How the Catholic Church Adopted the ‘Heresies’ of Jan Hus, a Reformer It Burned at the Stake

"Jan Hus Burnt at Stake," from the Chronicle of Ulrich Richtental (15th century)

By Jules Gomes Published on July 6, 2024

First, they falsify your writings. Then they brand you a heretic and burn you alive at the command of an infallible council. Centuries later, they canonize the heresies for which they burned you at a different infallible council.

It is a plot only Franz Kafka could craft for the beleaguered protagonist of his novel, The Trial. But in our story, it is the Roman Catholic priest Fr. Jan Hus and not the bank employee Joseph K who is the protagonist of this plot.

On July 6, 1415, Hus, who is smeared by Catholic apologists as a heretic and hailed by evangelicals as a proto-Protestant, was burned alive by the orders of the Council of Constance (1414–1418) — an ecumenical council which is accepted as one the 21 infallible councils of the Catholic Church.

Popes Express Regret for Executing Hus

On December 17, 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed “deep regret for the cruel death inflicted on Jan Hus” by the Roman hierarchy. Addressing an international symposium on the Bohemian preacher, the Polish pontiff praised Hus’s “moral courage in the face of adversity and death.”

This was an epic U-turn from Pope Pius XI, who suspended diplomatic relations with leaders of the Czech nation for participating in the Hus celebrations on July 6, 1925.

Pope Francis followed suit on June 15, 2015, when he affirmed Pope John Paul II’s designation of Hus as “among the Reformers of the Church” and told a delegation from the Czech Republic that he would “unite [himself] spiritually to the Penitential Liturgy that you will celebrate here in Rome.”

But the hairpin bend in the surreal Hussite plot comes at the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) when Vatican II (considered as infallible as the Council of Constance) did a cascade of cartwheels and adopted the very reforms that had been branded “heresies” and led to Hus being burned alive.

Remarkably, during the heated debate on religious freedom at Vatican II, the archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Josef Beran, delivered a passionate speech defending Hus and illustrating how the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia still suffers for its judgment on Hus nearly 575 years ago.

Catholic Scholars Stress Hus’s Influence on Vatican II

In a peer-reviewed article, Fr. Przemysaw Kantyka, a professor at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, discusses how Hus can be considered a “precursor” of Vatican II, especially since his ideas were reflected in Dei verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation), Lumen gentium (Dogmatic Constitution of the Church) and Dignitatis humanae (Declaration on Religious Freedom).

Kantyka is one of several distinguished Catholic scholars who have posited this trailblazing thesis. In his monograph, L’hérésie de Jean Huss, Dutch Benedictine Fr. Paul de Vooght pressed for Hus’s rehabilitation, arguing that the declarations of Vatican II had vindicated Hus de facto even if not de jure.

Dr. Daniel Di Domizio, professor at Cardinal Strich College, Milwaukee, explores striking similarities between Hus’s De Ecclesia (declared heretical by Constance) and Lumen gentium, asking if the Czech theologian and rector of Prague University can rightly be hailed as a “precursor” of Vatican II.

In a journal article, Fr. Karel Skalicky, professor emeritus at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, recalled Cardinal Beran’s defense of Hus at Vatican II.

“The truth is: He died for the renewal of the Catholic Church,” Skalicky writes, explaining how Vatican II reconciled itself with Hus’s vision of the church as the invisible eschatological people of God rather than a hermetically sealed institution.

Receiving Communion as Jesus Instructed

One of Hus’s reforms that Catholics today take for granted is the reception of both bread and wine during the Eucharist. Hus agreed with the Catholic doctrines of transubstantiation and concomitance (a person consuming the consecrated bread had access to the blood of Christ as well) but maintained that it is “beneficial for the believing lay people to take the blood of Christ in the form of wine.”

Commenting on 1 Corinthians, Hus notes that Paul instructs the faithful to “eat in the species of bread and drink in the species of wine, and that not only should Corinthian priests do this, but also the faithful lay people, that is to say, that they should take the body of the Lord under the species of bread and drink His blood under the species of wine.”

