Perspectives and Opinions

One of the basic missions of the Society VERITAS is to study current and often controversial issues of the present times. This section of our website provides a conclusion of its results. Final perspectives and opinions, supported by VERITAS, can be usually found in a form of an open letter or article in the periodicals published by the society VERITAS.

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Why Cannot John Huss be Rehabilitated?

Eva Melmuková

Questions and conjectures constantly recur. Huss' rehabilitation on part of Vatican would be useful, so why has it not happen yet? People who are not adequately informed cannot be acquainted with this issue, which is understandable. It would be thus appropriate to clear this thing up. It is possible so much the more that it has recently been a very strong issue.

First of all, we need to make clear what is the crucial point of Master John Huss' case. It has all been beeing discussed — but the more it has been talked about, the more the heart of the matter has been blurred. I will try to summarize the basic facts and circumstances of John Huss' case, which has been started in 1409, actually as early as in 1408, and lasted till 1415.

In general there are three main lines of the historical process, the first one is essential — content bearing, the other two are political. Each of them presents a separate period. They follow one another and at the same time, to some extent, merge.

The oldest line is determined by the fact that Prague's University was influenced by many ideas of Wycliff's teachings. These teachings later become the subject of disagreement at the University. Naturally, the preaching tradition of the beginning of the Czech Reformation is connected with it. The symbol of the Czech reformational preaching of those times was the Bethlehem Chapel, which did not represent a traditional church with a sacred area, but rather a big lecture hall, where the Word of God was freely preached in the Czech language. These two factors — Wycliff and preaching — subsequently ignited John Huss' trial. This trial represented much more than just punishment of one person. Master John must be considered the main representative of the whole movement — the large group of people that included people with adademic education, noblemen as well as common people — altogether forming the basic element of the Czech reformation.

At this point we also have to draw our attention to one of absolutely essential things to know in order to understand the context. The process that was taking place in the Czech Lands in the beginning of the 15th century organically fits into a phrame of movements that had been taking place throughout Europe since 1215. That date — year in which the 4th Council of Lateran was held — is an equally important breakpoint in the evolution of the visible Christian Church as the year 313 when the Edict of Milano started the secular rule of church authorities. The 4th Council of Lateran proclaimed the Church to be an institution of salvation — a mediator between God and man. After that so-called heretic movements logically started to appear — they did not fall off the main directive in the sense of some derangement as it is sometimes wrongly understood and interpreted. On the contrary, these movements appeared, because in 1215 the main directive was interrupted and the visible Church evidently denied its main mission. That is why “heretics” strived for reform of what had been interrupted. Among the first were the Lollards (followers of John Wycliff) and the Waldenses and later the Hussites.

Wycliff unambiguously says, that Church is not an institution of salvation, but that it is mainly a family of believers who are united through the sacrament of the body and blood. This evidence is included in the Hussite program in 1420 — in “Four Articles of Prague”. It is right to remind ourselves that the forementioned Hussite program is not dead, on the contrary, it represents a very modern program for the third millenium. Free preaching of the Word of God (in general freedom of speech), the Holy Sacrament in both kinds as expression of believers without any mediation (in general: equality of men), Church with no secular authority (should not have its own state and political authorities), no exceptions to the laws for certain privileged groups (in general: same rights for politians and common people). That is definitely modern, clear and European. Europe cannnot move forward unless these rules are respected. All of it has its roots in Wycliff's teachings, it was developed at the University in Prague and Master John Huss became its main representative and speaker. The teachings were not only discussed within enclosed community of educated people, but through preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel they were also introduced to the public — nobelmen, the Czech Queen as well as the poor in the vicinity of the chapel. That was the essential reason why John Huss' ran up against problems.

Moreover, this all was joined by politics, which influenced individual phases of the developing process. The basic political line, in the beginning very pro-Huss, was represented by an ordinary dispute of power between the king Wenceslas IV and the archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc of Hasenburg. Not only these two were included in the dispute, but most importantly those who supported each of them. There were two political wings — the first was represented by supporters of the pope Gregory XII and the second by supporters of the cardinals who wanted to solve the schism at the council. Wenceslas IV desired the imperial crown and thus decided to favour the cardinals, because both his rival Ruprecht and the Prague's archbishop supported Gregory XII. Thanks to this kindly political constellation Master John Huss and the beginnings of the Czech Reformation were experiencing peaceful times. For a certain period of time, everything was developing under the patronage of the king Wenceslas IV.

