John Huss and the Council of Constance


Was the Church (The Council of Constance) right to condemn John Huss to the stake, even though he was a heretic?


I just read about him and learned that Pope John Paul ll issued an apology on behalf of the Church in 1999.


The Church condemned him as a heretic. The state is who punished heretics by burning them to death.


Isn’t there a meme that shows fingers in the ears and 'la, la, la. I don’t want to know what you’re doing.'
You realize, yes, that during the middle ages, the church and the state were in the same bed, as it were. Either that, or totally at odds with each other in a power struggle. The Vatican has apologized for many things, but it is well past time for the church as a whole to own up to it’s horrendous behaviour throughout history.


But also, one has to recognise that the State had to uphold the teachings of the Church because the State got its power from the Church


At times. Other times, it was the power struggle and the state won.


What should have happened? Should the Church have not declared a heretic a heretic?


There are two parts to the story of Jan Hus. First, he, in fact, was a heretic. In 1410 he was excommunicated by the Bishop of Prague. Hus did not believe that there was a Petrine office – Jesus’ giving of the keys was only to Peter, it was not passed on to Peter’s successors. He also believed in sola scriptura.

Second, Hus was promised safe conduct to the council at Constance by the Imperial authorities. The council found Hus guilty of heresy; he did not recant and even though he had been promised safe passage he was burned at the stake by the Imperial authorities. This is the part that is troubling - he was granted safe passage but was executed anyway.


My personal belief? Jan Hus was a reformer in a time when the church was in great need of reform. (Remember the antipopes? Indulgence corruption?) He is considered a martyr and given honor in several branches of the church (including my own). AND Eastern Orthodoxy.


Yes, this sometimes happened.

However, in the case of most heresies, the state had an interest in quelling the heresy because the heresy brought upheaval. The last thing that the state wanted was this upheaval. They had to worry about their borders.

Heresy also usually brings on wars and fighting. For example there was tremendous fighting after Luther’s rebellion against the Church. The state wanted to prevent this.


What were his reforms?

Doctrinally he supported Wycliffe who rejected the Catholic Faith. Hus himself condemned the papacy and hierarchy of the Church. By that I don’t mean men acting badly but any sort of organization.

One condemned article is this:

No one is a civil master, no one is a prelate, no one is a bishop while he is in mortal sin.

You can see from this the danger Hus represented to the state. It seems to me he taught that no one who committed mortal sin could lead. Thus if a civil master was in mortal sin no one was obliged to follow him.

I don’t know if Hus himself taught this but his followers did believe that all mortal sin should be punished by the state. Heresy would be a very serious mortal sin. So by Hus’ or his followers own teaching execution would seem appropriate. Of course Hus wouldn’t say he himself was a heretic. But he couldn’t object to the logic of the punishment.


Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but to be fair to those at the time who had him executed, he had become a major leader in Bohemia and his doctrines would have bred both religious and civil anarchy had they been put fully into practice (for example, as exnihilo mentions above, “dominion by grace” which said civil authorities could only exercise power when they were in the state of grace.) Attempts to imprison him earlier also had failed.


In all the cases I am familiar with, even if we ultimately disagree now with the severity of the penalty, the person being executed was not just an otherwise nice guy who got some articles of faith wrong. They were also a potential threat to the very foundations of society. In De Laicis (Ch. 21), St. Robert Bellarmine defends the execution of heretics (after the failure or excommunication, fines, imprisonment, and exile) for those heretics who “take away the foundation for all good and fill the state with the upheavals that inevitably result from the diversity of religions.” (the aftermath of the Reformation appeared as living proof to those of that time that this policy was appropriate). Archbishop WIihelm Von Ketteler explains here why this is no longer deemed appropriate in our time (he was writing in the 19th century):



continued from above…

Here is St. Thomas More’s take on this (he himself participated in the execution of Tyndale):

St. Thomas More, Dialgoue Concerning Heresies

If the heretics had never started with the violence, then even if they had used all the ways they had ways they could to lure the people by preaching, even if they had thereby done what Luther does now and Mohammed did before – bring into vogue opinions pleasing to the people, giving them licence for licentiousness – yet if they had left violence alone, good Christian people would perhaps all the way up to this day have used less violence towards them than they do now. And yet heresy well deserves to be punished as severely as any other sin, since there is no sin that more offends God. However, as long as they refrained from violence, there was little violence done to them. And certainly though God is able against all persecution to preserve and increase his faith among the people, as he did in the beginning, for all the persecution inflicted by the pagans and the Jews, that is still no reason to expect Christian princes to allow the Catholic Christian people to be oppressed by Turks or by heretics worse than Turks.

