Luther meets Karl von Miltitz, papal ambassador

Golden_Rose_MNMA_Cl2351_n1After Luther resisted Cajetan’s demand for a retraction of his views on indulgences, a subsequent interview was held with the papal nuncio Karl von Miltitz. A native of Saxony and a secretary in the papal court, Miltitz was sent by Leo X to curry Frederick the Wise’s sympathies and mollify the debate surrounding Luther. Leo had decided to give Frederick the “Golden Rose,” a honorary gift and sign of favor from Rome ordinarily solemnized in a public ceremony. This was done as much for political as ecclesiastical reasons. With the impending death of the emperor, Maximilian I, Frederick was a candidate to replace him. The papacy preferred Frederick because it feared the rise of Charles of Spain, who was at conflict with Rome and would eventually sack the city and imprison the pope in 1527. Leo announced his plan to confer the Golden Rose in September 1518 and dispatched Miltitz for the interview with Luther in October.

Miltitz’s primary mission, however, was to improve the conflict with Luther. A diplomat rather than a theologian like Cajetan, he had no intention of changing Luther’s mind. On the contrary, his goal was to relieve the international and ecclesiastical tension related to the controversy over indulgences. The two met in Altenburg in January 1519. Miltitz expressed Leo’s remorse over the controversy and displeasure with Prierias’ response to Luther, as well as the general disdain in Rome for both Tetzel’s preaching of indulgences and Albrecht of Mainz’s greed in profiting from them. Luther consented to four measures. First, he would promise to keep silent on the indulgence matter going forward provided his opponents did the same. Second, he would write a letter to the pope expressing his remorse over the controversy. Third, he would publish a pamphlet encouraging obedience to the church. Finally, he would not stand trial for his positions in Rome, but instead have the case remanded to the archbishop of Salzburg. However, when Miltitz realized that Luther had not recanted to Cajetan nor had intended to submit a letter of retraction, he settled with him on the first point alone: an agreement to silence the debate.

For a variety of reasons, the attempt at diplomacy failed. Maximilian died shortly thereafter, creating a power vacuum in the empire and emboldening the independence of Frederick the Wise. Miltitz could not persuade Leo of Luther’s good faith. For his part, Luther felt betrayed by Miltitz when he received the new papal decretal on indulgences, rooted in neither Scripture nor canon law, but papal authority—the very position Luther had contested from the start. Nevertheless, the papal ambassador to Germany would remain active in his attempts to reach reconciliation. In October 1520, he and Luther met again after the publication of The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Miltitz impinged upon him to write an open letter to Leo that might appease the pope as he had initially consented to do a year earlier. Luther complied, composing the letter as a preface to his November treatise, Freedom of a Christian. Whether or not Luther’s missive, which praised Leo and warned him of insidious forces in the curia, was genuine remains a matter of debate.

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