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Heretics and Preachers Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 14 March 2011

Do you have a favorite heresy – in the sense of one that, though patently wrong, most fascinates you? I do. It’s Albigensianism, aka Catharism, which for more than a century - many other wild sects notwithstanding - held much of Europe in thrall during the middle of the Middle Ages. And thereby hang several instructive lessons.

  Compared with even our own enduring, alluring, do-your-own-thing modernists, the Cathars (from the Greek katharos for “pure” or, possibly, a German insult having to do with kissing a cat’s backside) or Albigensians (from the town of Albi in what today is southern France) were among the most significant heretical sects in the history of the Western Church. Centered in what amounts to the territories of the most powerful woman of the medieval period, Eleanor of Aquitaine (c. 1122-1204), Albigensianism was born of the older Manichaeism, itself a variant of Zoroastrianism, the mother of all dualisms. Dualism sounds like an abstract philosophical problem; in fact, it means looking on the Creation, which to say the world and everything in it, as essentially evil. Manichaeism had been ably refuted by Saint Augustine after his conversion in the mid-fourth century, and legend has that it the cult was brought to Albi by one Fontanus, with whom Augustine himself may have had face-to-face debates.

The Cathars believed that the world lies in tension between two eternal realities, Good and Evil; between God, who rules heaven and the world of pure spirit, and Satan, who reigns on earth and over all muddy reality. They believed that Jesus, the one who walked among us, was literally an apparition. God would never descend into our physical world. As a pure spirit, he had not really died and had offered no actual redemption, but only ethical instruction. For them, salvation, which was unity with God, came through renunciation of the flesh and the repudiation of material structures such as civil authority and, especially, the Catholic Church, which the Albigensians considered Satan’s right arm. Suicide was a popular form of Catharist self-denial, as were pacifism and vegetarianism. You may pause now to consider how many friends and neighbors favor the same darn things today.

But there were actually two kinds of Cathars: the “perfect” (perfecti) and the “believers” (credentes). From the former group came the sect’s leadership, and they were aspirants to purity: chaste, serene, ascetic. The credentes, however, were often libertines. The path to purity for them ran through a dominion of excess, the paradoxical notion being that earthly desires may be extinguished through debauchery! At the end of his drunkenness and fornication (adultery and even incest were tolerated), a believer might (and should) embrace perfection in the consolamentum (or “consolation”), a ritual that compressed baptism, confirmation, ordination, and last rites into a single ceremony. Deathbed consolamenta were common, since most credentes figured they couldn’t handle the perfecti’s rigid rule except in life’s last, precious moments. Indeed, if a dying believer recently elevated in extremis to lofty perfection were to recover his health, his concerned brethren might lovingly poison or suffocate him in order to prevent backsliding.

        St. Dominic, refuter of heresy (by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1515)

In fairness, nearly everything written about the Cathars in their time – and much subsequently – comes down to us from their enemies, and it’s hard to know how much of the report of scandalous shenanigans is verity and how much is smear. But we know that St. Dominic founded his Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, to go out and refute the errors of the Albigensians and that they made it a point of learning what they were dealing with, a principle we see brought to perfection in the form of Aquinas’ careful sifting of all arguments.

The grip of Catharism (in France and in large portions of the rest of Europe) was finally broken, however, only by the so-called Albigensian Crusade, which went on for a century after 1200 and resulted in the disenfranchisement and death of nearly all Cathari. The warrior abbot leading an attack on one Albigensian stronghold (the walled city of Béziers) is said to have replied to concerns about how crusaders would differentiate Catholics from Cathars by saying, “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.” This infamous quip may be apocryphal, but it’s a fact that the abbot later wrote to Pope Innocent III that 20,000 “were put to the sword, regardless of age and sex. The workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous!”

