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Heresies & Heretics
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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Albigensianism, a Christian heresy prevalent in western Europe, particularly in southern France and northern Italy, during the 12th and 13th centuries. Adherents were variously called Albigenses, from the city of Albi, where they flourished, or Cathari (Greek katharos, pure), from the earlier Manichaean sect, which sought purification from bodily and material things.
The Albigenses followed Manichaean dualism in its attempt to solve the problem of evil. They asserted the co-existence of two ultimate principles, a good deity (the God of the New Testament) who created Spirit and Light, and a bad deity (the God of the Old Testament) who created Matter and Darkness. Accordingly, they condemned marriage and the procreation of children as demoniac. Yet concubinage was tolerated as less permanent than matrimony; and desertion of husband or wife was called praiseworthy.
Although the good deity was said to have created angelic pillaged spirits, when they fell the demon imprisoned them in bodies. Life on earth therefore is a punishment and the only hell that exists. However, the suffering is only temporary because all souls will eventually be saved. Like the Arians, the Albigenses claimed that Christ was merely a created being, who never really took on a human body and never actually died on the cross. In either case He would have come under the control of the evil principle. His redemption gave us only the example of a noble life and a moral lesson of his virtue. It did not achieve an objective remission of sin.
Consistent with their dualism, the Albigenses commended liberation from the body, especially by suicide. Since begetting children meant to imprison their souls in a body, perpetual chastity was strongly encouraged. Believing in metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, they forbade the use of flesh meat and milk or other animal produce. Rejecting the authority of Church and State, they appealed to the Scriptures, mostly the New Testament because the Old Law was regarded as mainly a demoniac creation. The taking of oaths, war, and capital punishment were forbidden.
The Albigenses distinguished between the "perfect" and mere believers. The former, a small minority, were held to the observances of the ancient Cathari: the consolamentum or spiritual baptism through imposition of hands, which gave the right to preach the new religion, the appareillamentum or public confession of sins, and endura or starvation to death in order to be freed from the flesh. Believers were affiliated to the sect only by the promise to receive the consolamentum before they died. They often deferred this rite until shortly before death to avoid relapsing into sin.
Adherents were organized under a hierarchy of bishops, chosen from the perfect, and deacons, who were only believers. While exact figures are not available, it is certain that more than one thousand cities and towns in France were influenced by Albigensianism at the close of the 12th century.
Extant records of Neo-Manichaean condemnations in France go back to the Council of Orleans in 1022, followed in succession by the Councils of Arras, Charroux, and Reims. Albigensianism as such was first condemned in the Council of Toulouse (1119), then at Reims (1148), Verona (1184), and by the third and fourth general Councils of the Lateran, in 1179 and 1215. Always the Cathari were denounced not only for doctrinal heresy but as a menace to the family, state, and human society.
Parallel with conciliar decrees, a general revival in morals under preachers like Saints Peter Nolasco and Bernard of Clairvaux helped to stem the Albigensian tide by removing one of its main grievances, the laxity of clergy and people. Since ignorance was at the root of the heresy, St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans) in 1216 to provide the faithful with regular instruction in Christian doctrine.
It is not difficult to explain why the heresy spread so rapidly and widely. The consolamentum was received by any of the believers in danger of death, and it ensured salvation. It was this privilege that attracted so many believers (second category), and it was their great number that constituted the most dangerous element of the movement. Their only requirement was faith; for the rest they were allowed to do as they pleased.
While churchmen opposed Albigensianism on dogmatic grounds, civil authorities were active for political reasons in the use of physical repression, including the death penalty against individuals and military force against towns. The clergy supported these measures, but with reservations that need to be emphasized. Thus, according to Peter Cantor, "Though Cathari have been divinely convicted by ordeal, they must not be punished by death." St. Bernard approved imprisonment, but only for the common good.
Ecclesiastical legislation against the Albigenses marks the beginning of the medieval Inquisition, dating from the third Lateran Council. That Council had requested secular rulers to silence these disturbers of the public order, if necessary by force. Nevertheless, it was the civil authorities who took the initiative in using coercive measures.
The final and bloody stage of Catharism was a sequence of battles, often called the Albigensian Crusade, which took place from 1209 to 1228, notably at Beziers, Carcassonne, Lavauer, and Muret, under the counts of Toulouse and Simon de Montfort. Prior to this, in 1208, Innocent III had called for a crusade after a papal legate had been murdered by the sectarians. By the Treaty of Meaux in 1229, a large part of the Albigensian territory was ceded to the King of France. However, scattered remnants of the sect did not disappear until the end of the 14th century.
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