Luther No Longer a Heretic, Can Finally Rest in Peace

In case you missed it, Pope Benedict XVI declared that Martin Luther actually wasn’t a heretic. According to the Pope, Luther never intended to split the Catholic Church, which is actually true. He never intended to split, but was trying to invite a dialogue and discussion over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Many don’t realize this, but the 95 Theses he nailed to the church doors was written in Latin, not German, which was the language of the people. If he was trying to insight a rebellion, he would have written them down in a language the people could understand.

Pope Benedict XVI says that he was trying to cleanse the Catholic Church, and for that should not be condemned. Benedict is attempting to be seen as a benevolent, uniting force, but is fighting quite a bit of history in order to do that. Luther was condemned as a heretic by Pope Leo X, and called “a drunken German who will change his mind when sober”. He carefully researched Luther’s statements, and declared that he must recant 41 of these statements or face excommunication. This was done with a Papal Bull, or an edict, called ‘Exsurge Domine’. In the ‘Decet Romanum Pontificem‘ on January 3, 1521, Luther was officially excommunicated.


According to Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), all Popes are infallible, that is without mistake. Even Pope Leo XII (1885) went as far as saying that the Pope holds ‘upon this earth the place of God Almighty’. These are tall responsibilities and privileges that
Popes have claimed for centuries. Vatican Council 1 in 1870 declared that when a Pope speaks ‘ex cathidra’, which is when a Pope is teaching or preaching, his words are declared truth and teachings of the whole Catholic Church. There is no doubt that they teach that Popes are infallible.

This begs a question: Is Pope Benedict XVI declaring that Pope Leo X was not infallible? It seems as if Benedict is correcting Leo, saying he was incorrect. Of course this wouldn’t be the first time that Popes have contradicted themselves, just the most recent example. According to Vatican I, if you don’t believe that Peter was the first Pope, you are anathema. This stance was softened by Vatican II, and by Benedict, who has reached out even to the Muslim world, in an effort to build bridges to Catholicism throughout the world.

An interesting side discussion would be, what in Catholic terms, does this do to Luther’s eternal soul? Is he now released from purgatory? Was he in Hell, but now gets a direct promotion to Heaven upon further review?

We won’t know anything for sure, but Benedict is going to release his findings in September, so we will sit by idly, waiting with baited breath! One thing I can say for certain, Luther doesn’t care what Benedict thinks of him right now.


Side Note: an interesting Catholic view of Luther’s life. Though often difficult to follow due to odd language, sentence structure, and numerous links, it is none the less interesting to read a Catholic perspective on Luther.

6 comments on “Luther No Longer a Heretic, Can Finally Rest in Peace

  1. Anonymous says:

    Firstly, I want to correct your understanding of “ex cathedra.” (with an ‘e’ not ‘i’) When a Pope lays down a doctrine it is considered to be infallible. This is not the same thing as when he is “teaching or preaching.” Infallibility has only been invoked 4 time in 2,000 years. Nobody ever spoke ex cathedra in the excommunication of Martin Luther (whom I have a good deal of respect for by the way)

    Secondly, I believe the conflict lies in the understanding of the word “heretic.” A heretic can only be someone who claims to be a Catholic yet insists on an incorrect or opposing doctrine which is not accepted by the church. Hence, a Protestant cannot be a heretic because he or she is not and does not claim to be Catholic. I think what B16 is trying to say here is that since Luther openly rejected fundamental doctrines he could not be Catholic and, therefore, could not be a heretic. I believe the problem here is over syntax, not the issue of infallibility.

    The church is guided by the Holy Spirit and thus the Church shall prevail, even though it may make mistakes. We must remember that the church is guided by humans who, though guided by the Holy Spirit, still make mistakes and thus deserve the compassionate guidance of their fellow humans. Therefore, what you see as contradictions are rather seen as progress for us. At some times it is more appropriate for one thing to be done and, at other times, more appropriate for the opposite to be done instead. The Holy Spirit will guide the Church and, through God’s grace, the right thing will be done at the appropriate time. Truth is unchanging but the appropriate human response is ever changing because, well, we’re human.

    Thirdly, the Church makes absolutely no judgment on Luther’s soul. That is between God and Luther and no mortal has any right to make a judgment about that. The church does not make proclamations about the state of a person’s soul. That is incorrect. Excommunication has no bearing on whether or not a person goes to heaven as the Catholic Church believes that anyone who leads a good, holy life devoted to the will of God, to love, can achieve salvation, no matter what religion he or she belongs to. (This was clarified in Vatican II) While we believe that the Catholic Church is the true teaching, we accept that anyone who leads a life which reflects Christ’s teachings may go to heaven.

    • movwater says:

      By your analysis, there is no such a thing as a heretic as, for instance, the Gnostics and those Hebrews that insisted that gentile converts must be circumcised were not heretics either. Nor were the Arians, and others who red the Gospels and thought that St. Peter was the head of Church that Jesus, the Christ, establish by His life and death on the cross.

      • movwater says:

        Definition: Heretic:
        1 : a dissenter from established religious dogma; especially : a baptized member of the Roman Catholic Church who disavows a revealed truth

        I believe that Martin Luther fits this description. His conception of the Eucharist is not compatible with the revealed truth, if you believe John 6 and the several Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. Faith alone is not the way to Salvation, is you believe the Epistles of James and St. Paul.

  2. ehudadams says:

    You said: “A heretic can only be someone who claims to be a Catholic yet insists on an incorrect or opposing doctrine which is not accepted by the church.” That would fit Luther to a ‘t’. His intention was never becoming ‘protestant’. His desire was not to rebel against the church, but to encourage discussion. He was Catholic and the Catholic Church rejected him as a heretic.

    You say the church doesn’t make proclamations on people souls. I have to disagree with you. They declare people to be ‘anathema’ and condemned. If you excommunicate someone, you are removing the privileges of the sacraments. That is condemnation, because if a person can’t have those things, they are living in disobedience.

    I would like you to explain what being anathematized means, if it doesn’t mean being condemned for not submitting to and openly rejecting Catholic doctrine.

  3. Glenn Harder says:

    Luther’s great hymn, “A might fortress is our God”, has been in Catholic hymn books for some time now. I am a new Catholic, former Protestant who loved this hymn for many years before beoming RC. When I first saw this hymn in an RC hymn book I was pleasantly surprised. I had been told for years that Luther was hated by the RC church but how could this be true if they sing his great hymn. I became RC after that.

  4. Bob Helm says:

    I fail to see how Martin Luther can be blamed for homosexual marriages and ordinations. Please remember that Luther died in 1546, and these things have only come on the scene in the past 50 years.

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