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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

John Huss: "A Reformer of the Church" or Destroyer of Souls? Featured

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John Huss: Heresiarch John Huss: Heresiarch website reported on earlier comments of Francis from Friday:

The pope said that Hus’ burning at the stake after refusing to recant his alleged heresy was an injury to the church itself and the church should ask forgiveness for it, like all the acts in history when killings had been committed in the name of God. He referred specifically to the 30 years wars which in particular devastated the Czech lands and much of the rest of Europe in the 17th century…

The story continued:

Of course, the steps to rehabilitate Jan Hus in the eyes of the Catholic Church have been going on for some time. John Paul the Second asked for forgiveness for the Church’s past wrongs on visits to the Czech Republic in 1995 and 1997. Earlier, he had said that Christians could all share and unite in the values that Jan Hus espoused, his integrity, commitment to education, and moral values, rather than be divided by them.

The era when Hus, often seen as a forerunner to the more famous Martin Luther, was automatically cast by Catholics as a heretic and blasphemer are obviously long gone.

So who exactly was John Huss? Was he, as St. John Paul II said, a “Reformer of the Church?” Was the Church wrong to consider John Huss a heretic and blasphemer? Was he a man of integrity and commitment to moral values? Should the Church ask forgiveness for Hus’ burning at the stake? To answer these questions, let’s go back to a time when the Church was not influenced by the “ecumenism” of the Second Vatican Council. Let’s hear directly from a mainstream Catholic publication from pre-conciliar days and see if it shares the views of Francis and St. John Paul.

In 1845 The United States Catholic Magazine and Monthly Review, printed an article titled, “John Huss and the Hussites.” The following description gives us insight into the nature of the man as well as his defenders. It describes what happened after John Huss began espousing the heresies of Wycliffe at the University of Prague:

John Huss adopted and defended with great vigor the doctrines of Wickliffe, and was soon followed by nearly all the Bohemians belonging to the university; the Germans as ardently maintained the old principles of religion and philosophy, and denounced the new opinions as both heretical and ruinous in their tendency. Novelty, however, gained the day; the Germans were expelled from the university, John Huss and his adherents became supreme therein, and they were thus enabled to teach and to spread their new-fangled notions almost without opposition.

The infection soon spread throughout all Bohemia. The ignorant and the vicious were pleased with the new doctrines, and fascinated with the boldness and eloquence of the man who poured forth, in his own chapel of Bethlehem, and throughout the kingdom, his coarse and withering invectives against the popes, the bishops, and the clergy. The standard of revolt was now raised; and all Bohemia was in a flame. The dreadful sequel is but too well known.

It is fashionable with such writers as M. Bonnechose to praise with extravagance, and to exalt even to the skies, who, like John Huss, fiercely opposed the Catholic Church, and founded new sects. We are not at all surprised at this. Men naturally sympathize with those of a kindred spirit. No matter how wicked the founders of new sects may have been; no matter how reckless, inconsistent, and unprincipled; no matter what commotion they excited, what hatred they stirred up, what torrents of blood they caused to flow; if they only opposed Rome, all their iniquities are at once forgiven and forgotten, and they are painted as saints, as heroes, as martyrs, as men who preferred the voice of their conscience to all the smiles of the church and of the world! This fierce and more than Carthaginian hatred of Rome, like the mantle of charity, covers a multitude of sins. John Huss and Jerome of Prague are represented as men entirely in advance of their age; as men who had the courage to rebuke the vices and errors of a corrupt and all-powerful church; and as men who fell victims to their noble zeal and integrity, and to the vengeance of the hierarchy.

