Sunday, September 18, 2016

Forerunners of Reform

Revolt against medieval Western Catholic Christendom did not really erupt when a professor of moral theology posted 95 theses on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in November 1517. That legendary event was the bubbling over of a cauldron brewing atop a flame stoked by fires burning for at least 200 years, a mostly just rebellion against a decaying and corrupt ecclesiastical order.

Three movements—only three of a good dozen throughout Europe—exemplify key causes, proposals for change and courses of action of the revolt: the French Petrobrusians, the Central European Hussites and the English Lollards.

The first two were named after the leaders of the respective movements, Peter de Bruis and Jan Hus, both priests condemned as heretics; the name of the latter is derived from a popular medieval English slur describing uneducated folk. Together, they make up a small sample of lesser rebels (Joachim de Fiore and Peter Waldo are two others) who heard the gospel within the grand medieval European cathedral yet reached conclusions vastly at odds with those of the august, seigniorial and often corrupt, but institutionally legitimate, successors of the apostles.

But these and later Protestant figures were hardly the sole voices of reform. Dominic, Francis and many squarely Catholic figures we have reviewed were equally appalled at the clerical hierarchy’s corruption and hypocrisy and also advocated thorough change.

Peter de Bruis

This popular French religious teacher, active between 1117 and the 1120s and condemned as a heretic by the Second Lateran Council, was one of several medieval preachers of reform whose lives are largely undocumented, whose movements died and whose writings are lost. We know of him from criticism by the Benedictine abbot Peter the Venerable, Lateran II and accounts of his followers’ often violent actions.

Peter was an apparently appealing and fiery preacher. He spoke and was silenced by bishops’ orders in a broad swath of southern French provinces, from Gascony on the Atlantic to the Alps. His followers adhered to an austere and sharply redefined view of the Christian faith.

His theology built on very literal interpretation of the gospels. He had disdain for much of the rest of the New Testament writings, whose apostolic origin he doubted. He questioned the Old Testament, rejected the Church Fathers and the authority of the Catholic Church itself. He criticized infant baptism, opposed the building of churches and the veneration of crosses, rejected transubstantiation even before it was official doctrine and rejected the notion that living believers could help the dead through their prayers.

His followers, the Petrobrusians, also opposed clerical celibacy and organ music and singled out crosses for particularly violent iconoclasm. They viewed crosses as objects to be desecrated and destroyed many in bonfires. This latter practice ended Peter’s life. Around 1126, Peter publicly burned crosses in St Gilles near Nîmes. In response, the largely devout and superstitious angry populace threw Peter into the fire, in which he burned to death.

Jan Hus and the Hussite Wars

Jan Hus (1372-1415), a Czech priest, philosopher and Master at Charles University in Prague, is widely understood to be the first Protestant reformer, one without modern followers. His preaching and suppression gave rise to an armed rebellion in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire.

His misfortune was to live a good century before Luther, Calvin and like-minded others, not to mention before the printing press and humanism might have given him a broader hearing. Indeed, the tiny remnants that survived persecution by the Catholic Hapsburgs were ultimately annihilated by the Communist regime of the post-World War II era. Nonetheless, Hus offers a view into a fascinating alternative Reformation as it could have happened. A good part of the story is told in the 1977 film “John Hus.”

Hus was ordained a priest in 1400, became university rector shortly thereafter and was appointed preacher in its Bethlehem chapel, all within an environment bubbling with ferment. On one front there was a spirit of national assertion by the Czechs and their King Wenceslaus (a descendant of the Wenceslaus of the Christmas carol); Bohemia was an Imperial State in the Holy Roman Empire and Wenceslaus a prince-elector of the empire. Intellectually, there emerged a new turn of medieval philosophical realism, which questioned many abstract notions. Theologically, the wind of reform blew from England, from Protestant forerunner John Wycliffe.

In 1406, two students brought a document to Prague bearing the seal of the University of Oxford. It praised Wycliffe, and Hus proudly read it from his pulpit. Then in 1408, Pope Gregory XII warned the archbishop, who was tolerant of Hus’ railings against the moral failings of clergy, bishops and even the papacy, that Rome knew about Wycliffe's heresies and of Wenceslaus’ sympathy for nonconformists. The king and university ordered all of Wycliffe’s writings surrendered. Hus obeyed, declaring that he condemned Wycliffe’s errors.

Absent the Western Schism, which was in progress, that might have been the end of the story. However, in a complex sequence of events involving the three competing papal lines, Wenceslaus’ ambitions to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor and rising Bohemian nationalism led by Hus, the Czech priest landed on the wrong side of the popes and the king, with Bohemian Wycliffism as the banner.

Prague was placed under interdict and Hus was excommunicated by papal claimant Alexander V, one of the “compromise” candidates later declared antipope; this did not sit well with the Bohemians and led Hus to leave Prague for the countryside. To make things worse, Alexander’s successor, John XXIII, decided to finance a “crusade” against the allegedly dissenting King of Naples, actually a supporter of the Roman claimant, historically judged the real pope. He proposed to raise money through the sale of indulgences—one of Wycliffe’s and Hus’ bête noires—in addition to highly unpopular papal taxes.

Hus argued that no pope or bishop could rightly take up the sword in the name of the Church, but should instead pray for his enemies and bless those that curse him, noting that forgiveness of sins comes from true repentance, not payments to clerics. Hus’ followers burnt the papal bulls condemning the preacher. They argued that the Church was a fraudulent mob of “adulterers” and “Simonists” (selling blessings; see Acts 8:9–24). The dispute snowballed when authorities beheaded three peasants in the movement, later considered the first martyrs of the Hussite Church, leading to riots throughout Bohemia.

In 1415, almost a century before Martin Luther’s theses, Hus was tried by an ecclesiastical tribunal, convicted and executed with his hands tied behind his back. His neck was chained to a stake, and wood and straw were piled up to his neck. Before the kindling was set on fire, he was asked to recant. He replied: “God is my witness that the things charged against me I never preached. In the same truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, drawing upon the sayings and positions of the holy doctors, I am ready to die today.”

In the aftermath, the Czech population formed a military force that defeated five crusades proclaimed against them by various Roman post-schism popes through 1431. The Hussites not only defended themselves but intervened in the wars of neighboring countries. They were among the first to make extensive use of handheld firearms. In 1434, a moderate faction of Hussites prevailed on the battlefield and agreed to submit to the authority of the king and the Church, which allowed them to practice their somewhat variant rite.

Parallel to the Hussites, also influenced by Wycliffe, were the Lollards, whom we will meet next week.

1 comment: