Rorate Caeli

"Exsurge, Domine, et iudica causam tuam . . ."

This day marks the 488th anniversary of the issuing of Pope Leo X's bull Exsurge Domine (15 June 1520), which condemned 41 heretical propositions found in the writings of Father Martin Luther, whose nearly three years of public dissent and defiance of Holy Mother Church had spread turmoil and confusion throughout Germany and other regions of Europe. Philip Hughes writes in his Popular History of the Reformation (1957, pp.124-5):

The University of Cologne condemned his teaching in August 1519, and Louvain also, November 9. Finally, on June 15, 1520, appeared the solemn papal condemnation . . . The commission [presided over by Cajetan] which at Rome had been at work upon the condemnation for a good four months had had before it an abundance of Luther's published works and the detailed judgment of Louvain and the official transcript of the Leipzig disputation. What it produced in the forty-one propositions of the bull was a remarkable summary of all this. Only six of the forty-one refer to indulgences, and four to purgatory, but as many as fifteen to errors about the sacraments. Of the rest, ten concern the authority of the Church, two are about good works, and there is one on free will.

The bull commences with the 22nd verse of Psalm 73, Asaph's lament of Gentile assaults on the Temple of God: "Exsurge, Domine, et iudica causam tuam; Memor esto improperiorum tuorum, Eorum quae ab insipiente sunt tota die." "Arise, O Lord, and judge your cause . . ." In language severe and unsparing, fitting and needful for the grave crisis the Church then faced, the bull also calls on Saints Peter and Paul and all Holy Church to arise and wage spiritual battle with the new heresies:

Arise, O Lord, and judge your own cause. Remember your reproaches to those who are filled with foolishness all through the day. Listen to our prayers, for foxes have arisen seeking to destroy the vineyard whose winepress you alone have trod. When you were about to ascend to your Father, you committed the care, rule, and administration of the vineyard, an image of the triumphant church, to Peter, as the head and your vicar and his successors. The wild boar from the forest seeks to destroy it and every wild beast feeds upon it.

Rise, Peter, and fulfill this pastoral office divinely entrusted to you as mentioned above. Give heed to the cause of the holy Roman Church, mother of all churches and teacher of the faith, whom you by the order of God, have consecrated by your blood. Against the Roman Church, you warned, lying teachers are rising, introducing ruinous sects, and drawing upon themselves speedy doom. Their tongues are fire, a restless evil, full of deadly poison. They have bitter zeal, contention in their hearts, and boast and lie against the truth.

We beseech you also, Paul, to arise. It was you that enlightened and illuminated the Church by your doctrine and by a martyrdom like Peter's. For now a new Porphyry rises who, as the old once wrongfully assailed the holy apostles, now assails the holy pontiffs, our predecessors.

Rebuking them, in violation of your teaching, instead of imploring them, he is not ashamed to assail them, to tear at them, and when he despairs of his cause, to stoop to insults. He is like the heretics "whose last defense," as Jerome says, "is to start spewing out a serpent's venom with their tongue when they see that their causes are about to be condemned, and spring to insults when they see they are vanquished." For although you have said that there must be heresies to test the faithful, still they must be destroyed at their very birth by your intercession and help, so they do not grow or wax strong like your wolves.

Finally, let the whole church of the saints and the rest of the universal church arise. Some, putting aside her true interpretation of Sacred Scripture, are blinded in mind by the father of lies. Wise in their own eyes, according to the ancient practice of heretics, they interpret these same Scriptures otherwise than the Holy Spirit demands, inspired only by their own sense of ambition, and for the sake of popular acclaim, as the Apostle declares. In fact, they twist and adulterate the Scriptures. As a result, according to Jerome, "It is no longer the Gospel of Christ, but a man's, or what is worse, the devil's."

Let all this holy Church of God, I say, arise, and with the blessed apostles intercede with almighty God to purge the errors of His sheep, to banish all heresies from the lands of the faithful, and be pleased to maintain the peace and unity of His holy Church.

After the enumeration of the 41 errors of Martin Luther, the Holy Father proclaimed:

No one of sound mind is ignorant how destructive, pernicious, scandalous, and seductive to pious and simple minds these various errors are, how opposed they are to all charity and reverence for the holy Roman Church who is the mother of all the faithful and teacher of the faith; how destructive they are of the vigor of ecclesiastical discipline, namely obedience. This virtue is the font and origin of all virtues and without it anyone is readily convicted of being unfaithful. . . .

We have found that these errors or theses are not Catholic, as mentioned above, and are not to be taught, as such; but rather are against the doctrine and tradition of the Catholic Church, and against the true interpretation of the sacred Scriptures received from the Church. . . .

With the advice and consent of these our venerable brothers, with mature deliberation on each and every one of the above theses, and by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected . . .

Strong medicine for a dreadful illness . . . Though it did not bring Luther and his followers to repentance, Exsurge Domine clearly stated what was at stake and where the Church stood, setting the stage for the reforming Council of Trent that set the Church on a surer footing to address the new realities of a divided Christendom.