Leo X – the Protestant Break

Born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, he was the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent of Florence. Early in his pontificate he oversaw the majority of and the closing sessions of the Fifth Council of the Lateran, but failed sufficiently to implement the reforms agreed. He is probably best remembered for granting indulgences for those who donated to reconstruct St. Peter’s Basilica, which practice was challenged by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. He seems not to have taken seriously the array of demands for church reform that would quickly grow into the Protestant Reformation. His Papal Bull of 1520, Exsurge Domine, simply condemned Luther on a number of areas and made ongoing engagement difficult.

Made a cardinal at age 13. Elected pope at age 37. By the way, he was not a priest. Last non-ordained man to be elected pope! When he became pope, Leo X is reported to have said to his brother Giuliano: “Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.” There is some question whether the remark is authentic but none that it is perfectly characteristic. Leo’s principle was to enjoy life. If Julius was a warrior, the new Pope was a hedonist, the only similarity between them being that their primary interests were equally secular. All the care of Lorenzo the Magnificent for the education and advancement of the cleverest of his sons had produced a cultivated bon vivant devoted to fostering art and culture and the gratification of his tastes, with as little concern for cost as if the source of funds were some self-filling magic cornucopia. One of the great spenders of his time, undoubtedly the most profligate who ever sat on the papal throne, Leo was much admired for his largesse by his Renaissance constituents, who dubbed his reign the Golden Age. It was golden for the coins that rained into their pockets from commissions, continuous festivities and entertainment, the rebuilding of St. Peter’s and city improvement. Since the money to pay for these came from no magic source but from ever-more extortionate and unscrupulous levies by papal agents, the effect, added to other embittering discontents, was to bring Leo’s reign to culmination as the last of united Christianity under the Roman See.

Leo’s lively interest in art and literature, to say nothing of his natural liberality, his alleged nepotism, his political ambitions and necessities, and his immoderate personal luxury, exhausted within two years the hard savings of Julius II, and precipitated a financial crisis from which he never emerged and which was a direct cause of most of what, from a papal point of view, were calamities of his pontificate.

He sold cardinals’ hats. He sold membership in the “Knights of Peter”. He borrowed large sums from bankers, curials, princes and Jews. These sums, together with the considerable amounts accruing from indulgences, jubilees, and special fees, vanished as quickly as they were received. Then the pope resorted to pawning palace furniture, table plate, jewels, even statues of the apostles. Several banking firms and many individual creditors were ruined by the death of Leo.

The “start of the Reformation” – if you take it as 1517 when Martin Luther read his Ninety-Five Theses on the topic of indulgences in the church courtyard at Wittenberg – happened in the middle of Leo’s reign. In hindsight it was a tipping point for the Church. It is not clear that its importance was understood by the pontiff. He was concerned, like his predecessors, with Italian and European politics, and his patronage of the arts.

At the end of his pontificate in 1523, bankruptcy was looming, the fires of the Reformation were raging, and the focus of the Vatican was squarely in Italy.

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