A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Ted Schmidt
ted schmidt

Riding in my car in mid-November, I caught a good portion of a marvelous CBC Tapestry show on the Cathars and it brought back memories of a decades-old trip to Languedoc, in the south of France. It was here in an area around Toulouse and bordering on the Pyrenees that the Roman Catholic Church mounted a ferocious crusade to stomp out a movement they considered dangerously heretical. It was here that according to the great Catholic historian Lord Acton, "religious assassination" became Church policy and "murder was made a legal basis of the Christian Church." What was it that precipitated such maniacal religious fury against such a pacifist people? Was there anything to be learned from this Crusade which mocked the nonviolent gospel of Jesus? Let us go back in history and set the stage for some possible answers.

     On March 10,1208 on learning of the murder of his legate Pierre de Castelnau, Pope Innocent lll delivered his bull of anathema against the Cathars with his rousing cry, "death to the heretics." The crusading pope, "the Foundation of all Christianity" as he styled himself, then launched his bloody crusade against the Cathars. The pope’s fanatical soldiers of Christ would enjoy all the privileges of the knights who slaughtered the "infidels" in the holy land. They would be guaranteed the highest place in heaven. Not that Innocent had, nor warned these recalcitrants. Had he not sent the fiery preacher Dominic de Guzman to them in 1205? This was the same Dominic who would later found the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans.

     Why was this strange pope so infuriated over these rather peaceful Cathars? Could it possibly be that it was much easier to deal with them rather than the corrupt clergy of his time? Most heresies after all are a response to a radical imbalance in church teaching and deportment. The Cathars were in fact a response to the corruption of the medieval church, an attempt not unlike that of their contemporary in Italy, Francis of Assisi. They too, like the saintly friar who had his own vision to "rebuild the church," wanted to bring the Church back more into line with the simple evangelical values manifested by Jesus of Nazareth.

A response to a corrupted church

Nor were the Cathars alone in their zeal for "the poor man, Jesus." Several sects were genuinely appalled at the shocking excesses of the clergy of this time, their stunning accumulation of property, their unbridled wealth, their selling of indulgences and their sexual licentiousness. The Humiliati, Arnoldists and the Waldensians were all challenges to the Church of this time, largely around the issues of excessive wealth. The Cathars in many ways were popular counterpoints to the debased clergy and made it easier for Innocent to go after them than reform his own clerics. This he clearly recognized:

     "Throughout the region the prelates are the laughing stock of the laity. But the root of the evil lies in the archbishop of Narbonne. This man knows neither God than money and keeps a purse where his heart should be."

     The Cathars were much respected for their upright living. The Languedoc area, the centre of the courtly love movement, historically was much more cultured than many parts of France. Most of the local citizenry and much of the nobility saw the Cathars as admirable citizens and, perhaps because of their higher education, were more tolerant of these "heretics." They showed no inclination to move against them despite their arcane beliefs, which to us appear to be a strange Manichean brew, based on distrust of the body and a dualistic understanding of the divinity .God and the Devil were warring deities and matter was evil. It was the world of the Spirit that enchanted the Cathars, hence their love for John’s Gospel. They were divided into two classes, the Perfects ("perfecti") and the Believers ("credentes"). The Perfecti shunned marriage, sexual relations and meat products. These strange ascetics radiated goodness. Their moral authority over their flocks was huge, and their reputation among fellow citizens was sterling. The name Cathar probably came from the Greek, katharoi, meaning the pure. So honoured were they that they would be greeted by the Believers with a ritual bow called the melioramentum or melhorier in the local Catalan dialect.They celebrated but one sacrament called the consalamentum, a laying on of hands near the point of death. They would then graduate to the endura, a fast unto death, which would guarantee their eternal salvation.

     Pope Innocent ordered his dead legate’s blood stained shirt to be shown in all churches in Languedoc and offering a special indulgence of land and booty, not to mention eternal salvation for 40 days of service, rounded up 20,000 cavalry and 200,000 foot soldiers under the Cistercian General of Citeaux, Arnald Almaric. With nobles, bishops and burghers among the invaders, they stormed the city of Beziers on July 22,1208. The locals (Catholics) refused to hand over their 200 or so Cathar neighbours. With the chilling words which became legendary in the Middle ages, "kill them all, the Lord will look after his own," Arnald ordered his men to slaughter the whole town. Inside the Cathedral of St. Mary Magdalene, 7,000 men, women and children raised their voices in terror amid the Latin of the liturgy and the sound of Arnald’s men hacking the cathedral doors to pieces. According to historian H.C. Lea in his book The Inquisition in the Middle Ages, it was "a massacre without parallel in European history."

     One can hardly envision a more brutal affront to the Sermon on the Mount, to the medieval proscription of violating sanctuary, or to the age-old tradition of the Church "ecclesia non novit sanguine "(The Church does not shed blood").

     To top off this outrage, sanctioned by the Pope, the invaders sang "Veni Sancta Spiritus" as they butchered the entire congregation. The whole town of Beziers was torched and the beautiful cathedral was split in two by the heat. Pope Innocent ll beamed as he heard the good news from Arnaud that "Twenty-thousand citizens were put to the sword regardless of age or sex."

