The Heresy of Albigensianism – Ecclesia Semper Reformanda

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-by Steve Weidenkopf

“So really the beginnings of this movement, or this event, start in the latter part of the 12th Century. What happens in 1184, Pope Lucius III sends a list of heresies to Bishops throughout Christendom. And he orders them, these Bishops, to take an active role in determining the guilt of heretics. So the Pope sends a list out to all the Bishops in Christendom, saying you the Bishop must take an active role of determining the guilt of heretics within your particular diocese.

Now why that was somewhat radical or different or why that’s kind of the beginning of this movement of the Inquisition is because before that time, really the Church relied on secular rulers to be the ones who combated heresy in their regions. It wasn’t necessarily something the Church had an active role in, it was something that they just looked towards the secular lord.

Because think about it, this is a time of feudalism. There’s no real nation-states, as we understand them. There’s no police force, there’s no standing army, that kind of thing. Really the police, the army was the lord and those who were aligned to him through vassalage and the feudal system. So it was the lord’s job to protect and to govern and to police the area. But the Church soon realized this became a problem here as we moved towards the end of the 12th Century, as I’ll tell you in a minute why.

But it became a problem because you had secular rulers trying to determine whether someone was guilty of heresy. The secular ruler had no training in theology, was not a theologian, had no real understanding of whether or not what the person was saying to him was contrary to the faith or not.

So the Pope realized this and said, “We need to put a stop to that, let’s actually start to institute something.” So at least in the beginning, Lucius III said, “Okay, Bishops, it’s your responsibility to discern whether someone is guilty of heresy in your area, in your diocese or not.” Later on, in 1231, Pope Gregory IX will come along and he will formally institute procedures for what are known as the medieval inquisitors, or we can call them Papal inquisitors during this period of time. And these Papal inquisitors were charged with determining orthodox belief, whether someone was embracing heresy and whether one was a heretic or not.

And he stipulated the qualifications that these Papally appointed inquisitors had to have. They had to be over the age of 40, they had to be trained in the arts of theology and law, and they had to be distinguished in their personal life by a life of good morals, insight and respectability. And they also needed to have a basic understanding, a good understating rather, as I mentioned, of theology and Canon Law. So he places qualifications on who now can judge whether someone has actually embraced heresy or not.

So in this 13th Century and leading up until about the 15th Century, what’s important to realize is that there is no such thing as the “Inquisition” as an institution in Christendom, okay. From the 13th Century to the 15th Century, you don’t have any institutional tribunals.

What you have instead are these Papally appointed inquisitors, who would go around – they were itinerant, so they went around to different regions, and they would just kind of set up shop in a town or a major village, and they’d be there for a period of time and they would ascertain whether or not there was heresy and then they’d move on to some other place. There was no institutional Inquisition, that comes much later in the 15th Century and we’ll talk about that in more detail.

So on the timeline, as I mentioned, the 15th-16th Century through the 19th Century, we have the creation of these institutional tribunals who were usually set up in cities. They were permanent in these different cities; they were staffed and manned by trained inquisitors. And then heretics were brought to those areas, or it was centered in an urban area and it was in that city where the inquisitors worked.

And some of the more famous ones of these Inquisitions, these actual tribunals, institutional tribunals were the one in Portugal, there was one in Rome, one in Venice, some of the major Italian city-states, and then the most famous one is the Spanish Inquisition. We’ll talk more about that in detail. So the Spanish Inquisition was an institutional tribunal set up here in the 15th Century. Different, but similar in some ways, as I’ll tell you, to these medieval inquisitors that operated in the 13th Century.

Now all of these institutional tribunals that I mentioned in Portugal, in Spain, in Venice and other Italian city-states, they all are abolished by the time we get to the 19th Century. It was only one that remains and that’s the one in Rome, the Roman Inquisition. and it was known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1966.

The name of that office was changed to Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. So it’s an office that still exists today in the Vatican. The previous kind of more famous well-known prefect, or head of the congregation, was Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Benedict XVI.

So that office still exists and it still is charged, among other things, with looking at the doctrine of faith and maintaining orthodoxy throughout the Church, looking at theological writings and determining whether they are or are not orthodox or heterodox. So that’s kind of the brief timeline of these Papally appointed inquisitors and then what’s known as the Inquisitions.

So now what happens here? We saw that in 1231, Gregory IX institutes the procedures for these Papally appointed inquisitors. Why does that happen? Why Gregory IX, and the 13th Century? What is going on historically which brings that to the front?

And what’s going on is there’s a major heresy that erupts in the south of France during this time, and it’s called the Albigensian Heresy or sometimes known as Catharism, or the Cathar heresy.   (Ed. Ultimately, following Cathar dualism, inspires the “Perfecti” to starve themselves to death, so ideas have consequences, and sometimes deadly ones:  Fascism, Communism, Breathariansim, etc.  What are the consequences of American ideology?  Discuss.)

And so Catharism ravaged, it was going all throughout the south of France and it was very, very pernicious, it spread widely and I’ll tell you why in a minute here.   It was simple, and deadly/destructive.  And so, the church had to react, had to do something to prevent this spread of this heresy from wiping out society.

Now I mentioned it’s Albigensian or Catharism, Cathar actually comes from the Greek Katharos, which means clean or pure. Because those who practiced the higher end of Catharism believed that they were clean and pure and perfect in all that they were doing and how they lived and in the doctrine that they taught and that they believed.

It appears, in France, at the end of the early part of the 11th Century, it actually comes over, migrates from the east from Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire. It first kind of centered in Bulgaria and Macedonia, those areas and then it transfers over into the southern part of France. And it becomes especially numerous; it grows really around the town of Albi, in the south of France. This is where we get the word, Albigensian, from that town. The town Albi is about 45 miles east of Toulouse, so that’s the major city in the south of France.

Now it spreads for a lot of different reasons, but some of the major reasons why Catharism and Albigensian become such a huge problem is because of its rapid spread. And it spreads primarily because of the state of the clergy in the south of France. The clergy in the south of France at this time were not good, to put it succinctly.

Catholic Priests did not live their vocations. Many of them were corrupt, worldly, concerned more with riches and power and mistresses and other things. One historian has remarked that pretty much every priest in certain major areas of southern France had a mistress at this time. So it was a very bad situation for the Church as a whole. Many priests were functionally illiterate. Most of them or many of them barely knew Latin; they knew just enough Latin to say the mass, that’s it. It was a really sorry state of affairs.

And a lot of that was brought about because of the Bishops living in the south of France at the time. These were men who engaged in ecclesiastical abuses of such things as absenteeism. Meaning the bishop didn’t actually reside in his diocese, he lived someplace else. There was nepotism that was rampant in church offices in that area as well. There was also what’s called pluralism, and pluralism is basically one man being the Bishop of many different dioceses. So you could imagine if you’re the Bishop of diocese X and diocese Y, you can’t live in two places at once, so then that leads to the ecclesiastical abuses I mentioned earlier of absenteeism.

There is no Bishop, resident Bishop in this area. So things were really, really, really difficult. So difficult that Pope Innocent III, at one point remarked this about the bishops in the south of France. He said, “They were blind men, dumb dogs who could no longer bark. Men who will do anything for money. They say the good is bad and the bad is good. They turn light into darkness and darkness into light, sweet to bitter and bitter to sweet. They do not fear God nor respect man. They give Church offices to illiterate boys whose behavior is often scandalous.” And that’s the Pope writing about his own episcopacy here in the south of France. Things were really, really bad.

So it’s a ripe opportunity and a ripe environment for heresy to take root and to spread. Because one of the reasons why it spread so much was that some of the members of the Cathari I’ll talk about in a moment, called the Perfecti, they lived outwardly, very moral lives or what seemed to be very moral lives.

They seemed like they were people of charity, people of virtue and so, you know, your unsuspecting peasants can see these two examples. They see a Perfecti or somebody who’s a member of the Albigensian heresy living a virtuous life and they see their parish priest running around with a mistress, corrupt and worldly and their Bishop not even in their own diocese. And you could see why they might be attracted to one over the other because virtue, holiness attracts. So if you’re not living a holy life, then people will not be attracted to that at all.

So what is it that these Albigensians and the Cathari believed? They had some very, very interesting beliefs. They were really Gnostic in origin and what Gnosticism is, Gnosticism was of heresy in the early Church, the Church that was early on in her existence that had to do with basically this understanding of – that Gnostics had a view of the world that was dualist.  (Ed. Dualism denies Creation is good and calls God and Scripture liars, Gen 1:31, that is why dualism, or whatever it calls itself du jour, is a heresy.  Mt 7:16)

Meaning that they believed there was material properties to the world and there were spiritual properties to the world, which do exist. But they believed that the spiritual things were good and were created and made by a good God, but all the material things of the world were created by a bad God.

So you’re spirit, your soul in this Gnostic Cathari belief is a good thing, is good. But our bodies are bad, so anything that our body does is also bad. This is what the Cathari and the Gnostics believed. Then Gnosticism morphs later on in Church history into what’s called Manicheanism, something that even Saint Augustine himself was member of for a period of time before his conversion. And then it morphs later on from Gnosticism to Manicheanism to here, to Albigensianism.

