Exsurge Domine and Decet Romanum

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Papal Bulls condemning Luther, 1520-1521


Leo X, Exsurge Domine (1520)

Pope Leo X (1513–1521) had been made a cardinal in 1489 at the age of fourteen. He was elected pope in 1513 and subsequently ordained to the priesthood. In 1520, alarmed by the furor in Germany, and distracted by it from his main preoccupations of hunting, music, and art, Leo issued this bull, hoping thereby to stifle a potentially dangerous movement. It censured forty-one statements as “heretical, scandalous, erroneous, offensive to pious ears, misleading to simple minds, and contradictory to Catholic teaching.” If Luther did not recant in sixty days, he would be excommunicated. The list shows that at this stage there was in Rome considerable confusion over what Luther actually taught.


Arise O Lord and judge thy cause. . . . Arise O Peter, and in the name of the pastoral charge committed to thee from on high, put forth thy strength in the cause of the holy Roman Church, the mother of all churches, the mistress of the faith. . . . Arise thou also, O Paul, we beg thee, who hast enlightened her with thy teaching. . . . In a word, let every saint arise and the whole remaining universal church. . . . Let intercession be made to almighty God, that his sheep may be purged of their errors and every heresy be expelled from the confines of the faithful, and that God may deign to preserve the peace and unity of his holy church. . . .

For some time we have been hearing of, or rather, alas!, seeing and reading with our own eyes, many different errors which, although in part condemned aforetimes by councils and decisions of our predecessors . . . have been stirred up afresh, and latterly . . . sown abroad in the renowned nation of Germany. . . . We cannot, in view of our pastoral office, laid on us by divine grace, any longer tolerate the poisonous virus of these errors. . . .[A partial list follows.]

1. It is an heretical but commonly held opinion that the sacraments of the new law give justifying grace to those who place no obstacle in their way.

2. To deny that sin remains in a child after baptism is to trample on [the teachings of] Paul and Christ alike.

3. The capacity of sinning [fomes peccati, literally the “tinder of sin”], even where no actual sin is present, hinders the soul, as it leaves the body, from entering heaven.

4. The imperfect love of a dying man cannot but produce a great fear, which of itself is enough to constitute the penalty of purgatory; and this hinders entrance into the kingdom.

5. The threefold division of penitence into contrition, confession and satisfaction, is based neither on Holy Scripture nor the writings of the ancient and holy Christian doctors.

6. The contrition which results from discussion, comparison and detestation of one’s sins, and with which one reviews one’s past years in bitterness of soul, weighing the gravity, multitude, hideousness of the sins—the forfeiting of eternal blessedness, the procuring of eternal damnation—such contrition makes of one a hypocrite and a worse sinner than before.

7. Truest of all, and worth more than all that has been taught to date about contrition, is the proverb: “Penitence at its highest is not to do it again; penitence at its best is—a new life.”

8. You must not in the least presume to confess venial sins—nor all your mortal sins, either, for you cannot possibly have cognizance of them all. This is why in the primitive church the only mortal sins confessed were those committed for all to see.

9. Our purpose to make pure confession of everything really only means that we want there to be nothing left for the divine mercy to pardon.

10. No sins are remitted unless, when the priest pronounces absolution, a man believes that they are remitted; . . .

11. You are on no account to believe that absolution is due to your contrition, but rather to the Word of Christ (“Whatsoever ye shall loose . . .” [Matt. 16:19]). . . .

12. If, to take an impossible case, the one confessing were not contrite, or the priest were not serious but joking in his absolution, nevertheless if he believes he is absolved, then absolved he is in very truth.

13. In the sacrament of penance or the remission of guilt, the pope or the bishop does no more than the lowliest priest; indeed, when there is no priest, any Christian—even a woman or child—could do the same.

14. No one is bound to reply to the priest that he is contrite, nor the priest to ask it.

15. They are greatly in error who approach the Eucharist relying on their confession of sin, on their consciousness of no mortal sin, or their due performance of prayers and preparations: all such eat and drink to their own judgment. But if they believe and trust that there they will find grace, this faith alone (sola fides) makes them pure and worthy.