The article goes on to explain the doctrines of John Huss and their effects on society:

Like him [Wycliffe], he railed incessantly against the popes, the bishops, the clergy, the religious orders; like him, he maintained the doctrine of absolute predestination ; like him, he believed that none but the elect belonged or could belong to the church of Christ; like him, he maintained that it was unlawful for the clergy to hold property of any kind ; like him, he denied the infallibility of the church ; and, like him, he asserted the ruinous principle—ruinous to all social organization, whether political or religious—that the circumstance of a temporal or spiritual ruler being in the state of mortal sin, deprived him, by the very fact, of all power and jurisdiction! He also openly denied the power of the church to excommunicate or to suspend her ministers, and boldly defended the disorganizing doctrine, that a priest thus excommunicated, provided he believed the sentence unjust, could still continue to exercise his functions, in spite of the prohibition by the ecclesiastical tribunal. He more than once intimated that St. Peter never had been the head of the church; that the Roman pontiffs had derived their supremacy from the Caesars; and that there was no need of a visible head of the church on earth. That such were the distinctive doctrines of Huss, we think no one who has at all read the original documents will be disposed to deny.

Who can wonder that doctrines so thoroughly disorganizing should have produced the most disastrous effects on society? Who can wonder that Prague soon became the theatre of bitter contentions, of civil commotions, of infuriate mobs, of bloodshed? Who can wonder that all Bohemia was thrown into convulsions ; that its hills and valleys were crimsoned with the blood of its own citizens; that a civil war the most obstinate and bloody, perhaps, recorded in the annals of history, tore and lacerated its bosom, and sent tens of thousands of its citizens to the tomb? All these terrible disasters were as natural and necessary results of the preaching and doctrines of John Huss, as fruits are of the tree which bears them, or as smoldering ruins are of the dreadful conflagration. John Huss enkindled a flame in the bosom of his country which preyed on its very vitals, and threatened it with utter annihilation, for long years after he was himself no more!

That Huss was a bold and turbulent spirit; that his doctrines naturally tended to insubordination, revolt, and sedition; and that he not only took no precautions to check this sinister tendency, but rather encouraged it, and fanned the flame of popular excitement, we think no candid man will deny. That the effects indicated above did follow his preaching and doctrine even M. Bonnechose, his most ardent and unscrupulous champion, fully admits…

The article then goes on to explain by what means Huss used to spread his doctrines:

Huss formed and increased his party by strongly appealing to the passions of the ignorant, by delivering violent and inflammatory invectives against the popes, the bishops, and the clergy ; by exposing, and by offering to redress, the grievances of the poor; and by a certain boldness of tone, fixedness of purpose, and rough eloquence, which just suited the mobs whom he addressed, and which made him the idol, because they constituted him the leader and champion, of the multitude. His party once formed, he kept it together, and swelled its number, by his indomitable energy and untiring industry, and by his exciting and maddening harangues. By affecting zeal for the correction of abuses, and putting on a sanctimonious air, he succeeded in winning to his standard many of the pious and well disposed, whose simplicity did not penetrate beyond the exterior veil which covered his real purpose; whilst, by appeals to the avarice of kings and princes, he succeeded in inducing many of them, also, either to become his partisans, or, at least, to remain neutral.

As for any future rehabilitation of John Huss, the author did not seem to be a fan:

Now, can anyone, for a moment, persuade himself that a man who resorted to such means, could have been either a saint or a martyr? Saints and martyrs are made of different stuff altogether. It is not the mere circumstance of dying for a cause which makes a martyr, but it is the justice, and the holiness, and the truth of the cause itself. Could that man be reckoned a martyr, who was the leader of armed and infuriate mobs, who made maddening appeals to the most groveling passions, who fanned into a wild conflagration the flames which himself had lighted up in the bosom of his country, and who reveled amidst the ruins which himself had caused? We think not.

As for the motivations of Huss:

The truth is, he had taken a wrong step, and he felt it; he occupied a false position, and he did not wish to leave it. He had a strong and clamorous party to sustain him: he was their leader and head; they hung upon his lips, and could be led like children by his words. He felt that he could not retract without displeasing his party, on whose praises he had been so long accustomed to feast : he had not the humility nor the moral courage to go back : he would rather die first;—for, in this case, he would be hailed as a martyr, and he would live with posterity. He had evidently more regard to his party than to the truth. Had he been a solitary man, without a party, he never would have mustered courage to die at Constance. Such at least is our candid opinion; and we think we do him no injustice.

The article next addresses whether the Council of Constance, at which Huss was finally condemned treated him with wanton cruelty:

As we have already sufficiently proved, neither the church nor especially the council of Constance enacted the law by which heretics were punished with death. It had been enacted two centuries before by the German emperors; and they alone—and not the council of Constance—were fairly responsible for it and for its results. It was the emperor Sigismunds and the elector Palatine, and not the fathers of the council of Constance, who passed sentence of death on Huss. It was the magistrates of Constance, acting under the direction of the two high functionaries just named, who presided at his execution. After having convicted him of heresy and excommunicated and degraded him from his priestly office, the council expressly declared that it had no power to proceed any farther against him. According to a fixed and standing law of the Catholic church—a law embodied as an adage in the canon law itself, and strict and universal in its application—the council could proceed no farther.

Before the council pronounced judgment on the doctrines of Huss, the emperor Sigismund had already declared to him, in presence of the council, that, by a standing law of the empire, heresy was punishable with death; and he had added, that unless Huss would retract his errors, he would, with his own hands, be ready to light up the fire which would consume him. Huss himself, as we have seen, was well aware of this law, openly admitted its justice before the council itself, and in the placards he had put up in Prague and on his journey to Constance, had declared his readiness to submit to its hard penalty, in case he should be convicted of error.

Had the council thirsted for the blood of Huss, would it not have been eager to exact the punishment ordained by the imperial laws? Would it not have clamored for his execution? The acts of the council, however, state nothing of the kind ; but they do state, and M. Bonnechose himself admits the fact, that the council did everything in its power to rescue Huss from death, by laboring to persuade him to make at least a modified retraction of his errors. No effort was spared to bring about this result; the only means, then known to the laws, by which he could be saved. Formulary after formulary of retraction was submitted to him; embassy after embassy was sent : cardinals, bishops, his own chief accuser Paletz, the emperor himself, with tears in their eyes, urged and entreated Huss to retract. But arguments, entreaties, tears, were all lost on the obstinate and immovable Bohemian. Huss was inflexible. He could have escaped death ; but he rushed into its jaws!

Nor let us be told that Huss could not retract without sacrificing his conscience. He may have been conscientious : but, from what we have seen of his character, there seems to have been more of false pride and of sheer obstinacy, than of conscience, in the whole matter. He had already in open council, disavowed nearly all the errors imputed to him; he had condemned the most obnoxious principles of Wickliffe ; he had sought to prove himself a thorough and an obedient Catholic. He had declared, over and over again, that he had never taught the doctrines ascribed to him, as he said, through sheer malice and calumny; and yet he would not retract them ! And he based his refusal on the argument, that if he did retract them, his enemies would say that he had taught them! The emperor Sigismund answered this quibble, as follows :

"What can you fear in abjuring all these articles? For my part, I have no hesitation in disavowing all kinds of errors ; but does it follow that I have entertained them? "

The emperor himself, after all other means had failed, sent a commission of four bishops, with some of the principal friends of Huss, to persuade him to submit. Huss wished to argue with them ; not to submit quietly to the decision of the council. " Do you, then," said one of the bishops, " believe yourself wiser than the whole council? Huss evaded this searching question by an appeal to the Scriptures and to his conscience, and by a professed willingness to be taught "in the divine word by the least person in the council!" Here, then, was the real issue:—private judgment against church authority. This was the real secret of his obstinacy. And this secret pride and self-will were encouraged by John de Chlum and his other partisans at- Constance. Had the principles of Huss been merely speculative and harmless; had they not struck at the foundations of all social order; had they not already produced their legitimate effects of seditions and bloodshed in Bohemia ; we think that, notwithstanding his obstinacy, he might yet have been spared. At least, in that supposition, we would feel much more strongly inclined to sympathize with him. But with all these unquestionable facts in view, we cannot, in the least, coincide with those who would fain exalt him to the rank of a saint and a martyr.

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And what were the results of Huss’ obstinacy?

