As was explained in former articles, already in the time of the apostles many Jews and pagans became Christians in name only and thus clung to their old beliefs and practices, which they smuggled into the church, where they matured and eventually became known as Ebionism and Gnosticism. The Ebionists and the Gnostics were the heretics in the Christian church of the first five centuries. The Ebion and Gnostic teachers and their followers were wolves in sheep’s clothing. Their presence in the church bespeaks the attempt of the evil one to Judanize and paganize the church by the propagation of the lie as garbed in the vesture of the truth. And the lie struck root. The heretical bodies multiplied and numbered their thousands. There were in all nineteen gnostic schools of thought, and the heretics were named after their leaders of the special schools to which they belonged. Gnosticism, being the successor of Neo- Platonism, derived, as did Neo-Platonism, its materials from all the existing religions, pagan and Christian alike. From all these it gathers everything that could be of use to it. Thus it was more comprehensive than Neo-Platonism. The latter was hostile to Christianity and therefore spurned the Scriptures. But not so Gnosticism. It took from the Scriptures whatever it could use. It was the most comprehensive form of speculative syncretism known in history,—syncretism from the Greek syncretizein meaning to combine, unite. Gnosticism was thus a union and development of tenets, beliefs, and rites from all the existing religions—pagan and Christian—which it aimed to displace. It was an infusing of paganism into Christianity and thus a paganizing of Christianity.
Gnosticism gradually lost its influence after the middle of the third century, A.D. circa 250; but it was revived at the close of that century by a highborn Persian, Mani by name, who gave to the system its name, hence Manicheism. In the point of view of the great number of adherents it gained, Manicheism ranked with Christianity, which had to wage with it a long conflict. Unlike the Gnostics of former days, the Manicheists organized congregations. Manicheism therefore was more than a school; it was a church in the formal sense and as such a formidable rival of organized Christianity.
In every point of view, Manicheism was the crowning achievement of darkness. Its pagan gnosis was almost complete. It retained all the mythologies of the old pagan Semitic religions of nature and transformed them into doctrines but abolished all their immoral cultus and substituted instead a spiritual worship and a strict morality. It offered further redemption (by man’s own efforts), revelation, and life everlasting.
Manicheism accompanied the church until about the twelfth century. At about this time it had nearly wholly disappeared as an organized religion, the reason being that it was everywhere persecuted. The Christian Roman emperors had enacted strict laws against its adherents. But it had not actually disappeared. In the early years of the eleventh century it everywhere reappeared in Europe in a new dress and under the new name of Catharism. Being the spiritual offspring of Manicheism, Catharism was also called New Manicheism. It bore still other names. In Southern France its adherents were called Albigenses, from the town Albi, one of the centers of their strength. In Eastern Europe they were called Bulgari, Bulgaries, or Bugres. In France they were known as Tessarents, Textores, from their influence with the weavers and industrial classes.
Like Gnosticism and Manicheism, Catharism was a dangerous heresy. These are its main tenets. The things invisible—the spirits—are the creations of the good God, while the things visible—including men’s bodies—have their source in Satan, the God of the Old Testament. Christ is the most perfect of these spirits and the chief of angels. He took not a real body of flesh and blood and existed in this world only in a spiritual manner. Such a doctrine of the Christ is a denial of His atonement, as it denies the reality of the assumed human nature in which he suffered and died for the sins of His people. Hence, according to this heresy, redemption consists in Christ’s proclaiming the truth in an unreal body and returning to heaven after an apparent death. They hearing and obeying the truth are purified by deliverance from the body, which is essentially evil. And this is salvation. The trinity first began to exist at the birth of Christ. When, by the teachings of Jesus, others were attracted, the Holy Spirit began to exist. There is no resurrection of the body, as the body, having sprung from an evil principle, is the prison of the soul. The New Testament is opposed to the Old, and the latter must be rejected.