16. It is apparently agreed that the church should decree by a general council that the laity should be communicated in both kinds: the Bohemians, who follow this practice, are not heretics—merely schismatics.

17. The treasures of the church, whence the pope grants indulgences, are not the merits of Christ and the saints. . . .

19. Indulgences, even when sincerely sought, have no power for the remission of the punishment which divine justice awards actual sins. . . .

21. Indulgences are only necessary for public crimes, and are properly granted only to hardened and unfeeling offenders. . . .

23. Excommunication is a mere external penalty; it does not deprive a man of the common spiritual prayers of the church. . . .

25. The Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, is not the vicar of Christ over all the churches in the whole world, appointed as such by Christ himself in blessed Peter.

26. The word of Christ to Peter: “Whatsoever thou loosest on earth” etc. [Matt. 16:19] applies only to Peter’s own binding (and loosing).

27. It is certain that it is not in the power of the church or pope to fix articles of faith, or even laws of conduct or good works.

28. If the pope, supported by a large part of the church, expresses this or that opinion—and a correct one at that: even so, it is neither sin nor heresy to disagree, especially if the matter is not one necessary to salvation, until a universal council has approved the one view and condemned the other.

29. It is open to us to weaken the authority of councils, freely to contradict their findings, to sit in judgment on their decrees, and to confess with boldness whatever appears to us to be true, whether any council has approved or condemned it.

30. Certain articles of John Huss, condemned by the Council of Constance, are most Christian, true, and evangelical; the universal church could not possibly condemn them.

31. In every good work a righteous man sins.

32. A good work perfectly executed is—a venial sin.

33. To burn heretics is contrary to the will of the Spirit.

34. To fight the Turks is to resist God, who is visiting our sins upon us through them.

35. No one can be sure that he is not always sinning mortally, because of the hidden and secret vice of pride.

36. Free will after sin is a mere name; while it does what in it lies, it sins mortally.

37. Purgatory cannot be proved by the canonical Sacred Scriptures.

38. Souls in purgatory have no assurance of their salvation—at least, not all of them. . . .

39. Souls in purgatory sin without intermission as long as they look for rest and recoil from punishment.

40. Souls released from purgatory receive less blessing from the intercessions of the living than if they had given satisfaction of themselves. . . .



Leo X, Decet Romanum (1521)

Luther and his colleagues burned the bull Exsurge Domine, together with books of canon law and scholastic theology, on 10 December 1520, in Wittenberg. On 3 January 1521, Leo issued the bull Decet Romanum officially excommunicating Luther.


Through the power given him from God, the Roman Pontiff has been appointed to administer spiritual and temporal punishments as each case severally deserves. The purpose of this is the repression of the wicked designs of misguided men, who have been so captivated by the debased impulse of their evil purposes as to forget the fear of the Lord, to set aside with contempt canonical decrees and apostolic commandments, and to dare to formulate new and false dogmas and to introduce the evil of schism into the church of God—or to support, help and adhere to such schismatics, who make it their business to cleave asunder the seamless robe of our redeemer and the unity of the orthodox faith. Hence it befits the Pontiff, lest the vessel of Peter appear to sail without pilot or oarsman, to take severe measures against such men and their followers, and by multiplying punitive measures and by other suitable remedies to see to it that these same overbearing men, devoted as they are to purposes of evil, along with their adherents, should not deceive the multitude of the simple by their lies and their deceitful devices, nor drag them along to share their own error and ruination, contaminating them with what amounts to a contagious disease. It also befits the Pontiff, having condemned the schismatics, to ensure their still greater confounding by publicly showing and openly declaring to all faithful Christians how formidable are the censures and punishments to which such guilt can lead; to the end that by such public declaration they themselves may return, in confusion and remorse, to their true selves, making an unqualified withdrawal from the prohibited conversation, fellowship and (above all) obedience to such accursed excommunicates; by this means they may escape divine vengeance and any degree of participation in their damnation. . . .

