German Reform: too late

There is an old expression: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That did not apply in the German Reformation. The enemy (Rome) was Luther’s best friend. Rome was their own worst enemy.

When Leo X announced the renewal of indulgences in order to finance St. Peter’s Basilica, there were a plethora of voices from Emperor Maxillian to his own Roman Curia who warned the pope that the idea was feeding accelerant into a smoldering fire of revolution among the German social classes. His own Papal Nuncio to Germany reported to Pope Leo that the Germans were only waiting for “some fool” to open his mouth against Rome. Some fool did: John Tetzel attempted to peddle indulgences in Saxony where the Elector of Saxony had already forbidden their sale. In the eyes of the German princes, nobles, knights and Burghers, Rome had infringed upon Saxony’s territorial rights. And Rosa Parks would not give up her seat on the bus. This infringement of rights was not the initiating act, it was the hinge, the tipping point.

When Pope Leo acted against Luther, it was already too late. Luther was already under the protection of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. It was the political and social connection that helped Luther avoid becoming the next Jan Hus or the Florentine Dominican Savonarola.

In the battle between Church and state, Frederick was the true hero. He had such a strong sense of duty to his subjects that neither the Roman curia, nor the imperial court, nor even Luther could shake his commitment to their welfare and spiritual concerns. Luther’s Appeal to the Ruling Class, written in 1520, appealed especially to Frederick’s long-standing commitment: “Therefore, when need requires it, and the pope is acting harmfully to Christian wellbeing, let anyone who is a true member of the Christian community as a whole take steps as early as possible to bring about a genuinely free council.” Frederick would become a leader among the princes in the revolt against ecclesiastical power.

By the way, it didn’t hurt that Emperor Maximilian needed Elector Frederick’s vote to ensure the election of his successor, Charles V. Consequently, Frederick’s political clout was increased and he gained imperial support in his case for Luther. Emperor Maximilian had additional concerns and he was not above playing one group against another. He was waging a crusade against the Turks and now more than ever he needed German revenues. Maximilian, furthermore, seeing in Luther a card to play in diplomatic contests with Rome, advised Frederick to “take good care of that monk.” These “ultra montaine” political circumstances favored the Reformation.

When Charles V was elected Emperor, one key promise was extracted from him: no German would be tried and condemned with a fair trail in Germany. In 1520, when Rome finally begins to respond to Luther, he is under the protection of Frederick and can not be summonsed and sent to Rome, where the Reform would have quietly died in a prison cell. Papal inquisitors had to speak to Luther in Augsburg, Germany. While the considered what to do, Luther was spirited away to Wartburg Castle.

The window closed. The Reformation took hold in the north of Germany.

The German Reformation was successful at its onset because at the core it was a secular, rather than religious, movement.

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