Heretics and Preachers Print
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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