It is plain that in this heresy we have to do with the union of the vilest lies. And yet, the growth of the Cathari was rapid. According to contemporary writers, by 1160, they were numerous as the sands of the sea. Four million is given as a safe estimate of their number; and they were found in one thousand cities, and in every country of Europe, in France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and England. By the close of the century a third of the population of Florence were Cathari. They were most numerous in Southern France, where nearly all the princes and barons had embraced the heresy.
The Cathari reviled the Roman Catholic Church, definitely the Roman hierarchy. They held in derision the priests. They said that the established church is the harlot of the Apocalypse and that the pope is the anti-Christ, and that the fruits of the church prove this. It prescribes persecution. It baptizes first and then teaches. It has dignitaries, prelates, cardinals, arch-deacons, bishops and arch-bishops and the pope sits in the place of power in a throne of gold and is clothed in purple and fine linen. These accusations are true. The Roman hierarchy is an invention of man and the pope is a usurper. But it is not true, certainly that the Cathari themselves formed, as they said the true church, outside of which there is no salvation.
The Cathari were a real danger. They threatened the whole of Christendom, more particularly the 395
Roman Catholic hierarchy, especially in Southern France. That the Cathari flourished in Southern France is easily explained. Here all the heresies that had troubled the Christian church from the second century to the ninth had crept in and spread abroad. Here were Arians, Manicheans, Paulicians, Gnostics and other sects given over to vain speculations and licentious living or asceticism. IK ere the Roman missionaries and monastic reformers had obtained no dominion, as they had in the north and east of Europe, where they had been obliged to deal with little more than the ignorance of Barbarians. From the latter half of the eleventh century, the popes and the spiritual heads of the Roman church in France became alarmed at the religious condition in Southern France. In 1145, St. Bernard went and preached against the heretics. “We see here,” he wrote to the count of Toulouse, “churches without flocks, flocks without priests, priests without the respect which is their due, and Christians without Christ; men die in their sins without being reconciled by penance or admitted to the body of communion; souls are sent pell-mell before the awful tribunal of God; the grace of baptism is refused to little children. . . .” Bernard went to a place in Southern France where he was told he would find heretics numerous and powerful. “He repaired,” says a contemporary chronicler, “to the castle of Verfeil, where flourished at the time the scions of a numerous nobility and of a multitude of people, thinking that he could extinguish heretical perversity in this place where it was so very much spread, it would be easy for him to make headway against it elsewhere. When he had begun preaching, in the church, against those who were of most consideration in the place, they went out, and the people followed them; but the holy man, going out after them, gave utterance to the word of God in the public streets. The nobles then hid themselves on all sides in their houses; and as for him, he continued to preach to the common people who came about him. Whereupon the others making uproar and knocking upon the doors, so that the crowd could not hear his voice, he then, having shaken off the dust from his feet as a testimony against them, departed from their midst, and looking on the town, cursed it, saying, ‘God wither thee’.”
For half a century thereafter—Bernard died in 1153—Roman missionaries labored among the heretics in Southern France but with negligible success. The heresy continued to spread and in 1167 the Cathari held a synod, at which bishops were appointed for districts where their followers were most numerous. In 1198 Innocent III was elected pope. He determined to destroy the heresy in Southern France. At first he employed only spiritual weapons. He sent among the Cathari a great number of missionaries, men of proved zeal, many of whom were legates. They preached throughout the whole country, contacting the princes and the lay lords, and holding meetings with the heretics themselves. A knight said to one of the missionaries, “We could not have believed that Rome had so many powerful arguments against these folks here.” “See you not,” said the missionary, “how little force there is in their objections?” “Certainly,” replied the knight. “Why then do you not expel them from your lands?” “We cannot,” answered the knight, “we have been brought up with them; we have amongst them folk near and dear to us, and we see them living honorably.” The popes missionaries, as their labors bore no fruit, urged the lay princes to extirpate the heretics. One of them, Raymond IV. count of Toulouse, made the promise but took no action. A legate of the pope, enraged by his hesitancy, placed him under sentence of excommunication, and the pope wrote him a threatening letter, giving him to understand that stronger measures would be adopted against him. The enraged legate, Peter de Casteinau, departed with his companion without delay. Approaching the Rhone, they were approached by two strangers one of whom, falling upon Peter, thrust him through with a lance, so that he died, exclaiming, “God forgive thee, as I do.”
