The historical impetus for this bull arose from an effort to provide a decisive papal response to the growing popularity of Luther's teachings. Beginning in January 1520, a papal consistory was summoned to examine Luther's fidelity to Catholic teachings. After a short time, it produced a hasty list of several perceived errors found in his writings, but Curial officials believed that a more thorough consideration was warranted. The committee was reorganized and subsequently produced a report determining that only a few of Luther's teachings could potentially be deemed heretical or erroneous from the standpoint of Catholic theology. His other teachings perceived as problematic were deemed to warrant lesser degrees of theological censure, including the designations "scandalous" or "offensive to pious ears".[a]
Johann Eck subsequently became involved in these proceedings. He had personally confronted Luther a year earlier in the Leipzig disputation and had obtained copies of condemnations issued against Luther by the universities of Cologne and Leuven. In a letter to a friend, Eck said he became involved because "no one else was sufficiently familiar with Luther's errors." Soon after having joined the committee when it was already halfway through its deliberations, he began to exert his considerable influence on the direction it subsequently took.
The committee on which Eck sat consisted of some forty members, including cardinals (among whom was Cardinal Cajetan), theologians and canon lawyers. The heads of the three major mendicant orders, the Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians, were represented. Central to the committee's proceedings was the matter of whether (and in what manner) Luther and his teachings should be formally condemned. Some members argued that Luther's popular support in Germany made it too politically risky to issue a bull at that time. The theologians supported an immediate condemnation of Luther. But the canon lawyers advocated a mediating position: Luther should be given a hearing and a chance to defend himself before being excommunicated as a heretic. Ultimately the committee negotiated a compromise. Luther would be given no hearing, but he would be offered a sixty-day window in which to repent before further action would be taken.
Prior to Eck's involvement, Cajetan had expressed his desire that the committee members examine the whole context of Luther's writings and specify careful distinctions among the various degrees of censure to be applied to Luther's teachings. Eck's approach was markedly different. He bulldozed a final decision through the committee to ensure a speedy publication. As a result, the text it ultimately drafted simply contained a list of various statements by Luther perceived as problematic. No attempt was made to provide specific responses to Luther's propositions based upon Scripture or Catholic tradition or any clarification of what degree of theological censure should be associated with each proposition listed. All quoted statements were to be condemned as a whole (in globo) as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds. Eck may have employed this tactic in order to associate more strongly the taint of error with all of Luther's censured teachings. However, this in globo formula for censure had already been employed by the earlier Council of Constance to condemn various propositions extracted from the writings of Jan Hus.
When the committee members had obtained agreement among themselves regarding the selection of forty-one propositions which they deemed to be problematic, they subsequently submitted their draft text to Leo X. He appended a preface and conclusion and issued the document as an official papal bull on 15 June 1520. Copies were printed, notarized, sealed and distributed to specially appointed papal nuncios who were tasked with disseminating the bull, especially in those regions where Luther's followers were most active, and ensuring that its instructions were carried out.