So one thing when study the history of heresies throughout the Church, they never really kind of ever go away, they just morph into something different or something new. (Ed. “There are no new heresies”, so the saying goes.)  And even in our own day in age, we’re still dealing with certain teachings or certain groups that have these kind of Gnostic or dualistic tendencies, the spirit is good, matter is bad.

A few years ago, I think it was in 1998 or around there, the late ‘90s, there was a group called Heaven’s Gate, in California. They made news all throughout the world because they all committed suicide, the members of this community committed suicide en masse one night because their belief was that there was this comet coming and that the comet was real. But then behind the comet was some space ship and that what they needed to do was at a certain moment, a period of time, they had to kill themselves to free their good souls from their body to meet up with the space ship so they could go on to whatever paradise or heaven that they believed in.

So that’s Gnosticism, pure and simple. It’s Manicheanism, it’s Albigensianism again, it just continues to morph itself. So there’s nothing new that the Church has dealt with, she’s dealt with these things in the past.

So matter is bad, spirit is good, so if you turn to Jesus then, what are the Albigensians and Cathari think about Jesus? Well, they didn’t believe that He was God and they didn’t believe He was man either.

They believed that he was this phantom-like creature, some kind of spirit, pure spirit type of creature, not God Himself but definitely not inhabiting – He didn’t have a physical body, He was just a phantom or a spirit. So because of that, because He didn’t have a real body then they also believed and taught that He didn’t really suffer on the cross. There was no reason for Him to bodily suffer on the cross because He didn’t have a body in the first place.

They rejected, obviously, the Eucharist. How could a spiritual being, like Jesus, as they believed, kind of come to be in this material properties of bread and wine, although transubstantiated, but how could that happen, we don’t understand that, that’s not real. So anything that smacks of matter was bad for the Albigensians, anything that’s spiritual is good. They also believed that during His life what Jesus taught was a spiritual perfection and a spiritual release. That life was really – the purpose of life was to be free of our bodies, it was to grow deeper in our souls, grow deeper in our spirits so we could free ourselves from these horrible, evil bodies. And that’s what Jesus taught; this is what the Albigensians believed.

Jesus taught that, but after his ascension into heaven the Church then was founded and the Church garbled his message, the Church changed Jesus’ message. And we still deal with people that believe that kind of stuff today. Church changes his message and so it’s these Cathari, these Albigensians that have his authentic message. And so join us and we will give the original message of Jesus. Don’t believe what the Church is telling you, that’s biased, that’s created, that’s self-constructed. Come to us and we will give you the real liberated teachings of Jesus.

They actually believed that the Church was the creation of Satan, you know, fallen bad angel. Saint Dominic was one who actually went through the south of France and actually was given the idea by the Holy Spirit to found is order, the Order of Preachers, while he was in the south of France and fighting the Albigensian heretics really. But he came across an Albigensian who said this about the Church, he said, this Albigensian said, “The Roman Church is the Devil’s Church and her doctrines are those of demons. She is the Babylon whom Saint John called the mother of fornication and abomination. Drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs. Neither Christ, nor the apostles has established the existing order of the mass.”

So if you’re Saint Dominic, right, and you run into somebody who teaches this or believes this, obviously this is a problem for the Church. You can immediately say this is a significant issue. Not only was their teaching a problem for the Church, but what made them even more pernicious and more of a threat was the fact that the Albigensians established themselves as kind of a counter-church to the Catholic Church. They organized themselves hierarchically, so they actually had dioceses and they had Bishops along with two assistants who were the head of these kind of Albigensians diocese throughout the south of France.

So they set up again like this mirror kind of counter-church. “Come to us, we’re the true Church, the Catholic Church is this creation of Satan.” So it’s obviously a significant issue. They also had Deacons, which assisted the community and then they had what they called their priests or what I refered to before as these Perfecti, these people who took a special solemn oath to live lives really devoid of any kind of material attachment.

The Perfecti, these priests of the Albigensian Church, would participate in extreme fasting. They would not eat any form of meat, for example, either. If they were married they would abstain from marital relations because in their mind what comes from the marital act is potentially new life and that would be bad, because you would be taking a good soul and you’d be entrapping it into this bad material human body.  (Ed.  Life is bad?  Preventing birth?  Nazis said, “Unworthy of life!”  Hmmm.  Seems I’ve heard these before?  Methinks.)