Hus quotes Pope Gelasius’s admonition to those who take “only a portion of the body, abstain from the cup of sanctified blood” urging that they “either should receive the sacraments as a whole or be kept away from the sacraments altogether, because the division of one and the same mystery cannot arise without great sacrilege.”

Hus cites many Church Fathers in favor of giving the chalice to the laity, including Cyprian, who asks “how we teach or provoke them to shed their blood in confession, if we deny the blood of Christ to those who are about to enter on the warfare? Or how do we make them fit for the cup of martyrdom, if we do not first admit them to drink, in the church, the cup of the Lord by the right of communion?”

But Constance overruled both Scripture and Tradition, declaring that although Christ administered the Eucharist to His disciples under “both species of bread and wine” and “although such a sacrament was received by the faithful under both species in the early Church,” it would deny the chalice to the laity.

Post-Vatican II Church Bows to Hus’s Liturgical Reforms

On October 30, 1962, during a general session of Vatican II, Cardinal Bernardus Alfrink of Utrecht advocated communion under both species as being more in keeping with the words of Christ: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood …” (John 6:54).

“In refusing to give the chalice to the laity,” Alfrink argued, “the Church was depriving them of their right to conform to Christ’s injunction.” Other cardinals, including Frings, Doepfner, and Leger, agreed But Cardinal Ottaviani, shocked at the proposals, rose to ask, “Are these fathers planning a revolution?”

Vatican II’s decree on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium reluctantly permitted the giving of the chalice to the laity “when the bishops think fit” in special circumstances. The dam had been breached. Soon, the reception of communion under both species became ubiquitous, especially in the West, and the Church later introduced Lay Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to administer the chalice.

In his passion to reform Catholicism, Hus became the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. Although he did not reject authentic Tradition, he believed that everything necessary for salvation could be found within Holy Scripture. The Bible functioned as the final court of appeal and truth.

“Hus’ fidelity to scripture is unimpeachable,” writes Catholic historian Thomas Fudge in his magisterial book Jan Hus: Religious Reform and Social Revolution in Bohemia. This led to Hus becoming Bohemia’s greatest preacher, with some claiming that his congregation at Bethlehem Chapel numbered 3,000.

Based on the Bible, Hus challenged the sale of indulgences, clerical corruption and sexual immorality, and simony. “So long as he preached against the foibles of the common people Hus was commended,” notes Fudge. “But when he turned his sights on sinful priests he found himself in trouble.”

Heretic or Martyr?

The Council of Constance convicted Hus of heresy. His books were burned in the cemetery. He was denied a lawyer. Hus declared that his writings had been falsified by his accusers. At the stake, Hus was stripped off each priestly vestment accompanied by a specific curse, and his soul was, by the Vatican’s standards, handed over to the Devil.

Hus was forced to wear a paper miter adorned with demons. He expressed gratitude to his jailers for their kindness and knelt and prayed that God would forgive his enemies. The Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund who had promised Hus safe passage turned his face in embarrassment.

Hus died singing in Latin: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me.”

Hus is one of my personal heroes. First, he stood for a cast-iron principle: What God has permitted, the Church cannot prohibit. If Jesus permitted Christians to receive the bread and the wine at Holy Communion, the Church has no authority to overrule Christ. (I have reiterated the same principle in my article on clerical celibacy published in The Stream.)

Second, his commitment to the truth was utterly uncompromising. His famous words appear along the base of the Jan Hus memorial statue in Prague:

Therefore faithful Christian, seek the truth, listen to the truth, learn the truth, love the truth, speak the truth, adhere to truth and defend truth to the death. For truth will set you free from sin, the Devil and the destruction of the soul, and ultimately from eternal death which is eternal separation from God’s grace and the joy of salvation.

 

Dr. Jules Gomes, (BA, BD, MTh, PhD), has a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Cambridge. Currently a Vatican-accredited journalist based in Rome, he is the author of five books and several academic articles. Gomes lectured at Catholic and Protestant seminaries and universities and was canon theologian and artistic director at Liverpool Cathedral.

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