Hus and Wycliffe on Simony in the Roman Church

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The late 1300s and early 1400s were marked with numerous works written by concerned individuals aiming to spark reform within the Roman Catholic Church. These individuals used strong polemical and accusatory rhetoric that was seen by many in the Roman church as an affront to its leaders, thereby inevitably causing a bitter conflict of writings, words, and actions that at times sealed the fates of many who joined in support of this movement which was deemed “heretical” on various fronts by the Roman Church. This essay will examine some key sections of John Hus’s “On Simony” and John Wyclif’s “On the Pastoral Office (Part 1)” where certain similarities and differences will be explored in the context of the thesis. It will be argued that judging by some of the contents of both treatises, it can be held as certain that both reformers asserted that the worthiness of a person to hold an ecclesiastical office should be based primarily on the consistency of the character of that person in relation to the reformers’ understandings of the teachings of the Bible with regards to how a faithful minister should live and act.  In other words, there exists a correlation in the thought of both reformers (as seen in both treatises) that loosely expressed the following pattern of thought: Ministers in the Church are to live and serve according to certain precepts that may be found in Scripture. Many of them seem to be falling short of the mark in diverse ways. Therefore, they should not serve in ecclesiastical office since they have transgressed and continue to violate the precepts (offered by both reformers.)

Since the condemnations of Wyclif and Hus happened within the time span of a few decades, it is reasonable to say that they would have experienced somewhat similar acts of corruption in the ecclesiastical systems of their respective lands. This is asserted because it is difficult to imagine that there was a major change in the political / ecclesiastical atmosphere from the time when “On the Pastoral Office” and “On Simony” were written.1 In any case, both treatises bear witness to perceived evils that were familiar to both reformers, along with what they considered to constitute a righteous life. In the opening paragraph of part I of Wyclif’s essay, he states:

“He [the pastor] ought to be holy, so strong in every sort of virtue that he would rather desert every kind of human intercourse, all the temporal things of this world, even mortal life itself, before he would sinfully depart from the truth of Christ.”2

Shortly after, he continues:

“..it is necessary for every pastor or curate especially to be instructed in the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity, which are in their essence the Lord Jesus Christ.”3

From these two statements we notice a moral example that Wyclif believes to be a standard for a Christian leader. Hus’s treatise, being much more lengthy and specific, contains noteworthy examples that agree with Wyclif’s statements:

         “Accordingly, in order to be a worthy bishop of God, one must have previously led a holy life, and must have been called of God…and…he must consider himself unworthy…and…he must do so humbly, for the sake of God’s glory and his salvation as well as that of other men.”4

Hus also states:

“In writing to Timothy, he [Paul] adds that “he must have a good testimony of them that are without (that is, from strangers); lest he fall into derision or into hate, and the snare of the devil.” 5

Hus attempts to apply many of Timothy’s admonitions to the clergy.

Both reformers believed that ecclesiastical authorities should exercise humility, possess holiness of character, and maintain a regard for the spiritual welfare of those in their care. However, one difference in the pastoral approach taken by Hus is that the tone of “On Simony” is more accusatory, markedly polemical, and specific to types of clergy and their respective abuses. Of course, Hus had much more space to express his disgust with the ecclesiastical system, as his treatise is longer, but even if it was reduced to the proportion of Wyclif’s essay, one would still possibly be able to sense more heat and vitriol in Hus. Wyclif focuses less on specific examples, as his motives were possibly to expound more on key characteristics of ecclesiastical leaders than to write a systematic denunciation of the whole system, as Hus seems to have done. Hus gives specific categories to popes, bishops, priests, curates, and even laypeople, and proceeds to apologetically dismantle any argument that these may have in favor of their behavior, which Hus perceives as constituting simony:

“The titular bishops, furthermore, excuse themselves on the ground that they would have nothing to wear and to eat if they did not charge for ordinations. To that, in the first place, may be answered that since they are the bishop’s substitutes or the assistants, they should be given the necessary means by the bishop, for the latter feeds his pages and many others who do not possess the ecclesiastical rank.”6

Hus addresses certain objections to his charges of simony against clergy by offering solutions to the excuses commonly offered by clergy with regards to why they perform what Hus views as simony. Many such examples are offered in his treatise. Hus argues that one does not have to resort to simony in order to survive in a clerical office. On the other hand, Wyclif does not take this route of dismantling any sort of argument presented by his opponents in his work. This is why “On Simonymight be classified as a more apologetic work that is bent on giving a remedy for common problems in the Church.