We will conclude this paper by a very rapid sketch of what took place in Bohemia after the death of John Huss and Jerome of Prague. The terrible events which ensued there, and filled all Bohemia with confusion, sacrilege, and bloodshed, for nearly half a century, furnish the best possible commentary on the life and doctrines of Huss. They were but the bitter fruits of that tree of disobedience which he had planted in once peaceful and happy Bohemia! " By their fruits ye shall know them," said our blessed Lord, and we are going to apply this divine rule.

The mantle of Huss fell on the shoulders of Ziska, his friend, his disciple, his avenger, near whose tomb was engraved this inscription : " O Huss I here reposes John Ziska, thy avenger, and the emperor himself has quailed before him!" Perhaps of all the dark deeds recorded in the annals of mankind, those done in Bohemia, at this period, were the darkest, and of all the dark names on the pages of history, that of Ziska is the darkest!

During his lifetime, and for half a century after his death, his very name made all Europe shudder with horror. Whithersoever he bent his course he rioted amidst carnage and ruins. He combined the cruelty of Attila with the fanaticism of Cromwell. His fanatical followers had the fierce ruthlessness of the Huns blended with, but not softened by, the stern religious enthusiasm of the Roundheads. During the few years that this truculent monster headed the armies of the Hussites—from the death of Huss in 1415 to his own death on the 11th of October, 1424,—Bohemia was changed from a blooming garden into a frightful and frowning wilderness. Let us hear even our very partial historian, M. Bonnechose, on this subject.

"Bohemia, from one extremity to the other, ' soon became one vast field of carnage ; everywhere conflagrations displayed to view dreadful massacres ; wo to the towns, castles, and, above all, the monasteries that closed their gates—all passed by the edge of the sword. The sight of a monk or a priest filled Ziska with a gloomy rage. . . . He smote, burned, and exterminated, coldly glutting his vengeance in the shock of combatants, the gleam of flames, the shrieks of victims, ' punishing,' as Balbinus expresses it, ' one sacrilege by a thousand !' Bohemia, Germany, and Europe were soon filled with the name of this terrible man. Wenceslaus awoke from his shameful slumber at the noise of his falling palaces, of his churches in ashes, of his senate massacred ; he started up in a frightful fit of passion, which was injurious to himself alone, for his fury suffocated him."

… "He [Ziska] expired (of the plague) on Oct. 11, 1424, ordering his soldiers to abandon his body to birds of prey, and to have his skin made into a drum, the mere noise of which would cast terror into his enemies."

Such were, then, the fruits of the doctrines and of the obstinacy of John Huss! For it was certainly more owing to the truculent character and tendency of those doctrines, than to any mere revenge of his death, that Bohemia was filled with all those atrocities. Such was the dark and bloody monument which Bohemia erected to his memory! So much mischief can one bad man do in the world!!

Having now read the true history behind John Huss and the Church’s role in the affair, I’d like to repeat the words of Pope Francis from his address Monday:

Six centuries have passed since the day that the renowned preacher and Rector of the University of Prague, Jan Hus, died tragically. Already in 1999, Saint John Paul II, intervening in an International Symposium dedicated to this memorable figure, expressed his “profound regret for the cruel death inflicted [on him],” and he numbered him among the Reformers of the Church. In the light of this approach, the study must continue on the person and activity of Jan Hus, who for a long time was the subject of contention among Christians, while today he has become a reason for dialogue…

And his reported statements the previous Friday:

The pope said that Hus’ burning at the stake after refusing to recant his alleged heresy was an injury to the church itself and the church should ask forgiveness for it, like all the acts in history when killings had been committed in the name of God. He referred specifically to the 30 years wars which in particular devastated the Czech lands and much of the rest of Europe in the 17th century…

In conclusion, should John Huss, be considered in the words of St. John Paul II a “Reformer of the Church?” Was the Church wrong to consider Jan Hus a heretic and blasphemer? Was Huss a man of “integrity” and “commitment to moral values?” Should the Church ask forgiveness for Huss’ burning at the stake?

You decide.

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Last modified on Wednesday, June 17, 2015