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Who is Pope Leo X and why is he so important?

While we know all about Martin Luther, his arch nemesis we do not.  According to The Guardian’s website, there have been 266 popes in the history of the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church believes Peter was the first pope.  This is based on the misinterpretation of scripture.  They believe Jesus founded “The Church” on Peter, according to Matthew 16:18.  This is a commonly misunderstood scripture.  However, if one is trying to make a point, eisegesis over exegesis will reign most of the time.  Pope Leo X was the 216th  pope of the Catholic Church and reigned from 1513 to 1521.

Born Giovanni de Medici, Pope Leo X was born in Florence to the powerful and wealthy bourgeois Medici family on December 22, 1475.  His father was Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of the Florentine Republic.  Giovanni would be the first of four popes within this family dynasty and the youngest of any pope to lead the church, as recorded in church records.    At just 13 years old he was made Cardinal of Santa Maria in Dominica and at 37 years old, he became Pope Leo X.  He studied theology and canon law at The University of Pisa from 1489 to 1491.  In November of 1494, Leo X was exiled with the other members of the Medici family on charges of betraying the public.  He traveled throughout Europe for six years and upon the death of his brother Pietro in 1503, he settled in Rome and became head of the Medici family.  He re-established the Medici family dominance and influence and on March 4, 1513, was elected Pope when the papacy was vacated by the death of Julian II.

Pope Leo X was a patron of arts and education.  He founded a Greek college in Rome and accelerated the building of St. Peter’s Basilica which began under Julius II.  Indeed, it was Leo X that commissioned Raphael and Michelangelo to do the artistic work.  As well, Raphael was also charged with decorating the pontifical palaces as well as painting the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel.  In order to raise the money for this project, he sold indulgences.  Although indulgences had been in practice for some time, Julius II used them to raise money for the St. Peter’s Basilica project.  However, it was Leo X that sold them to forgive sins.  Leo X spent lavishly, which put the church in serious debt, creating the need for the furtherance of indulgences. 

Albrecht von Brandenburg became archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of the bishopric of Halberstadt in 1513.  He became elector and archbishop of Mainz a year later.  In order to gain this second position from Pope Leo X, he offered a very large contribution to the completion of the St. Peter’s Basilica project.  It was against church law for von Brandenburg to hold both positions but overlooked for the contribution he made.  The funds von Brandenburg used were borrowed from the banking house of Fugger and would be paid back by indulgences sold in his area.  Half of the income from the indulgences would go to paying back the debt to the Fugger Bankers on behalf of Albrecht von Brandenburg and the other half to completing St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. 

Jacob Fugger was a venture capitalist and merchant of woven textiles across Europe.  In history, he is considered the richest man to ever live.  This is based on his percentage of the complete gross domestic product of Europe at the time.  He and his house were responsible for 2.2% of all European output.  To put this into perspective, the richest American was John D. Rockefeller and upon his death in 1937 was responsible for 1.5% of American output.  Of all the ventures of the Fugger family, collecting donations for the church and giving them to the Pope is most important here. Like the tax collectors in Jesus’ day, what was charged and what was turned in were two different things.  Likewise, what was collected by Fugger and what was turned into the Pope, were two different things.  The interest to the family was unknown, but von Brandenburg had to push the indulgences in order to pay back this very powerful and prominent family the debt he owed them.

The indulgences were very unpopular in northern Europe, which was mainly due to economic reasons.  It was not until early in 1517 that a Dominican Friar named Johann Tetzel was commissioned by the leader of the territory, Albrecht von Brandenburg, to preach indulgences to them in the Archdiocese of Mainz in Germany.  In response to this, Martin Luther circulated his 95 theses.  It was Tetzel whom Luther mainly targeted in the 95 theses.

Because Leo X was head of the “Christian church”, temporal ruler of the Papal States, and head of the Medici family, he was able to exert his influence in Italy by resorting to nepotism.  He appointed his cousin Giulio de’ Medici to the influential position of the Archbishopric of Florence.  Giulio would later become Pope Clement VII.  His attempts to create a central Italian kingdom fell short when his brother Giuliano died in 1516.  In July of 1517, Leo X named 31 new cardinals to help him secure the support of The College of Cardinals.  Alfonso Petrucci and several others were imprisoned and executed for attempting to poison Leo X.  This attempt is what brought about this influx of new cardinals by Leo X.

In December 1521, Leo X died of malaria.  While his death was so sudden that he did not receive his last rites, it is believed he was poisoned.  He left behind a politically turbulent Italy and a northern Europe in religious turmoil. 

Pope Leo X is known for several minor events.  One was his concordat with Florence in 1516 guaranteeing the free election of the clergy.  Another would be his constitution that condemned the king of Spain’s claim to refuse the publication of papal bulls in 1516.  There are many events that are noteworthy in his eight years of guiding the Catholic Church.  However, none of them are memorable because of his bout with Martin Luther and all the history of the Reformation that followed.  It was this event in history that not only changed the life of Martin Luther but the entire religious world; and Leo X’s legacy.

It was Albrecht von Brandenburg that brought charges against Luther and in the summer of 1518, the investigation into Luther’s teachings at Wittenberg began.  After political wrangling to get Luther to come to Rome, the proceedings did not resume in earnest until 1519 after Leo X published the bull, “Cum Postquam”.  This was the response and criticism to Luther’s questioning of the papal authority to grant indulgences outlined in those famed 95 theses.  While not directly attacking Leo X, the theses did call into question the authority of the pope to allow indulgences.

Despite the diplomatic efforts of Karl von Miltitz to have Luther write a letter to mend his relationship with Leo X, the letter written by Luther doing so in 1519 was never sent. The conciliatory letter he wrote to Leo X in 1520 was attached it to his treatise, “The Freedom of a Christian” which was written in German, not Latin, and was designed for public consumption.  In this publication, Luther put direct blame on the Roman Curia and their manipulation of Leo X.

Leo X brought Luther to condemnation in 1520 with his publishing of the bull, “Exsurge Domine”, which listed 41 errors of Luther and his theses.   Luther was threatened with excommunication if he did not recant his opposition to the church within sixty days.  This recanting was to be done in Rome.  The bull written by Leo X was received in Wittenberg in October of 1520.  Luther and his students burned the bull, along with the books of canon law, as a symbol of defiance.  In January of 1521, Leo X followed through with his promise to excommunicate Luther in his bull, “Decet Romanum Pontificem”.  This is the decision that led to Luther’s trial at Worms in April of 1521.  It was in the ‘Edict of Worms 1521’ that Charles V called Luther an “outlaw and a heretic”. 

Pope Leo X will forever be known as failing to stop the reformation, as well as deepening the fiscal and political problems in Rome.  The question then arises, “how many Christians really know who Leo X is?”  Even inside of the Catholic Church? 

If someone were to list the most infamous characters in history, at least in the way of “bad guys”, would you even see Pope Leo X on it?  When someone is planning the arrival of their baby boy, what names do they consider?  I can tell you names that they do not consider; Adolph, Judas, Manson, etc.  The characters in history that we consider bad are normally household names.  I believe everyone has an idea of who Charles Manson or Adolph Hitler is.  Even outside of Christianity, it is no secret who Judas Iscariot is.  The big question is, why the ignorance of Pope Leo X?  Why is this name so foreign to anyone you ask?

With every event that impacts the world for good, there is usually a nemesis.  There is always going to be those who want to stop what is good and promote what is bad.  When given the assignment of a character of the Reformation, my first thought was Martin Luther.  Not because I know a great deal about him, but because it would have been easy and someone everyone would know.  Then, I began to think of the opposite end of the spectrum.  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction; or so I have heard.  For all the good the Reformation presented to the world, there had to have been a nemesis.  There had to have been someone wanting to stop the movement.  That is when I knew I wanted to do a paper on that person. 

I was reared a Catholic and I never once remember anything being taught about the reformation or Leo X.  We learned a lot about church history and all the major players, but never Leo X.  If the Catholic church were to teach anything, good or bad, about Martin Luther or Leo X, the thought train would leave the station for most, and church numbers would seriously decline.


While the early church was hijacked by the Romans, later to be called the Universal Church, it was Martin Luther who would lead the revolt to bring the real church back to true worship.  While in our minds a nemesis may be ugly, scary, or mean, it may be that he is very nice, understanding, and simply ignorant.  Leo X was a very rich man and wanted to keep it that way.  He was a great spender of other people’s money and it caught up with him.  Giovanni de Medici, also known as Pope Leo X, was born December 22, 1475.  That is about the only normal thing to remember about him.