So they practiced celibacy, but they also practiced other forms of sexual activity, which does not result in possible procreation. (Ed. Albigensians considered procreation was considered worse than fornication or adultery.) I won’t get into details, but that’s what they believed in. And they also believed in practice, The Perfecti, that suicide was their highest form of worship.

So I mentioned to you this Heaven’s Gate group, what they were doing, again, was nothing new, that happened before. The Perfecti eventually would kill themselves in order to free their good soul form their bad body, which you would think would not be a nice and good and effective tool for recruitment, nor would the lack of sex. But they did grow nonetheless from virtue, so virtue attracts.  (Ed. I would substitute the term “radical commitment” instead of virtue here, something to believe in, something to live or die for, I would however caution to be extremely discriminating in what you adhere towards.  ISIS recruits, so does Evil.) If you’re living a virtuous life, it’s a holy life or should be, then that will attract people to you and it did in this form as well.

Now most Cathari and most Albigensians were what we call believers. So they weren’t members of the Perfecti, they didn’t participate in the pact, the suicide worship or the extreme fasting or the extreme celibacy or other sexual activity, they were just believers. These who participated in the liturgy that the Albigensians had and were focused on helping the community, but didn’t follow the higher teachings. So how did the Church respond to this Albigensians heresy? We’ve kind of gone through what a significant threat to was to the Church and to society as a whole, so how did the Church respond?

Well initially, the Church responds through a series of local councils. So, Bishops in the area getting together and addressing this heresy. So at the council of Toulouse in 1119, the heresy was condemned, the Council of Tours in 1163 was also condemned. You had the great Saint Bernard came to the area and he preached in 1154 as well, trying to bring people back to the faith and to reject Albigensianism. But by the latter part of the 12th Century, the heresy was very widespread, was extremely widespread and very popular and so something different, something more aggressive had to occur.

And that’s where we get Pope Innocent III, probably one of the greatest Popes in medieval history, comes to the pontificate and he realizes that this is a serious issue in the south of France, we need to address it. So for four years, from 1203 to 1207, he sends a series of missionaries to the south of France again, to preach, to teach the authentic faith and to try to bring the Albigensians back, just like Saint Bernard before that.

He also reformed the Church. I mentioned to you earlier how one of the reasons why the heresy spread so much was because of the state of the clergy, the corrupt and worldly Bishops and absent Bishops. And so, he reformed the Church by deposing seven Bishops, putting in new, different men, more men who lived their vocation more appropriately.

And so he tried to work also with the local ruler, the major ruler, secular ruler in the area, Raymond of Toulouse, and tried to work with him to get him to try to step up his combat the heresy as well.

Eventually though, Raymond kind of pushed back on that. Some historians believe that his wife was actually a member of the Albigensians, might have been a Perfecti herself, so Raymond didn’t really engage in combating the heresy as much and he just kind of let it spread.

So eventually he got into trouble with the Papal legate that Pope Innocent III had sent down to talk with him, and eventually it was believed on the orders of Raymond of Toulouse that this Papal legate was murdered after a meeting. They had a meeting and the legate leaves and then the next morning he’s killed. So this really obviously upsets Innocent, and so Innocent decides to do something more radical and instead he calls a Crusade.

And this is the time of the Crusading movement, the height of the Crusading movement really. Pope Innocent the Third called more Crusades than any other Pope in the history of the Church. And so he calls a Crusade here at the south of France to try to eradicate the Albigensian heresy. And it’s a 20-year war, from 1209 to 1229, and it’s a bloody, bloody civil war, really. And I wish we had time to get into the details of the Albigensian Crusade, but I don’t. So just know that it was a very bloody civil war, it was a difficult time, and ultimately the end of the civil war was brought about through a political situation, solutions from the King of France, and it didn’t end the heresy.

When the whole purpose of the Crusade was to root out the heresy, but at the end of it, the end of these 20 years, it still was around, it still was pretty well spread and popular and so there was something else that needed to be done. So what else needed to be done was what I mentioned to you earlier, was Gregory the Ninth steps in and he establishes the procedures for those Medieval inquisitors, those Papally appointed inquisitors to go to the south of France and to deal with the situation. And so that’s what happens.

Now, before I get into telling you what goes on here in the south of France, what the Papal inquisitors and the procedures that they went though and how they tried to root out heresy, we have to take a step back and just answer the question, why is heresy bad? I mean, many of us living in the 21st Century here in the United States, you know, the land of religious freedom, religious liberty and religious toleration, and we think, well okay, so somebody believes differently than we do, why is that a bad thing? Why is this an issue? Why is the Church spending so much energy and resources on trying to deal with this and combat this?”

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