     The beautiful walled city of Carcassonne was next, but since it was needed as a base, it escaped the fiery fate of Beziers. Two cities conquered and not one convert. This was very frustrating so the pope called on a man whose son became a legend for other means, but a man whose legendary cruelty spread terror throughout the Languedoc region. His name and that of his more talented son (the earl of Leicester, supporter of the Magna Carta)) was Simon de Montfort, a Norman knight who had been a veteran of the Fourth Crusade. In 1210 he captured the castle of Bram and lopped off the noses and gouged out the eyes of all save for one man who led this bloodied caravan to Cabaret the nearest town. It was a campaign of terror and in Minerve de Montfort struck pay dirt. One hundred and forty Cathar perfecti were burned alive in eerie silence as they met their fates with prayers on their lips and nary a whimper. But de Montfort was just warming up.

     In Lavaur, the local count Roger and 80 of his knights were burned and his much loved sister, known far and wide for her great kindness, was thrown alive into a well. Later 400 perfecti were burned in a huge funeral pyre. Again not a single perfect renounced his fate. The Cistercian historian Vaux de Cernay whose chronicles yielded so much information wrote, Cum ingenti gaudio, combusserunt (They torched them with such great delight). Later, only one perfect denied his Cathar beliefs. Again the megalomaniacal pope chortled as he got word of de Montfort’s scorched earth policy. "Praise and thanks to God for that which he hath mercifully wrought through thee and through these others whom zeal for the orthodox faith hath kindled to this work against His most pestilential enemies." Then de Montfort continued his crusade until he met his own fate in the siege of Toulouse, struck on the head by a boulder.

The Cathars today

How do we interpret the Cathars today? And the corrupt papacy which apparently was more concerned with verbal orthodox statements of belief than actual concrete evangelical behaviour? Are there any enduring lessons for us?

     It appears to me that the Cathar perfecti were quite admirable in their conduct. They certainly were quite a contrast to the dissolute clergy of the Middle Ages, those whose shameful behaviour precipitated the Reformation. Certainly there were holy men engaged in priestly work as we know. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written a century after the Cathars, shows us both the pathetic Pardoner hawking relics like the handkerchief of St. Veronica and the corpulent friar. But he also shows us the good parson, rich in "holy thought and work." The Cathars appeared to be impaled on the age-old defective sexual ethic which runs through Christianity, the Manichean distrust of the body. Theirs was a flawed but wholly understandable attempt, in the context of the times, to search for unio mystico, personal union with God. In an epoch when life was short and too often brutish and cruel, the horizon of eternal life and salvation cast an omnipresent existential shadow. It was important to console people, to give them hope at a time when the Church itself was losing steam and setting a less than sterling example for God’s people. These gentle pacifists who struggled with their bodily existence were devout people, bonshommes, "good folks" as they were called in the local dialect. As one Cathar related to an Inquisitor, "They are the only ones to walk in the ways of justice and truth that the apostles followed." They had no interest in wealth compared to many of the avaricious clergy.

     Interesting as well to us today, is the inclusivity of the Cathars. Women were welcome as leaders. In one famous debate in 1207 when a female perfect challenged a theological point, she was told by the sneering cleric,"Go back to your spinning, Madame, it’s not your place to speak to such an assembly." Plus çhange, plus la mème chose.

     As the Cathars faded from history about the same time the virulent Black Plague devastated one third of Europe, I find their use of the consalamentum as a genuine attempt to come to terms with the often short and brutish nature of medieval life really quite understandable and indeed admirable.

     In Rene Weis’s brilliant and exhaustive study The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars Rebellion Against the Inquisition 1290-1329, he brilliantly exposes the sexually dissolute life of the village priest of Montaillou, Pierre Clergue. The randy parson operated out a full-blown Playboy ethic in the Languedoc of his time, and he was far from alone. His open flaunting of his priestly vows may differ in degree from today’s clergy, but he and his contemporaries of the 13th century show us that celibacy has always been problematic in the church. The recent sex scandals in North America, along with the documented abuse of female religious in African countries ravaged by AIDS –and the commonly accepted widespread ignoring of the celibacy requirement in Africa and Latin America– simply point out the dismal failure of forced celibacy in the Church. Freely chosen, it has been a marvelous ideal for the few, but more honoured in the breach than in truth.

     The medieval Cathars and the maniacal response of the Church to them teach us many modern lessons. The Church has always struggled with a healthy sexual ethic, an intelligent and wholesome integration of life’s most potent force. The Cathars in their failed attempt at a viable alternative nevertheless displayed an admirable, and pacifist life response to the call of Jesus. The ferocious assault on these gentle people authorized by the papacy itself was but another sad chapter in the Church’s failure to embrace the nonviolence of Jesus. Sadly, they emulated the brilliant Augustine in his insistence on force when confronted by so-called error. While the Church has advanced in its understanding of the horrors of war, there is little to choose between Innocent lll’s blessing of crusade murder and the abysmal Church silence attending the deaths of 100,000 innocent Iraqis in this year of the Lord 2004.

     As we approach the crib of the defenceless baby once more this Christmas, and as we gaze back into history at the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, valuable lessons are there for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Ted Schmidt is Editor of Catholic New Times.

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