For here you shall understand that it is not the clergy who endeavour to have them punished by death. It may well be, since we are all human beings and not angels, that some of them may sometimes have too hot a head, or an injudicious zeal, or perhaps, an irascible and cruel heart, by which they may offend God in the very same deed by which they would otherwise gain great merit. But certainly what the Church law on this calls for is good, reasonable, compassionate, and charitable, and in no way desirous of the death of anyone. For after a first offense the culprit can recant, repudiate by oath all heresies, do such penance for his offense as the bishop assigns him, and in that way be graciously taken back into the favour and graces of Christ’s Church. But if afterward he is caught committing the same crime again, then he is put out of the Christian flock by excommunication. And because, his being such, his mingling with Christians would be dangerous, the Church shuns him and the clergy give notice of this to the secular authorities – not exhorting the king, or anyone else either, to kill or punish him, but in the presence of the civil representative, the ecclesiastical official not delivers him but leaves him to the secular authorities, and forsakes him as one excommunicated and removed from the Christian flock.

one more example to come…


continued from above…

Here, in a 19th century debate with the Protestant minister John Breckinridge, Archbishop John Hughes, in defending the fact that Catholic doctrine is not inimical to religious liberty (quite the opposite) explained why the Albigensians were treated as they were.

Archbishop Hughes:

Let any man apply the doctrines of the Albigenses, simply on two points, viz. the tenet that the devil was the creator of the visible world ; and that, in order to avoid co-operation with the devil in continuing his work, the faithful should take measures by which the human race should come to an end ; and then say whether those errors were merely speculative. They were, on the contrary, pregnant with destruction to society. Was it persecution, or rather, was it not self-preservation, to arrest those errors? We shall see presently, however, that these men, like the Calvinists in France at a later period, took up the sword of sedition, and wielded it against the government under which they lived. We shall see, that long before the canon of Lateran was passed, their course was marked with plunder, rapine, bloodshed. And if so, it follows that their crimes against society springing from their doctrines, constitute the true reason of the severity of the enactment against them.

Their existence was known from the year 1022. If, then, the extermination of heretics had been a doctrine of the Catholic Church, why were they not exterminated from the first? If it was not a doctrine of the church in 1022, it was not a doctrine in 1215; for the gentleman himself admits and proclaims that our doctrines never change. Why then did not the Catholics exterminate them at once ? Is it that they were not able ? No : for at first the heresy had but few supporters. But why were they afterwards persecuted ? The reason is, that in the interval they had proceeded to sustain and propagate their infernal principles, by violence. They had placed themselves under the patronage of factious and rebellious barons, and had fought in pitched battles against their sovereigns. In the former controversy, the gentleman garbled the twenty-seventh canon of the third Council of Lateran, to show that these poor heretics were condemned to awful penalties, for nothing at all but protesting against the errors of the Church of Rome. This he did by quoting the beginning and conclusion of the canon, and, without indicating any omission, suppressing the crimes of these proto-martyrs of Calvinism. It was proved, by the very document from which he quoted, that these lambs of the Albigensian fold were “exercising such cruelty on the Christians, (ie. the Catholics) that they paid no respect to churches or monastaries, spared neither virgins nor widows, neither old nor young, neither sex nor age, but after the manner of pagans destroyed and desolated every thing.”

Again, my point is not to say these practices were without fault or that we don’t necessarily have a better perspective today, but rather that those who practiced them and defended them were not just bloodthirsty bigots, but often were being as reasonable as they could given the facts before them and their own experiences.


Well, it’s best not rely too much on the likes of Archbishop Hughes (speaking in the 19th Century, saying the slaughter of the Albigensians was a good thing, more or less!) but of course 15th/16th Century people thought like 15th/16th Century people, and behaved like 15th/16th Century people. And we should honour Hus and Wycliffe and Tyndale and More as great and brave men, The pretence, however, that killings for heresy left no stain on the Church but were just the fault of the state – that pretence should not be perpetrated. The Church knew very well what a finding of heresy entailed for the victim.


So what should the Church have done? Should it have not found anyone to be a heretic? Should it have let heresy roam free? One of the essential jobs of the Church is to correct heresy.


No doubt. And the Church thought burning at the stake was the appropriate remedy: people seem to have thought differently about such things then. I say only that we shouldn’t pretend, as some do, that the death penalty was a purely secular business and the Church’s hands were clean.


But the death penalty was purely secular. We would be pretending to say it was otherwise. If you want to say the Church should have opposed the death penalty for heretics that is another matter.


Nothing to do with the pursuit, trial and punishment of heretics was “purely secular”. To what extent were Church and State even separate in the Middle Ages? Should the Church have opposed this penalty? Well, if it had we can be fairly confident the penalty would not have been persisted with. But we must judge them by the standards of their own time. What we shouldn’t do is try to acquit them by the standards of our own time by claiming they bear no responsibility for the deaths at the stake imposed after Church trials.

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