, “I have said nothing of you but what was honourable and good. If I had done otherwise, I could by no means have approved my own conduct” (Luther, 1520) and goes on to say he has even referred to him at Daniel in Babylon. As much as he explains his respect for Leo, he also adds that he would, “…never delight in the faults of any man” (Luther, 1520) which might point to an underlying message in the letter.
This letter was incredibly significant because it was the first expression of an apology that Luther ever issued to the Pope. There was so much turmoil and passionate aggression at the time of the Reformation that this was the most subdued and submissive expression that had been heard from Martin Luther. Because he had been the main force behind the Reformation, he had been a staunch leader and widely outspoken in his criticisms. The letter is also a persuasion from Luther to be excused and vindicated for his behavior. He tries to make it clear that he wished to do no evil and appears to be concerned that Pope Leo will think him evil for his actions.
While Luther appeals to Pope Leo X for vindication and expresses his deep respect for him, he also described the Roman Court as being a corrupt place of governing and evil. He goes as far as to say that Satan rules the Court more than the Pope does. In these kinds of expressions that are abundant throughout the letter, it is unclear if Luther is actually being as kind as he presents himself. The letter seems to be full of hidden messages and undertones of disdain. While he expresses his belief that Pope Leo is a better person than many of the other corrupt leaders, by stating the fact that he still interacts with the Roman Court and has not changed anything he implies that this in fact might not be true. While writing as though he a friend of the Pope’s, he sympathizes with him for being born into the wrong time period where corruption is rampant. He points out how obvious is it to everyone that corruption infiltrates the entire court and that by not acting or changing this, subtly implies that the Pope is not courageous enough to change or that he partakes in the corruption.
Although there might be underlying tones and messages in this letter, it is still significant that he is express is car and compassion for the Pope after so much tension. He expresses that Leo should be beheld in glory and introduces a different perspective to the Reformation by being so gracious. What is very interesting about this letter is that it is so vastly different than previous statements issued by Martin Luther. It is unknown whether or not this is an insincere letter that is meant to cause contradiction to Luther’s movement or it could be a genuine expression of his guilt for his actions and movement.
This letter can be interpreted as by hypocrisy on Luther’s part but I think that it is evidence of the complexity of individuals. Martin Luther was a deeply religious man and in the Reformation he sought to change aspects of the Catholic Church that he felt were hurting others or unfair. By doing this, he needed to be extreme in some of his teachings and beliefs in order to be heard but it does not mean that he did not have respect for singular identities that made up parts of the Church he disagreed with.
Luther’s humility in this letter could have also been a ploy to manipulate the Pope and the Catholic Church at the time. Because of the black and white view at the time, Luther was viewed as a heretic and heretics were considered liars. His words were not taken seriously but there is a possibility that by writing this letter he would be able to convince the Church of his loyalty. The letter uses Luther’s passion for religion to create a common bond and reiterate that he is not a heretic.
By including the statement, “Since then we were bringing about by this disputation nothing but the greater confusion of the cause of Rome”(Luther, 1520) he seeks to unite them in the fact that peace would be a better alternative than the fight that had taken place so for. The authenticity of this document has come into question considering the fact that this letter was such a different sentiment than Martin had previously expressed. Whatever the reason for his humility and revere, this letter was significant in its difference and its expression of peace for both parties to respect each other and reach an agreement.
Martin Luther, Letter From Martin Luther to Pope Leo X, 1520.
Photo By Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder — 1./2. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 2922803. Germanisches Nationalmuseum4. Unknown source5. Cranach Digital Archive, Public Domain