With the echo of steel and the stink of smoke still hanging in the Provençal air, the Inquisition was born. It was the Albigensian heresy that led Pope Gregory IX to establish his New Tribunal through the Council of Toulouse in 1229. My old edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia, bearing the imprimatur of Francis Cardinal Spellman, archconservative archbishop of New York, ruefully admits that “the Inquisition has come to stand in the judgment of many historians as a symbol of cruelty, intellectual terrorism, and religious intolerance. The attempts of certain Catholic apologists to exonerate the medieval Church and Inquisition of those charges have been futile.”

By contrast, St. Thomas Aquinas’ works, especially the two great Summae, which in passing refute the positions of heretics, are universally admitted as belonging among the great books of the Western world. In a time when heresies and sheer philosophical silliness lie all about us, we could do with a large dose of that kind of “medievalism.”

Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing. One of his books, The Compleat Gentleman, was published last year in a revised edition. This column is adapted from that book. 
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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Titus, March 14, 2011
The attempts of certain Catholic apologists to exonerate the medieval Church and Inquisition of those charges have been futile.

Of course, His Eminence Cdl. Spellman was correct: the use of the Holy Office of the Inquisition as a bogeyman by Whig historians was a smear, invented out of whole cloth and English myth. The Inquisition's procedures were a model of fairness and procedural punctiliousness: many of the safeguards it provided defendants would be unheard of at common law until the 20th century. The abuses for which there is historical evidence almost invariably came in places where an alternative "inquisition," instituted under dubious authority by the sovereign and without papal oversight, was set up. Spain, of course, is the most notable example.

The Albigensians were a scourge, and St. Thomas's refutation of their errors of course a masterpiece. But there's little reason to go implying that historical slanders about other aspects of ecclesiastical history might be true in order to point that out.
written by Austin Ruse, March 14, 2011
The great Father Koterski of Fordham once said his favorite heresy was the one that said the Father felt the pain of the Son.
written by Bill, March 14, 2011
Mr. Miner: Thank you a well written and informative piece. It brought to mind the tremendous richness and history of this gift we have received from God, namely our Faith and those saints who were sent to us to defend It. I appreciated the way you tied some of the ideas of the Cathars into modern day errors.
written by Dan Deeny, March 14, 2011
Excellent! I'm interested in the Cathars. What are some books that describe them?
written by Aeneas, March 14, 2011
Great article Brad! Very interesting and informative.
However I tend to agree with Titus' point.
Also, Im rather tired of the 'evil' inquisition/crusade nonsense that too many propagate. Neither were evil, far from it, both having been smeared by those who ment to demonize the Catholic Church.
As for myself, I don't think I have 'favorite' heresy, seeing as how there are so many going on all around us, I would not be able to pick just one ;)
written by Brad Miner, March 14, 2011
To Dan Deeny: One of the top writers on the period, Malcolm Barber, has a good, fairly recent study called THE CATHARS. -ABM
written by elena maria vidal, March 15, 2011
Excellent and balanced article about a very dark and controversial era in history. There is a recent Catholic novel about the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade (available at Amazon) called THE NIGHT'S DARK SHADE.
written by Guerline, March 17, 2011
To begin with : one must reflect on the objective criteria on the content of heretics and false prophets . We begin with the definition of heresy which can be found in the catechism #2089 and the wounds to unity catechism #817.
Exposition of the bible in reference to heresy are the following script passages ( acts 24:14,1 Cor 11:19 , gal 5:20, 2peter 2:1, ) heretics Titus 3:10 .
Exposition on the bible in reference to false prophets ( Isaiah 9:15, Jeremiah 14:14,23:14,17-18,21,25-27,27:15,29:9,lamentation 2:14,Ezekiel 13:4-7,22,21:29,22:25 , Micah 2:11, mat 24:11
People are warned about false prophets can be found in scriptural passages ( Jeremiah 23:16,27:14-17,29:8, mat 7:15, 1 John 6:1) please read commentary on these scriptures , recommendation ( a new catholic commentary on holy scripture, William barclay new testament commentary)
Lastly St. Chrystostom wrote six homilies on Titus . The # 6 homily is on Titus 3:8-11 in reference to heretics
May the peace of the Lord be with you

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