Some other similarities could be pointed out in both treatises with regards to the necessity of possessing a strong Christian character while in ecclesiastical office. In the following statement, Wyclif forms a vital link between an axiom of character and a practical example of how this trait should be displayed:

     “But each priest, curate, or pastor has the ability so to follow Christ in his manner of life; therefore he should do it. This moved the Apostles and the other priests of the Lord after them to imitate Christ in this evangelical poverty. The Apostle understands by the word alimenta food and drink sufficient for nourishment. He did not mean splendor or superfluity of food…and he means by the word tegumenta both the vestments of the body and also suitable houses which are to protect the faithful.”7

Wyclif asserts that it is a necessity for clergy to imitate Christ and the apostles in limiting the amount of personal possessions to a sufficient and reasonable degree, not exceeding what is necessary for the successful operation of a person’s ecclesiastical office. He mentions food, clothing, and shelter which are usually considered a person’s most basic needs. Therefore, it may be reasonable to say that Wyclif would not have approved of a curate who feasted often or who owned a manor or vast expanses of land. A few lines after the aforementioned quote, Wyclif states that “…it follows that all things that are in excess will be superfluous and will be sin.”8 He has now not only outlined how Christian ministers ought to act (after the manner of Christ and the Apostles). He has now provided specific examples of biblical / moral ways to have possessions and calls any violation of his moral examples “sin.” From this, it can be deduced that Wyclif is speaking to people during his time whom he has observed to have violated the moral rule that one ought not to live more abundantly than is stated in the scriptures (following the logic of the alimenta / tegumenta comments). Since this idea is presented early on in the treatise, it is a possibility that a great many ministers were living superfluous lives, and not just a handful. Wyclif states: “for all these [ministers] heap up for themselves superfluous goods by exceeding too far the apostolic rule [of poverty]…”9

Wyclif, however, did not assert that all holders of office should live in the same fashion. Since different ministers had different functions, it seemed reasonable to Wyclif that those who are called bishops or prelates may and probably should possess larger homes and even more goods:

     “…the apostle teaches that a bishop ought to be hospitable and well provided with a good house, which could not be unless he possessed  goods beyond mere necessary food. Therefore it is permitted to the bishop both in food and in clothing to exceed what is strictly necessary.”10

The main reason listed for the “allowed” superfluity of possessions is so that proper hospitality can be shown by the bishop toward others. This might have also included the responsibility of bishops to give alms to the poor because they were endowed with more. However, Wyclif protests that biblical hospitality was often not shown by these prelates, who probably had much more than what was needed for mere hospitality:

“But now our prelates are perverted on the side of the devil, not sustaining the poor by hospitality, but rather secular lords and tyrants, who do not need such alms, but are commonly gorged with inhuman and gluttonous feasts, and yet are satiated sumptuously without a qualm from the goods of the poor.”11

Here, Wyclif raises his previously neutral tone against certain prelates (bishops) who were certainly being hospitable, but not exactly toward the poor nor for noble reasons. These were attempting to gain the favor of temporal lords by holding feasts for them. It is then safe to say that Wyclif would have viewed this favoritism as sinful even though he did not explicitly mention the word in quote.