[Here the Pope recounts his previous bull Exsurge Domine and continues.]

We have been informed that after this previous missive had been exhibited in public and the interval or intervals it prescribed had elapsed—and we hereby give solemn notice to all faithful Christians that these intervals have and are elapsed—many of those who had followed the errors of Martin took cognizance of our missive and its warnings and injunctions; the spirit of a saner counsel brought them back to themselves, they confessed their errors and abjured the heresy at our instance, and by returning to the true Catholic faith obtained the blessing of absolution with which the self-same messengers had been empowered; and in several states and localities of the said Germany the books and writings of the said Martin were publicly burned, as we had enjoined.

Nevertheless Martin himself—and it gives us grievous sorrow and perplexity to say this—the slave of a depraved mind, has scorned to revoke his errors within the prescribed interval and to send us word of such revocation, or to come to us himself; nay, like a stone of stumbling, he has feared not to write and preach worse things than before against us and this holy see and the Catholic faith, and to lead others on to do the same.

He has now been declared a heretic; and so also others, whatever their authority and rank, who have recked naught of their own salvation but publicly and in all men’s eyes become followers of Martin’s pernicious and heretical sect, and given him openly and publicly their help, counsel and favor, encouraging him in their midst in his disobedience and obstinacy, or hindering the publication of our said missive: such men have incurred the punishments set out in that missive, and are to be treated rightfully as heretics and avoided by all faithful Christians, as the apostle says [Titus 3:10–11].

Our purpose is that such men should rightfully be ranked with Martin and other accursed heretics and excommunicates, and that even as they have ranged themselves with the obstinacy in sinning of the said Martin, they shall likewise share his punishments and his name, by bearing with them everywhere the title “Lutheran” and the punishments it incurs.

Our previous instructions were so clear and so effectively publicized and we shall adhere so strictly to our present decrees and declarations, that they will lack no proof, warning or citation.

Our decrees which follow are passed against Martin and others who follow him in the obstinacy of his depraved and damnable purpose, as also against those who defend and protect him with a military bodyguard, and do not fear to support him with their own resources or in any other way, and have and do presume to offer and afford help, counsel and favor toward him. All their names, surnames and rank—however lofty and dazzling their dignity may be—we wish to be taken as included in these decrees with the same effect as if they were individually listed and could be so listed in their publication, which must be furthered with an energy to match their contents.

On all these we decree the sentences of excommunication, of anathema, of our perpetual condemnation and interdict; of privation of dignities, honors and property on them and their descendants, and of declared unfitness for such possessions; of the confiscation of their goods and of the crime of treason; and these and the other sentences, censures and punishments which are inflicted by canon law on heretics and are set out in our aforesaid missive, we decree to have fallen on all these men to their damnation.

We add to our present declaration, by our apostolic authority, that states, territories, camps, towns and places in which these men have temporarily lived or chanced to visit, along with their possessions—cities which house cathedrals and metropolitans, monasteries and other religious and sacred places, privileged or unprivileged—one and all are placed under our ecclesiastical interdict. While this interdict lasts, no pretext of apostolic indulgence (except in cases the law allows, and even there as it were with the doors shut and those under excommunication and interdict excluded) shall avail to allow the celebration of mass and other divine offices. We prescribe and enjoin that the men in question are everywhere to be denounced publicly as excommunicated, accursed, condemned, interdicted, deprived of possessions and incapable of owning them. They are to be strictly shunned by all faithful Christians.