The murder of Peter created a great commotion in France and in Rome. Had Raymond VI instigated the murder of the pope’s prelate? Throughout the Catholic Church it was believed that he had. The emotion was great. As the king of kings and the chief prince of the church—Innocent was this in his own eyes—the pope summoned the king of France and all the lay rulers, knights, the clergy, secular and regular, of his patriarchate, to go forth and extirpate from Southern France the Cathari; and to get action, he promised the chiefs of the crusaders, the great lords of his kingdom, the domains that they should win by conquest from the princes who were heretics or protectors of heretics. And the faithful he exhorted in a general letter as follows, “O most mighty soldiers of Christ, most brave warriors: Ye oppose the agents of Antichrist, and ye fight against the servants of the old serpent (meaning the Cathari). Perchance up to this time ye have fought for transitory glory, now fight for the glory which is everlasting. Ye have fought for the body, now fight for the soul. Ye have fought for the world, now do ye fight for God. For we have not exhorted you to the service of God for a worldly prize, but for the heavenly kingdom, which for this reason, we promised to you with all confidence.” Lords and knights, burghers and peasants, laymen and clergy, responded to the call to arms, but not so the king of France. “From near and by they come,” writes a contemporary writer, “there be men from Auvergne and Burgundy, France and Limousin; there be men from all the world; there be Germans, Poitevines, Gasmens, Rounergates, and Saintongese.
Never did God make scribe who, whatever his pains, could set them all clown in writing, in two months or in three.77 The war lasted fifteen years—from 1208 to 1223. They were years of pillage, sack, and massacre, and burning of all the towns in Southern France with the zeal of fanatics and the greed of conquerors. The two chief actors in this war were Innocent III and Simon, count of Montfort, the one ordering and the other executing. Five years after the commencement of the war this Simon was chosen lord and governor of the conquests on publication of a charter that read, “Simon, lord of Montfort, earl of Leicester, viscount of Beziers and Carcassonne. The Lord, having delivered into my hands the lands of the heretics, an unbelieving people, that is to say, whatever He hath thought fit to take from them by the hand of the crusaders his servants, I have accepted humbly and devoutly this charge and administration, with confidence in his aid.” The pope forthwith confirmed him in hereditary possessions of his dominion. From this time on it was a war against the native princes of Southern France, the design being to conquer their domains. Simon’s ambition was boundless. He invaded the domains of princes uncontaminated by heresy, and persecuted and despoiled them. Innocent III rebuked him in a letter as follows, “Ye have not been content with invading all the places wherein there were heretics, but ye have further gotten possession of those wherein there was no suspicion of heresy.”Innocent’s attempt to check the fury of Simon was futile. There was no stopping of the force to which the pope had once appealed. In 1218 Simon was killed in battle. The struggle dragged on for five more years, when Amaury, the son and successor of Simon, concluded a treaty with the counts of Toulouse, and the war was ended. Arriving at the court of the king of France, Louis VIII, who had just succeeded his father, Philip Augustus, Amaury ceded to the king his rights over the domains, which the crusaders had conquered. During the long war one of the fairest provinces in France had been laid waste; its farms and villages were in ruins and vast numbers of its population had been put to the sword.
But the war against the Cathari was continued by the machinery of the Roman Inquisition, which was now put into full action. In 1244 their last stronghold was taken and two hundred of the Perfect were burned. After the 13th century, heresy in Southern France was a “noiseless underground stream.”