John Hus continues his polemical attacks on the clergy, not only condemning them explicitly, but now he explains and uses Old Testament references to denounce ministers:

“Accordingly, now you can discern who are the heirs of Balaam: namely, those who preach on account of pay and condemn men unrighteously, or give false advice, as Balaam gave to Balak, in order to lead men astray by fornication by keeping God’s commands. O how many priests there are in that road! For there are not many fornicators [among them] who spend the alms upon the seduction of maidens, widows, and wives, and who feed and clothe prostitutes more sumptuously than husbands their wives?”12

Hus explains the origins of the word simony (Simon the Sorcerer). He also makes statements like the aforementioned, where he links the practices of ministers to those of antagonistic Old Testament figures such as Balaam. On another instance, Hus references Jeroboam, in that “whoever would fill his palm would be appointed priest of the idols.”13 Hus then says “Accordingly, those who in like manner accept money for making bishops or priests or for granting other benefices are followers of Jeroboam.”14

Hus, like Wyclif, accuses clergy of spending money that should otherwise be in the hands of the poor and needy. If secular lords are not being hosted, then it is a person in higher ecclesiastical office, or even a concubine. Hus goes into greater length and detail, but both reformers notice this trend. In any case, they saw this misuse of funds as a breach of biblical mandate, therefore, constituting sinful behavior. In a few instances in Hus’s treatise, he appears to be upset by what he sees as a laxity in discipline with regards to these offences. The pope, archbishops, and bishops seem to not be rebuking those in other offices that practice bribery and simony. Hus, again, appeals to the Old Testament (this time citing the Prophet Elisha):

“Alas! How many such sins are committed by the pope, the bishops, and parish priests who do not, like Elisha, punish their servants for this sin, but share with them their material gains as well as their sin!”15

Hus thought that ecclesiastical authorities had the duty to discipline those in lower offices if charges of bribery, simony, or any sort of perceived excess would have been brought up. Yet according to him, there was no accountability system set up to guard against these situations.

Both reformers agree that a righteous character is a mark of worthiness in maintaining a church office. Both of them have outlined what they have seen as sins in the clergy with references to scriptural morality as an indicator that these sins are contrary to what ought to be. Now the question stands as to what the reformers wrote regarding whether the accused clergy should stay in office or not, and whether or not they are to be supported by the people. Wyclif maintains that:

“From these considerations [accusations against clergy] the faithful conclude that when a curate is notoriously negligent in his pastoral office, they as subjects should, yea, ought, to withdraw offerings and tithes from him and whatever might offer occasion for the fostering of such wickedness. For proof we note first that John commands that such, even on account of lesser deviation in doctrine, ought not to be greeted as sons of God by the faithful.”16

Wyclif asserts here that such sinful curates should not be given financial assistance of any kind and then seems to imply that they should not even be received as Christians at all. A while later on the same page he then goes to say that “the faithful ought not to hear the Masses of such priests.”17 This same rhetoric appears only a couple of more times in Wyclif’s “On the Pastoral Office (part I).” John Hus holds a similar view:

         “For whenever a bishop sells the gift of the Holy Spirit, even though he dazzles men by his episcopal robes, in the eyes of God he is already deprived of his priesthood. Accordingly, the holy canons condemn the heresy of simony, and ordain that those who demand money for the gift of the Holy Spirit be deprived of priesthood.”18

Hus not only agrees that a simoniac minister should be deposed of his office (even by divine law), but that if the church would practice what it preached (based on canon law), it would then depose someone who exchanged religious services for money. In this case, based on the evidence from the treatises, Hus appears to take the matter a step further to have these ministers vacate their professions. Hus even goes so far as to accuse the Pope of simony:

       “The third form of papal simony is the appointment of bishops and priests for money. A proof of this is at present plainly to be seen in the payment of many thousand gulden for the archbishopric of Prague…but if any pope avoids simony and follows the Saviour in his manner of life, he has right to make use of all things in the world, just as the apostles.”19

He argues that even the Pope could be a simoniac, but that if he avoids sinning in this way, then his office is legitimate and he has the power to be the Pope. Hus is not arguing against the papal office, but against simony itself. Although he does not explicitly say that the pope should be removed on account of simony, it is not difficult to imagine that Hus would advocate for the removal of a simoniac pope (after a trial) since he does argue for the deposition of other ministers in parts of his writing. A seemingly popular argument in those times with regards to the pope is that the pope was not able to sin and therefore, could not be a simoniac. This is one of the reasons why Hus wrote his treatise in the first place. He argues:

         “But perhaps you say, “in this world the pope is the most holy father.” I answer that if you prove that he lives the most holy life, following Christ in his poverty, humility, meekness, and work, then I shall admit that he is the most holy. But his manifest covetousness, pride, and other sins predispose men to believe that he is not the most holy father!”20

Hus clearly believes that the pope is not living a worthy Christian life. He continues:

       “Furthermore, they put forth the excuse that he is the most holy on account of his office. But the saints reply that office does not make a man holy, as is proved by the apostle Judas and by the bishops and priests who murdered Christ.”21

Hus is admonishing his readers to understand that any ecclesiastical office does not make a person virtuous in any way, but the content of the character of the person does, in the context of not falling into simony. Again, he is not arguing for the dismantling of the ecclesiastical system, but for the accepting of Hus’s accusations against many types of clergy of simony. It also sensible for delegated authorities to take steps to remove corrupt clergy (even the pope) from their seats:

“For if he [the pope] does not follow Christ and Peter in his manner of life more than others [other clergy], he should be called the apostolic adversary rather than the apostolic successor.”22

Hus appeals again to the authority of Christ (and now Peter) and their holy conduct as examples of how the pope (especially) and others should act in and out of their offices. This evidence provided from Hus’s treatise gives us room to say that he would have wanted the Pope to leave office.

John Hus and John Wyclif have written on what they experienced as open and unrepentant sinful living by many ministers of God in their times. Although their treatises differ in length and organization of content, it can be deduced that they were not against any ecclesiastical office in and of itself, but against the corrupt people that held them. They would have pressed for the removal of those people, including popes, since an objective moral law was being overtly violated; that of the Bible. Their interpretations differed slightly, but for them, simony was to hold no place in any church setting. They clearly saw a distinction between what was holy and unholy and could apply these standards to the ministers of their time. They both understood that a person would be worthy of office only if they had arrived there honestly and if they continued to hold it faithfully. The Bible was to guide the character of a person at church, from a pope to a layperson. Any breach of this heavenly truth, especially as done so by the high medieval clergy, would mean that they had the obligation to leave office. If the system was upright and just, it seems, there would be that accountability and atmosphere of the fragrance of Christ that these reformers so desired in the Church. Whether or not their cry for reform was heeded is another thing. But according to them and many others, consistent Christian character was the mark of entry into service to the people and to the Lord.

Endnotes:

1 Many scholars place the date of “On the Pastoral Office” as being written a year or two prior to 1380. Hus’s “On Simony” was published in 1413, one year before the Council of Constance was convened. Scholars have stated that one of the reasons Hus wrote so vehemently was that Wyclifism’s reformatory influence had already taken root, and the ripples of those waves were probably felt in other lands.

2 Spinka, Matthew. Advocates of Reform, From Wyclif to Erasmus. Westminster John

Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2006, p. 32

3 Ibid., p. 33. Wyclif references 1 Cor. 13:13

4 Ibid., p. 222

5 Ibid., p. 223. Hus references 1 Tim 3:7

6 Ibid., p. 230

7 Ibid., p.33

8 Ibid., p.33

9 Ibid., p.33

10 Ibid., p.34 Wyclif references 1 Tim. 3:2,4

11 Ibid., p. 35

12 Ibid., p. 209

13 Ibid., p. 208 1 Kings 13:33, 34. Commentator Matthew Spinka, in the same page, asserts that this passage does not explicitly speak of Jeroboam as one who traded money in this fashion.

14 Ibid., p. 208

15 Ibid., p. 208

16 Ibid., p. 38. Wyclif references 2 John 10

17 Ibid., p. 38

18 Ibid., p. 205. Hus accused clergy of selling religious services including the entrance into ecclesiastical office.

19 Ibid., p. 213 – 214. Hus accused the Pope of having received money from Nicholas Puchnik for the position of archbishop of Prague.

20 Ibid., p. 212

21 Ibid., p. 212

22 Ibid., p. 213

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