Unfortunately, this quite favourable situation did not last long. The decisive conflict arouse through Huss' determined denunciation of the pope's bull of indulgences in 1412. In the eyes of the forming Czech Reformation, this matter was something completely strange and abhorrent — especially the fact that the bull was granted in order to secure resources for the prosecution of pope's war campaign that he led to satisfy his power claims. The indulgences are publicly denounced, as a result of which the first three Hussite martyrs are executed at the Old Town Hall. Under the circumstances the attitude of the king Wenceslas IV changes. He asks Master John Huss and his followers to conform to his wishes and stop their critic. However, this is not possible. That is why the period of the royal support ends and a new one begins. But even after his expulsion from Prague, Master John Huss preaches in the country and in the vicinity of his friends' estates. The ideas of the Czech Reformation thus spread around larger and larger areas. In a sense, the preceeding favourable period seemingly prevades the following course of events, for a limited period of time though. The Council in Constance opens the last period.

This last period must be very seriously reminded. It also contains an unambiguous answer to the question “Why cannot John Huss be rehabilitated?” At this point I can gratefully remind that we have the newest study of this topic, from view of the ecclesiastical law, at our disposal. It is a publication by doc. JUDr. Jiří Kejř, DrSc., a member of many Czech and foreign scientific institutions, who, as the first Protestant, was named a knight commander of the Order of Pope Silvester the Saint in Rome. The book “The Huss' Trial” is a result of his long-time explorational interest and its content was of a great help during the proceedings of so-called Huss' Commision in the Czech Republic and at the Symposium in Rome at the end of 1999.

Kejř, being a lawyer, focuses in more detail on those moments of the long trial when the ecclesiastical law was seriously violated on part of the judges and Huss was therefore under the interdict illegally. All in all they include matters regarding “disobedience” — i.e. the fact that he did not present himself at the papal court.

The basic issues that the Council of Constance dealt with follow. At this point the situation suddenly changes. Among articles, sometimes wrongly and falsely presented, were also those which Master John Huss was really defending and which he simply could not abandon. However, the Council could not change their attitude either.

That is what Kejř says. And I breathed a sigh of relieve, because here it is in black and white. That is really as clear as one and one is two.

It will be useful to remind a few quotations from the text:

“But at the same time it cannot be denied that Huss himself made serious mistakes, sometimes made a tactical blunder and many times failed to understand the situation in which he happened to be.” (p. 205)

“Not only that he did not properly understood complexity of the legal proceedings, but at certain moments he definitely broke the law.” (p. 206)

“By far more than dogmatic divergence, the judges considered thoughts and acts that eroded mere existence of the visible Church, which Wycliff and subsequently Huss regarded as ecclesia malignatium, que est diaboli. Huss strives for creation of a new Church. He surely did not have in mind destruction of the existing Church through violent transformation, but his basic distinction of the Church of the predestined (praedestinati), which in its definit idea rejects the institutionary Church, is revolutionary. That is the reason for the aggrieved response to Huss' activities, which according to his faith that he was carrying out orders of the Gospel, were inconsistent with laws and traditions of the church.” (p. 207)

“If we follow the main Huss' divergencies that were unacceptable for the Church, we learn that they, in fact, can be found in Wycliff's works, too. Huss often does not reach so radical conclusions as his predecessor. Many times he softens his expressions, but still he is in general in accordance with him. Huss' teachings on the papal authority, on ecclesiastical jurisdiction and obedience, his concept of the Church, putting secular authority superior to the Church, his persuasion that God's laws are sufficient, which results in rejection of secular laws — all have its roots in Wycliff's teachings. If wycliffism was labelled as an ideology of revolution, Huss' teachings cannot be divested of this characteristics either.” (pp. 210–211)

“Huss considers the central category of God's laws the highest standard which predestinates all of legal activities. Biblical command is regarded by him as authoritative imperative, which is necessary to be carried out even though it would include breaking some of the human laws or getting into conflict with secular authorities. Huss acts according to his conception, carrying out Christ's orders — as he understands them, does not hesitate to oppose the Church. The human rule of law, from the view of God's laws — in Huss' interpretation, loses the highest administrative authority and creative power. This is neither a juridical nor legal-philosophical, but a legal-theological conception of law.

