In the popular telling of Martin Luther’s story, nothing could have stopped the Protestant reformer from challenging the dogma of his day. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” he allegedly pledged to those who would decide his fate at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Neither interrogations nor papal excommunication deterred the former Augustinian monk from speaking his conscience. The Protestant Reformation seems to have started and progressed inevitably, with the certitude of predestination.
But could the Catholic Church have done anything, besides changing its own dogma, to satisfy Luther? Could the Reformation have been prevented?
Just before Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in early 1521, the provincial theologian had elaborated his Ninety-Five Theses into a new system of theology. In 1520, he wrote three major treatises at a pace that would put any tenure-track theologian to shame: in August, the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation; in October, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church; and in November, On the Freedom of a Christian. But Luther was not the first to criticize certain theological teachings, church disciplines, or ecclesiastical practices. We remember Luther as catalyzing a Reformation—unlike other reformers who preceded him—not only because of what Luther did, but because of what the pope did not do.
The pope did not call a general council promptly to resolve the theological disagreements.
General councils were the undisputed way to solve dogmatic and doctrinal disputes. Just a century prior, the Council of Constance (1414–1418) had condemned two theologians as heretics: Jan Hus and John Wycliffe. A council was the only authority that all Christians—including, by his own admission, Martin Luther—would accept as determining whether Luther’s teachings were true or false.
In a dedication letter to Pope Leo attached to Freedom of a Christian, Luther argued that the “Court of Rome” had become so corrupt that he had been compelled “to appeal from your seat [the Chair of Peter] to a future council.” Luther added that he remained “fearless of the futile decrees of your predecessors … who in their foolish tyranny prohibited such an action.”
What Luther requested was not radical. The Council of Constance had declared that councils should be convened every ten years. But subsequent popes had failed to do this—the only councils in the ensuing years were the Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence in 1431 and the Fifth Lateran Council, which closed a few months before Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses.
Constance had also declared that councils enjoyed higher authority than the pope in declaring dogma and doctrine. Luther concurred. In his letter to Leo, Luther warned the pontiff that his courtly “flatters … are in error,” for they “raise you above councils and the universal Church.”
In a distinction that was a catchphrase for the conciliarist movement, Luther understood himself to be criticizing the Court, not the Church, of Rome. The Court of Rome, “more corrupt than any Babylon or Sodom,” has led “the Church of Rome, formerly the most holy of all churches,” to “become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death, and hell.” It is the Court of Rome, Luther maintained, that “hates councils” and “dreads to be reformed.”
Luther believed that an ecumenical council could reform the Church, and he had appealed to its authority. Yet in his 1519 Leipzig debate with Catholic theologian Johann Eck and his 1521 speech at the Diet of Worms, Luther also contended that councils had erred and contradicted each other, as when the Fifth Lateran Council overturned Constance’s decree that councils were above popes.
Even so, Luther clung to a conciliarist position. When the pope finally proposed an ecumenical council at Mantua in 1537, Luther saw the opportunity to receive a favorable judgment that would reverse the pope’s condemnations, and he prepared for the proceedings by drafting a theological statement known as the Smalcald Articles.
By 1539, however, he had lost all confidence in the forthcoming council. He found that “the conclusions at which the council will arrive have been already determined.” The pope, he charged, had prejudiced his case; the bishops would no longer be free to judge. Luther declared the future council a sham.
When a council finally met in 1545 at Trent, the Church’s intervention was too late: Luther had written all his major treatises, and his followers continued his work after his death one year later. But had there been a Council of Worms, rather than a Diet of Worms, perhaps the early Protestant movement would have collapsed under an unfavorable judgment—by an authority that even Luther had acknowledged.
Luther had initially appealed to a council in an attempt to reform the Catholic Church from within. Without confidence that the Church would convene a legitimate council, he chose to reform the Church from without. Both of their decisions exacerbated a controversy that continues today.
For contemporary Protestants such as Stanley Hauerwas who justify Protestantism by the perceived need to reform the Church from the outside, the “conciliar option” offers an alternative: reform from within, such as the early Luther counseled. Could the Protestant Reformation have been an internal Catholic Reformation instead?
Of course, holding frequent councils might weaken the faithful’s religious assent to the pope and the ordinary magisterium. But today we may be experiencing the dangers on the other side. Predicated too strictly on the power of the pontiff, Church authority may become increasingly absolutist. By relying too much on the ad hoc determinations of local bishops, the Church may be thrown into doctrinal confusion.
By convening a council, the Church might have averted one great schism. Today, as the Church confronts another doctrinal crisis, perhaps the conciliar option should be on the table.
Michael D. Breidenbach is assistant professor of history at Ave Maria University and a 2019 visiting research scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.