Karl von Miltitz

One of the more significant diplomatic efforts to remedy the early Reformation conflicts was spearheaded by Karl von Miltitz, a papal ambassador to Germany who met with Luther during the tense years of 1519 and 1520. Born in 1490 in the town of Rabenau near Dresden, Miltitz was the son of a nobleman from Meissen. He studied law at Cologne and Bologna from 1508 to 1514, before going to Rome. His uncle, Nicholas von Schönberg, was a notable Dominican friar and arranged for his educated nephew to receive a dual appointment in Rome as a papal notary (notarius sacri palatii) and titular chamberlain, an honorary role in the papal household. Being Saxon and also being very ambitious in his own right, Miltitz became the logical candidate for an important ambassadorial mission to Germany in the wake of two important events: the growing turmoil over the indulgence controversy and the seat vacated by the death of Emperor Maximillian.

In January 1519, the Habsburg Maximilian died and Rome was concerned over his successor. While the papacy favored the Valois ruler, Francis, and was wary of Maximilian’s powerful son and current king of Spain, Charles V, it sought to persuade the prince of electoral Saxony, Frederick the Wise, to consider his own candidacy. At the least, Rome hoped that Frederick would forestall the election of Charles. Another pressing concern also had to do with Frederick. He was Luther’s patron and protector. Legal proceedings had already begun against Luther, who had been summoned to Rome in August 1518 to answer for his controversial teachings on indulgences. The papal court conceived of a diplomatic mission to Frederick in Germany with a dual purpose. First, it was to confer the honorary “Golden Rose” on Frederick in the hopes that he would impede the election of Charles and, second, it was to convince the Saxon prince to extradite Luther.

Miltitz was chosen for the mission and sent to Saxony in fall 1518, Rome already anticipating the imminent death of Maximilian. While he delayed conferring the Golden Rose on Frederick until later that year, he was permitted a meeting with Luther in Altenburg in January 1519. His plan was to mollify tensions by placing the blame for much of the indulgence controversy on Johannes Tetzel, the controversial preacher of indulgences. He even arranged for a hearing of Tetzel that never came to pass because the pledge was made without the approval of Cardinal Cajetan, who was supervising Miltitz’s diplomatic mission, but had left Germany prior to his arrival. In extended conversations with Luther, the two reached an agreement that, if Rome consented, the case against him would be remanded to the archbishop of Salzburg, provided Luther cease attacking indulgences, write a letter to Leo X expressing remorse for the controversy, and also publish a pamphlet urging submission to church authority. The terms agreed upon, Miltitz left, but the pact soon collapsed. Miltitz failed to convince Rome of Luther’s intentions and Luther himself came to doubt the Rome’s own intentions upon receiving the subsequent papal decretal on indulgences, which failed to answer any of his criticisms concerning either the theology or the practice of selling indulgences and instead justified their sale on the basis of papal fiat alone. Furthermore, the Leipzig Debate in June 1519 caused more fallout concerning Luther’s ecclesiological views and it forced Rome to distance itself even farther from Miltitz’s agreement earlier that year.

Luther and Miltiz would nonetheless meet again, first in Liebenwerda in October 1519 while visiting Saxony for the long awaited bestowal of the Golden Rose on Frederick, then again in Lichtenberg in October 1520. The second of these dialogues was more productive. Shortly after the publication of Luther’s contentious Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Miltitz convinced the reformer to write a short, conciliatory letter to Leo X. Luther would do so with his “Open Letter,” and attached to to the November 1520 Freedom of a Christian, which in itself was a rather dispassionate explanation of his understanding of faith and works. The letter denied any invective against the papacy on Luther’s part and instead directed his ire at the insidious influence of the curial officials on the pope.

During the later years of his career, Miltitz lived in Mainz and held benefices to cathedral chapters in Mainz and Meissen. He was also named provost of the church in Koblenz. He died by drowning on November 20, 1529. In his 1545 autobiographical statement, Luther regarded Miltitz’s efforts at diplomacy to be a failure because he did not understand the depth of German resentment toward Rome, nor did he take proactive measures to stop Tetzel’s preaching.

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