The Catholic Church’s Persecution of the Cathars

By Dr. Mike Magee | 12 December 2002

The Albigensian Crusade or the Cathar Crusade was a military and ideological campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Four Church Councils in 1119, 1139, 1148 and 1163 declared the Cathars to be heretics. The Council of Toulouse in 1119 and then the Lateran Council of 1139 urged the secular powers to proceed violently against heresy—they did not. Even so, Cathars were burned or imprisoned in many places, but, William IX of Aquitaine and many of the nobles of the Midi continued to protect them. They valued their industry and integrity in a corrupt world. The French bishops at the Council of Tours (1163) discussed the presence of Cathars in Cologne, Bonn and Liege. They called them Manichæans, a taunt, for they knew they were not, and the Cathars called themselves the Good Christians. From 1180 to 1230, the Catholic Church enacted legislation against heresy, and set up a permanent tribunal, staffed by Dominican friars. It was the Inquisition.

It was not so much the differences in doctrine that bothered the Church as long as the heretical beliefs were held only by a minority. The Cathari were indeed too successful! A swathe of Southern Europe bordering the Mediterranean from Spain to Italy was strongly Cathar, and extensions ran up the Rhone valley and into the Alps and southern Germany, and even Flanders and England. There were more Cathars in the east in Bulgaria and Bosnia.

At the heart of the Albigensian culture was industry. The saying, “Work is Prayer”, had its origin among them, and this too is Essene. Catharism grew partly because the Catholic Church opposed the development of capitalism. The Church indeed disagreed with money-lending and usury to which the Cathars were more open. Besides that, the people were fed up with paying excessively to maintain the corruption of the Catholic Church. The truth is that Catholic prelates were comfortable and indolent. Priests were often ignorant of all practical matters, having been brought up entirely in devotional studies. Many were corrupt and all lived in relative or even absolute luxury. They kept mistresses even though they had accepted celibacy in imitation of the Cathar Parfaits.

The Cathar Perfects were the complete opposite. They were literally perfect Christians modelled on Christ and the Essene lifestyle of his time, and followed by the apostles. The Cathari refused to take oaths under the pretext that the Perfect God should not be introduced into material matters, and they condemned all forms of wealth. In this they were like the Essenes and the first Christians, and quite unlike the Church. They were attentive to the ordinary people who literally adored them as Christs. The same feeling of protest had been operating within the Church too, giving rise to the new strict monastic orders—the Cistercians, the Dominicans and the Franciscans—but they were not only sidelined but coralled into implementing the Church’s evil policy of annihilation of its enemies, while the cardinals and bishops remained ensconced in luxury.

As early as the eleventh century, the Empress of Byzantium, Theodora, had put to death a multitude of Paulicians, and, in 1118, the Emperor Alexius Comnenus treated the Bogomili with equal severity. Perhaps these persecutions were the cause of their pouring into Western Europe.

In 1022, King Robert II, the Pious (996-1031), of France, “because he feared for the safety of the kingdom and the salvation of souls” had thirteen distinguished citizens, ecclesiastic and lay, burnt alive at Orléans, thus earning his soubriquet. Ten of these were canons of the church of the Holy Cross and another had been confessor to Queen Constance. They were described, in Medieval fashion, as Manichæans, meaning they were dualists, died steadfast in their beliefs despite torture, and sound like a high ranking coven of witches. About 1025, heretics who acknowledged that they were disciples of the Italian Gundulf, appeared at Liège and Arras. Promising to recant, they were left unmolested. A few years later (1045) the Bishop of Chalons, Roger, observed that the sect was spreading in his diocese, and asked of Wazo, Bishop of Liège, advice as to the use of force. Wazo advised it was contrary to the spirit of the Church and the words of its Founder. At Goslar, in the Christmas season of 1051, and in 1052, several heretics were hanged because Holy Roman Emperor Henry III (1039-1056) wanted to prevent the further spread of “the heretical leprosy”.

In 1076 or 1077, a Catharist was condemned to the stake by the Bishop of Cambrai. Other Catharists were given their choice, by the magistrates of Milan, of converting to Catholicism or being burnt at the stake. Most chose the latter. Elsewhere similar acts were due to popular outbursts. In 1114, the Bishop of Soissons kept a variety of heretics imprisoned, but while he sought the advice of bishops assembled for a synod at Beauvais, a Christian mob stormed the prison, took the accused out of town, and burned them.

In 1144, a Christian mob attacked some Catharists imprisoned in Liège, whom the bishop hoped to convert. The bishop succeeded with the greatest trouble in rescuing some of them from death by fire. A similar thing happened at Cologne. While the archbishop and the priests sought to lead the heretics back into the Church, the mob violently took the prisoners from the custody of the clergy and burned them at the stake. Peter of Bruys, a Cathar leader, was treated similarly by the fury of a mob.

At least one bishop sought the assistance of the secular arm for the punishment of heretics, though he did not call for the death penalty, but most learned figures in the Church who are still on record opposed the murder of heretics. Peter Canter, the most learned man of his time says:

Whether they be convicted of error, or freely confess their guilt, Catharists are not to be put to death, at least not when they refrain from armed assaults upon the Church. For although the Apostle said, A man that is a heretic after the third admonition, avoid, he certainly did not say, Kill him. Throw them into prison, if you will, but do not put them to death.

So far was S Bernard of Clairvaux from agreeing with the methods of the people of Cologne, that he laid down the axiom:

By persuasion, not by violence, are men to be won to the Faith.

Though some ecclesiastical lawyers conceded to the Church the right to pronounce sentence of death on heretics, they did not get their way. Excommunication, proscription, imprisonment, were inflicted, being intended rather as forms of atonement than of real punishment, but never the capital sentence. For apologists the ecclesiastical law and the ecclesiastical authorities are absolved from responsibility. The executions of heretics at this time was the arbitrary action of civil rulers, and the fanatic rage of the people. Revisionists say the blame for these acts does not lie with the Church, because bishops and other clergy were trying to restrain kings, stop the mobs, and keep the heretics away from the mobs in prison. That is true from some of the records that survive, but the real question is what had the clergy been teaching the mob.

In the second half of the twelfth century, Catharism spread in alarming fashion for the Church authorities who thought it not only menaced the Church’s existence, but threatened the basis of Christian society. Christian society has as its God the God of Israel, Yehouah. George Ryley Scott, in A History of Torture (1941), points out that this God, according to the Jewish scriptures, surpassed belief for sheer cruelty, terrorism and frightfulness. He massacred in their thousands those who stood in His way or displeased Him. He smote even His Chosen People and approved of stoning to death and burning alive for merely petty offences. Refusing to be utterly idle on the sabbath day meant death. This was an inhuman God.

Now, whatever the human God who was crucified said about love, for centuries the leaders of Christian countries took it that they should ignore the words and example of the human God and follow the example of the inhuman God in how enemies or heretics should be treated. Indeed, when crimes were judged to have been against God and His commands, they took it that the Jewish scriptures prescribed how the criminals should be punished. Apostasy, heresy and blasphemy were crimes that angered God particularly and had to be punished in the ways God expected. In particular, it meant vengeance. Nothing that Christ is said to have taught minimised this attitude, even though some clergy tried to point out the contradiction. They had to take care of course, and even Loyola found himself accused.

From the old Roman law, a belief arose, at least throughout Germany, France, and Spain, that heresy was fought by burning the heretics. In 1183, Duke Philip of Flanders, aided by William of the White Hand, Archbishop of Reims, was particularly severe towards heretics. They burnt alive nobles and commoners, clerics, knights, peasants, spinsters, widows and married women, confiscated their property and divided it between themselves. Between 1183 and 1206, Bishop Hugo of Auxerre acted similarly towards the neo-Manichæans. Some he despoiled, others he either exiled or sent to the stake. King Philip Augustus of France had eight Cathari burnt at Troyes in 1200 one at Nevers in 1201, several at Braisne-sur-Vesle in 1204, and many at Paris—priests, clerics, laymen, and women Catharists. Raymond V of Toulouse (1148-94) passed a law which punished Cathari and their favourers with death. In 1211, Simon de Montfort’s men-at-arms boasted they had burned alive many, and would continue to do so, believing they were carrying out this law.

In 1197, Peter II the Catholic (1196-1213), King of Aragon and Count of Barcelona, issued an edict in obedience to which the Waldensians and all other schismatics were expelled from the land, any of them found in his kingdom or his county after Palm Sunday of the next year was to suffer death by fire, and confiscation of goods.

Ecclesiastical legislation was still not so severe. Alexander III at the Lateran Council of 1179 asked secular rulers to silence disturbers of public order if necessary by force, imprisonment of the guilty and appropriation of their possessions. In 1148, an agreement between pope Lucius III and Frederick Barbarossa allowed heretics of every community to be sought out, brought before the episcopal court, excommunicated, and given up to the civil power to he suitably punished. The suitable punishment meant the proscriptive ban—exile, expropriation, destruction of the culprits’ dwelling, debarment from public office and infamy—not death. The pope excommunicated the heretics, and the emperor put them under the civil ban, and confiscated their goods.

Who were the Cathars?

Who Were the Cathars? – The Albigensian Crusade

The Inquisition On A Christian Sect | Secret Files of The Inquisition

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