We would make known to all the small store that Martin, his followers and the other rebels have set on God and his church by their obstinate and shameless temerity. We would protect the herd from one infectious animal, lest its infection spread to the healthy ones. Hence we lay the following injunction on each and every patriarch, archbishop, bishop, on the prelates of patriarchal, metropolitan, cathedral and collegiate churches, and on the religious of every order—even the mendicants—privileged or unprivileged, wherever they may be stationed: that in the strength of their vow of obedience and on pain of the sentence of excommunication, they shall, if so required in the execution of these presents, publicly announce and cause to be announced by others in their churches, that this same Martin and the rest are excommunicate, accursed, condemned, heretics, hardened, interdicted, deprived of possessions and incapable of owning them, and so listed in the enforcement of these presents. Three days will be given: we pronounce canonical warning and allow one day’s notice on the first, another on the second, but on the third peremptory and final execution of our order. This shall take place on a Sunday or some other festival, when a large congregation assembles for worship. The banner of the cross shall be raised, the bells rung, the candles lit and after a time extinguished, cast on the ground and trampled under foot, and the stones shall be cast forth three times, and the other ceremonies observed which are usual in such cases. The faithful Christians, one and all, shall be enjoined strictly to shun these men.

We would occasion still greater confounding on the said Martin and the other heretics we have mentioned, and on their adherents, followers and partisans: hence, on the strength of their vow of obedience we enjoin each and every patriarch, archbishop and all other prelates, that even as they were appointed on the authority of Jerome to allay schisms, so now in the present crisis, as their office obliges them, they shall make themselves a wall of defense for their Christian people. They shall not keep silence like dumb dogs that cannot bark, but incessantly cry and lift up their voice, preaching and causing to be preached the Word of God and the truth of the Catholic faith against the damnable articles and heretics aforesaid.

To each and every rector of the parish churches, to the rectors of all the orders, even the mendicants, privileged or unprivileged, we enjoin in the same terms, on the strength of their vow of obedience, that appointed by the Lord as they are to be like clouds, they shall sprinkle showers on the people of God, and have no fear in giving the widest publicity to the condemnation of the aforesaid articles, as their office obliges them. It is written that perfect love casteth out fear. Let each and every one of you take up the burden of such a meritorious duty with complete devotion; show yourselves so punctilious in its execution, so zealous and eager in word and deed, that from your labors, by the favor of divine grace, the hoped-for harvest will come in, and that through your devotion you will not only earn that crown of glory which is the due recompense of all who promote religious causes, but also attain from us and the said holy see the unbounded commendation that your proved diligence will deserve.

However, since it would be difficult to deliver the present missive, with its declarations and announcements, to Martin and the other declared excommunicates in person, because of the strength of their faction, our wish is that the public nailing of this missive on the doors of two cathedrals—either both metropolitan, or one cathedral and one metropolitan of the churches in the said Germany—by a messenger of ours in those places, shall have such binding force that Martin and the others we have declared shall be shown to be condemned at every point as decisively as if the missive had been personally made known and presented to them.

It would also be difficult to transmit this missive to every single place where its publication might be necessary. Hence our wish and authoritative decree is that copies of it, sealed by some ecclesiastical prelate or by one of our aforesaid messengers, and countersigned by the hand of some public notary, should everywhere bear the same authority as the production and exhibition of the original itself.

No obstacle is afforded to our wishes by the apostolic constitutions and orders, or by anything in our aforesaid earlier missive which we do not wish to stand in the way, or by any other pronouncements to the contrary.

No one whatsoever may infringe this our written decision, declaration, precept, injunction, assignation, will, decree; or rashly contravene it. Should anyone dare to attempt such a thing, let him know that he will incur the wrath of almighty God and of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul.

Written at St. Peter’s, Rome, on the third of January 1521, during the eighth year of our pontificate.

Comments (1)

Michelle E-S said

at 12:13 am on Sep 28, 2010

While looking at this material vs Martin Luther's 95 Theses, i am just wondering if we should be reading each bullet point as a separate theses for this work? Many of the bullet points do not seem to flow into a continuous thoughts of a thesis per say. I also just had a clarification issue with the term Roman Pontiff. Is it still referring to the pope: 25. The Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, is not the vicar of Christ over all the churches in the whole world, appointed as such by Christ himself in blessed Peter. ?? and then just another clarification one # 31?

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