Saturday, November 26, 2011

Baptists, Cathars, and Dominicans

San Domenico Guzman
Fresco in Cantarana
Denise Schenardi, 2007
The Church’s initial response to Catharism was to launch a missionary campaign and Innocent III sent preachers into the Occitan to refute the heretical doctrines.  He also prohibited translations of the scriptures into the vernacular as popular interpretations of the bible were at the root of the heresy’s spreading.  The preaching crusade was not particularly successful due to the support the Cathars had from many of the local nobility who saw that breaking the power of the Church also weakened the power of the French Crown (and thus strengthened their local power of the peasants and the towns) and when one of the coordinators of the papal effort, Pierre de Castelnau, was assassinated, Raymond, the Count of Toulouse, was suspected of ordering the murder.  This led to a change of papal strategy and in 1209 a Crusade was launched to wipe out the heresy by destroying the nobles and the city governments that supported it.
     The failure of Innocent’s  preaching mission was due in great part to a gross miscalculation on the part of the Church as to what would work at rooting out this heresy.  The pope sent Cistercian Abbots as preachers.  Now the Cistercians were a reformed religious order and known for their integrity and austere life, but abbots are abbots and these prelates saw themselves as emissaries of the Pope rather than as preachers of the Gospel.  Huge mistake.  Huge.  The abbots came on horseback with their retinue of chaplains and liveried servants and they stayed in the homes of the rich, the great, and the powerful and they lived well.  This did not impress the converts to Catharism who had been drawn to the sect because of the austerity of the Cathar perfecti or holy ones.  It is a bit like the Tridentine revivalists who think the way to appeal to people today to come back to the Church is for bishops to wear long trains of scarlet silk while conducting elaborate ceremonies in an arcane language.  Duh!  It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now.  Anyway, back to the Crusade for a moment. 
     Innocent called a crusade and offered any Catholic nobleman who fought the heretics title to the lands of the various Occitan nobles who were protecting the Cathars.  This involved the French Crown who saw this as an opportunity to extend royal power over this region of what is today southwest France but at the time was a collection of independent baronies.  The French King himself, Philip Augustus,  did not become involved but one of his vassals, Simon de Montfort, led the successfully brutal war in which over 20,000 men, women, and children were killed.    
     Let me just make an aside here.  There are some Protestant groups whose poor knowledge of history allows them to trace their supposed roots back to Jesus and the apostles by identifying themselves with any group that the Catholic Church has ever persecuted.  If you were persecuted by the Catholic Church than you must have been a Baptist!  Won’t earn you a degree in history but sure will make those hymn-singin’, lemonade drinkin’,  bible readin’ po’ folk down in Arkansas and Tennessee feel a might more righteous.   Years ago I was at a rural Baptist Church in Texas—Independence Baptist Church where Sam Houston was baptized.    A gentleman there described the history of the Church, giving us what is known as the “Trail of Blood Baptist” history and according to his story anyone who was imprisoned or killed for their faith in those Catholic Centuries had been Baptist.  He talked about the Cathars as Baptists, unaware that not only did they not practice immersion baptism, but they didn’t even use water.  Nor did he know, even more seriously, that they believed in two gods, a god of light and a god of dark, who were locked in this eternal struggle for men’s souls.  But they weren’t “those Catholics” so they must have been “us Baptists.”  Most Baptists take a more historically critical view and recognize that their tradition comes out of the English Radical Reformation of the seventeenth century and can’t be traced historically to apostolic times. 
     Well, the Albigensian Crusade was pretty much of a failure from a religious point of view—Catharism managed to hold on in Languedoc though often under a veneer of Catholic Orthodoxy.  The fighting was over by 1255 though the Inquisition lingered on to ferret out heretics.  The French Crown eventually triumphed over the nobility and brought the area more and more under central control.  When the French wars of religion broke out in the sixteenth century this area was particularly hard hit as a suspicion of Catholicism remained even after Catharism had apparently died out.  Sometimes, in fact often, religiously divisive movements such as Catharism are not so much about proposing new doctrines as they are about opposing old power structures.  Catharism seems to have been much more about rejecting a Catholic faith that had become over-identified with the power and wealth of the movers and shakers than dangerous ideas of dualism and Gnostic revival. 
     A more positive factor that came out of the Cathar movement was the Dominican Order.  Dominic de Guzman was a canon regular in the suite of the Spanish Bishop of Osma who had been sent on a Diplomatic mission by the king of Castile to Denmark.  As they travelled through the south of France Dominic encountered the Cathars and converted a number of their women members whom he organized into a monastery of nuns at Prouille.  The mission to Denmark completed (unsuccessfully as the marriage they were to arrange fell through due to the untimely death of the proposed bride), Dominic and his bishop returned to France on their way home to Castile.  Dominic saw the papal legates in all their pomp after their preaching had failed to stop the Cathar heresy.  He admonished them:  “The Cathars do not win people to their heresy by the show of power and pomp, by trains of servants and caparisoned horses, by their gorgeous robes—but by zealous preaching, by being humble like the apostles, by poor and simple lives, and by genuine and apparent holiness.  Zeal must be matched by zeal, humility by humility, the pretense of holiness by genuine holiness, preaching lies by preaching truth.”  Dominic decided to stay in France and to do precisely that while his bishop returned home.  Dominic gathered several other priests about him to establish a community of preachers of evangelical truth who, like the Cathar perfecti, would live poor and simple lives as a witness to their faith.  Their preaching was not a huge success in winning back people to the faith, but they did make a difference.  In 1217 Dominic would establish his preaching priests as a new religious Order—the Order of Preachers.  We know them today as the Dominicans.  More about them in future blogs. 

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