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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1412, Jan Hus, Jerome of Prague, and other prominent members of the Czech reform movement mounted a vigorous campaign against the sale of indulgences under Antipope John XXIII. As a result of this and other signal acts of disobedience, Hus was placed under major excommunication on October 18 of that year and quickly left Prague so that the city would not fall under a papal interdict. He completed The Church in May of 1413 and then returned to Prague to offer a public reading of its contents at the city Bethlehem chapel.

Hus divided the work into twenty-three chapters. The first ten chapters were most likely completed by February, 1413, and deal mainly with the constitution of the church, its headship, and its divisions. The remaining thirteen chapters, in which Hus defends his stance on controversial issues and refutes charges levied against him by his opponents, are more polemical in nature and appear to have been written for the most part after February, 1413.

Hus defines the holy, catholic, and universal church as a community of all individuals predestined for salvation throughout time. He calls these individuals the predestinate (predestinatos) and distinguishes them from those who cannot become true members of the universal church because they lack grace. He calls this latter group the reprobate (reprobatos) or the foreknown (prescitos). Just as spittle, phlegm, ordure, and urine are not parts of the body, so, too, the foreknown are not members of the universal church. Even if they are temporarily in the church, he says, they are not of it. Membership in the church is determined not by human election or office but by divine grace.

On the basis of that definition of the church, Hus takes issue with Pope Boniface VIII’s bull Unam Sanctam (promulgated November 18, 1302; English translation, 1927), which advocates of the Roman papacy frequently cited in Hus’s time in support of Rome’s claim to spiritual supremacy. The bull proclaimed the unity of the church and identified the pope as the legitimate head of the church and the cardinals as its body. It asserted that obedience to the Roman pontiff was necessary for eternal salvation. Hus rejects these claims, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church represents only a particular church and is no different in that respect from the churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, or Antioch. In his view, only the universal church—which consists of all the predestinate in Heaven, on Earth, and in Purgatory—can be considered unified, holy, catholic, and apostolic. That church is Jesus Christ’s mystical body, and Christ is its sole legitimate head. For this reason, he continues, Christians need not obey papal bulls that are at variance with Holy Scripture:For to holy Scripture exception may not be taken, nor may it be gainsaid; but it is proper at times to take exception to bulls and gainsay them when they either commend the unworthy or put them in authority, or savor of avarice, or honor the unrighteous or oppress the innocent, or implicitly contradict the commands or counsels of God.

To strengthen his argument against the authority of the Roman pontiff, Hus calls into question the legitimacy of Constantine the Great’s donation to Pope Sylvester I. He points out that unworthy individuals have occupied the papal office in the past, and he cites Liberius, Constantine II, and the legendary Pope Joan as historical examples. Barring some act of revelation, he adds, there is no way for Christians to know for certain if a pope even belongs to the predestinate. However, it seems clear in his mind that an avaricious pope whose lifestyle conflicts with Christ’s commandments cannot be a true successor of Peter. The same critical reasoning applies to cardinals who, like thieves and robbers “devour and consume in luxurious living the goods of the poor.”

There are similar abuses at all levels of the priesthood, says Hus. Those who put a price on the sacraments or who trade in...

(The entire section is 1,053 words.)