Copies of the papal bulls excommunicating Martin Luther burn in a demonstration. Luther was excommunicated for criticizing the Catholic Church, accusing it of nepotism and corruption.

Photograph by James L. Amos, National Geographic

Download this file

  • On January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X excommunicated the German priest Martin Luther. This meant Luther was no longer a recognized member of the Catholic Church.
    Months earlier, Luther had written a pamphlet criticizing many aspects of the church, including nepotism, corruption, and the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were grants that could be bought to allow the buyer to escape spiritual punishment for misdeeds. 
    Luther had been warned that his views may lead to his excommunication, and refused to recant them. After his excommunication, the church demanded he further defend his views at a meeting in Worms, Germany—the so-called “Diet of Worms.” Luther again refused to recant, allegedly saying, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”
    In spite of his excommunication, Luther remained very popular. His outspoken belief in reform inspired the Reformation. The Reformation split Christianity into Catholic and Protestant (taken from the word protest) denominations. Luther himself organized a new church based on his interpretation of basic Catholic traditions.
    Today, the Lutheran church is the second-largest Protestant denomination in the world. (Only the Anglican Church has more members.) The countries with the most Lutherans are Germany, Sweden, Ethiopia, and Indonesia.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    alleged Adjective

    supposed or presumed.

    aspect Noun

    view or interpretation.

    Catholic Adjective

    having to do with the Christian denomination with the Pope as its leader.

    Christianity Noun

    religion based on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

    corrupt Adjective

    dishonest or willing to take money for favors.

    criticize Verb

    to find fault with something.

    denomination Noun

    branch of a church or larger spiritual faith.

    excommunicate Verb

    to cut off or expel from a church.

    grant Noun

    money given to a person or group of people to carry out a specific project or program.

    indulgence Noun

    temporary pardon, issued by the Catholic Church, for punishment due for a sin.

    inspire Verb

    to influence to act.

    interpretation Noun

    way of understanding an event or set of facts.

    misdeed Noun

    illegal or immoral action.

    nepotism Noun

    professional favor or preference given to family and friends.

    pamphlet Noun

    short publication stapled or folded together.

    pope Noun

    leader of the Catholic Church.

    priest Noun

    title of religious leader in many faiths.

    Protestant Noun

    Christian who is not a follower of Catholic or Orthodox faiths.

    punishment Noun

    penalty inflicted for a crime or offense.

    recant Verb

    to formally withdraw a statement.

    reform noun, verb

    change or improvement of a policy or process.

    Reformation Noun

    (16th century) religious movement to reform the Catholic Church and resulting in the formation of Protestant churches.

    tradition Noun

    beliefs, customs, and cultural characteristics handed down from one generation to the next.