Remembering the past on Reformation Day: Martin Luther, Sylvester Mazzolini and Indulgences
Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (Doubleday, 1989), 192-4.
On October 31, 1517, Luther sent his ninety-five theses, and probably the first version of the Sermon on Indulgences and Grace, to Cardinal Albrecht of Mainz, for whom Tetzel was working. Hieronymous Schulze, bishop of Brandenburg, to whose see Wittenberg belonged, was also informed of the contents of the theses and sermon. Instead of replying, Archbishop Albrecht forwarded the documents to Rome in December 1517: His Pontifical Holiness will know how “such error” is to be countered.
“Error” – today no one, regardless of denomination, would use that word for Luther’s criticism of indulgences. The charge that grace was being commercialized was justified. But the question remained: was purchasable grace merely an abuse, or was it a symptom? Was the peddling of indulgences no more than a blunder that could easily be put right, or was it perhaps an indication of a deeper aberration? The year 1518 was to bring the answer.
The Dominican Sylvester Mazzolini from Prierio, the papal court theologian and later judge at Luther’s trial, provided the response to the Reformation challenge. It took Prierias – as he was called after his birthplace – only three days to unmask Luther’s ninety-five theses as heretical. Prierias’ Dialogue Concerning the Power of the Pope is so illuminating because his ideas were far ahead of papal theology, which had been stagnating for a century. The four points underlying his Dialogue anticipates the results of the First and Second Vatican Councils.
According to Prierias the pope is the highest authority and foundation of the universal Church. He is infallible “when he makes a decision in his capacity as pope.” His doctrine is “the infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures too draw their strength and authority.” A council may be mistaken at the start, but not at the end, when the pope has authorized the council’s decisions. Though the doctrine of papal infallibility had already been developed in the late thirteenth century – in radical Franciscan circles – it was still severely limited by the majority of canon lawyers of the time. Prierias’ simply, unambiguous doctrine of infallibility is understandable as an Italian reaction to the fifteenth-century “conciliar” councils, which were not governed by the pope, undermined the concept of centralism, and fostered hopes of reform in the Church. But in Germany his brand of papalism had never been heard before. It was this papal doctrine that would determine Luther’s “no” to Rome.As I [Prierias] intend to sift your doctrine thoroughly, my Martin, it is necessary for me to establish a basis of norms and foundations…Third foundation: He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from which the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic. Fourth foundation: The Church of Rome can make decisions both in word and deed concerning faith and morals. And there is no difference except that words are better suited. In this sense habit acquires the force of law, for the will of a prince expresses itself in deeds which he allows or himself arranges to have done. Consequently: as he who thinks incorrectly concerning the truth of Scriptures is a heretic, so too he who thinks incorrectly concerning the doctrines and deeds of the Church in matters of faith and morals is a heretic.In his “conclusion” Prierias draws the ultimate consequence: “Whoever says that the Church of Rome may not do what it is actually doing in the matter of indulgences is a heretic.” Prierias had not proclaimed not only the doctrine but also the deeds of the Church, here the sale of indulgences, to be infallible.
On the basis of these axioms he would not even have needed three days to condemn Martin Luther, and with him all Christians who dared to oppose the teachings or practices of the Holy Church of Rome on scriptural grounds: heretics! That is all the Dialogue did, nor did it need to do more: the Dialogue truly made all dialogue superfluous. Luther demonstrated his opinion of the papal theologian’s work plainly as soon as it arrived in Wittenberg: he had it printed – without comment.