The legal-theological and moral layer, on which Huss was standing, is incompatible with the legal layer of his judges. In the conflict of morality and law, which had often been present in various legal systems, Huss favoured morality and the will to submit to God. In the atmosphere of his times it was illusional thinking — ideas about how the law should be formed. According to the ecclesiastical law, which was applied by the court at the council, according to the decision of legitimate judges, Huss sinned against the law. There was an insurmountable gap between Huss and his arbiters.” (pp. 211–212)

These are the last words of Kejř's book. In connection with this case, Kejř himself refers to a quotation from the book Philosophical and Moral Background of Huss' Heresy by J. B. Kozák (1925): “He must have fallen, because there was no possible reconciliation between basic principles of his intellectual world and personality on one side and principles and conviction of his arbiters on the other side.” (p. 218)

That is very interesting and I really breathed a sigh of relieve, because at this point all rational people should stop thinking about possible rehabilitation of Master Joh Huss on part of the Roman Catholic Church. We cannot and do not want to desire it. That would not be Huss anymore. Basically it is not possible for related reasons. Every society can rehabilitate only those who belonged to it, those who were regarded as its members. Master John Huss did not die as a Roman Catholic priest, Master John Huss was unhallowed and any symposium in Rome have not given their opinion on this issue. Nobody has ever mentioned possible rehabilitation. At this point I have to point out to an interesting topic: It is being considered now, in connection with so-called witch trials, that a former Deacon of Mohelnice Krištof Lauttner from Northern Moravia could be rahabilitated, unquestionably a brave man and Christian, who stood up for those unjustly accused miserable “witches” and was eventually condemned, too. The archbishop Graubner expressed himself that there exist certain endeavours to rehabilitate him by restoring his ordination. But Lauttner's rehabilitation is possible, he only stood up for “witches” who we do not want to judge and burn and we admit that. On the contrary, Master John Huss cannot be rehabilitated by anyone in the Roman Catholic Church, Master John Huss cannot be given back his membership, because his opinions cannot be approved as orthodox. Nowadays, he would not be burned at a stake, but he would be condemned for his opinions in the same way as hundreds of years ago. And that is the reason for the insurmountable gap. In what sense? Of course, in the matter of the Church. Ecclesiology of Master John Huss creates this insurmountable gap.

This is really a relieving word. It tells us what is possible and what is not. I take it for a positive result of discussions about Huss that it was said that: it is not nice to burn, dispraise or degrade one another. That is surely right. When people are not dispraised and degraded, they do not have to defend themselves. When they are not being killed, they do not have to kill in self-defence. We are glad that many of our friends from the Roman Catholic Church can be reconciliated with the fact that they need not fear any more when they talk about Master John Huss and that they need not condemn him as a heretic. In this sense, they can feel relieved. We can feel relieved as well, when we see that after all those attempts, after years and years of efforts it can be said nothing more than what we have known since the beginning: i.e. there is no reconcilliation, there is insurmountable gap between the church represented by the family of believers, between freedom and responsibility for conscience of each of them and the Church as an institution of salvation, an institution that can manipulate people and brings about all evil fruit of manipulation, leading to such ends as in the case of the Nuremberg Trials — “They ordered me to do it and I was only carrying out their orders”. Two different types of human society, which are completely incompatible. They cannot be unified, but can co-exist in mutual respect.

In the end I would like mention something that is not only interesting. In the opinion of the head of the Czech Episcopal Conference of the Roman Catholic Church Kotík, the Roman Catholic Church distinguishes two types of churches. The first live in full association with it, e.g. the Greek Catholic Church or other associated Churches — i.e. those that recognize Vatican as their head. The second group is represented by those Churches that do not belong to their fellowship. The fellowship, which is not full, has two levels, especially according to the apostolic succession. The first level includes the separate Churches such as the Orthodox Church and some oriental Churches. The second level includes so-called “Church Fellowship” — represented by various lines of Protestantism. Formally, we, Christians belonging to Protestant Reformed Churches, are not fully recognized as Churches. The ecclestiastical law, however, does not give any specific names of Churches and thus provides certain freedom in their recognition. According to this, participation on the sacred life is graded. It may happen and it is theoretically possible, that Churches that will eagerly try to be as much ecumenical as to forget their fundamentals, would some day replace in their members this “imperfection”. There is even a real possibility for them to become associated Churches, it is possible to resume the apostolic succession — gained through the Roman ordination. Nevertheless, these Churches would cease to be reformed Churches, they would cease to be Churches by the spirit of Master John Huss. But in that case, not all the Churches and not all of their members. That is how our reformed orientation comes through, because we are not institutions. All of our Churches and all of our Church bodies are aware of the fact that it is enough when just two or three do not surrender and in traditions of Master John Huss follow in footsteps of Jesus Christ, teachings of the early Church and all the faithful ones — truly independently acting, thinking and responsible Christians.

Maybe they will not be in the same line then, but they will not cease to exist, they cannot cease to exist. However, Master John Huss cannot be rehabilitated. Thanks God!

Presented at the general Assembly of VERITAS in May 2000. Published: The Bulletin VERITAS, No. 9/2000, pp. 11–16.