June 2009By Arthur C. Sippo
Arthur C. Sippo is a physician and specialist in aerospace medicine who has written and lectured as a Catholic apologist for over 30 years. He writes from southern Illinois.
The Great Medieval Heretics: Five Centuries of Religious Dissent. By Michael Frassetto. Bluebridge. 256 pages. $24.95.
We should remember that among the twelve Apostles -- Jesus' own hand-picked inner circle -- one betrayed Him, nine ran away into hiding, and the one He had singled out to be His right-hand man betrayed Him not once but three times. At the time of His death, the only people who remained publicly loyal to Him were a dying thief, a group of helpless women, and young St. John who only dared to go to Golgotha because he was so young that he could travel with Jesus' mother as if he were a minor child. Not a very auspicious beginning.
Subsequent Church history has fared little better. Disputes arose among the Apostles themselves. Teachers of unsound doctrine sprang up and challenged their authority. As the Apostles died off, there were squabbles among the next generation of Christian ministers over succession. Some ministers broke fellowship with the successors of the Apostles and created anti-churches. And this same pattern has repeated itself in later centuries, up to our own day.
But somehow, the Petrine ministry has survived all these vicissitudes and held the great communion of Catholic Christendom together against all odds. That in itself is a miracle.
With all the troubles in the modern Catholic Church, many believers have looked back to what they considered the golden age of Christendom, centering around the 13th and Greatest of Centuries. There is a persistent myth that the Catholic Church during the Age of Faith (also known as the period of medieval Christendom) enjoyed a period of doctrinal uniformity and ecclesiastical unity which we have somehow lost in modern times. Nothing could be further from the truth. In every age since Jesus began His ministry, there have been dissenters, heretics, schismatics, and apostates who have attempted to supplant sound doctrine with errors and create alternative religions with which to seduce Christians away from Catholic unity. The medieval period was no different from any other in this regard.
Michael Frassetto teaches history at the University of Delaware, specializing in religious dissent during the medieval period from the 10th to the 15th century. He is also the Religion Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In his new book, The Great Medieval Heretics, he takes us on a tour of the major dissenters during the fabled medieval Age of Faith. His book is written in a clear, accessible style but has sufficient footnotes and bibliographical information to make it useful as an academic textbook. Each chapter focuses on the life and work of a particular heretic and the movements that resulted from his dissent. Frassetto gives us a lively narrative that includes detailed information on the biography of the heresiarch, what he taught, the historical chain of events surrounding him, and the relevance these teachings had in Church history. Frassetto also makes it clear where the heretics became formally heterodox in their teachings and why the Church condemned them.
Frassetto notes that many of the heretical movements such as the Bogomils and the Cathars were strongly influenced by dualism -- the belief that there were two warring principles in the universe that held each other in check. This notion has been held in one form or another by many religious sects in the Middle East, Africa, and even Europe. Christianity itself espouses a form of asymmetrical dualism in its understanding of the struggle between God and Satan for the fate of human souls. In Christian theology, the evil Satan is a being far inferior to Almighty God, and the end of the contest is a foregone conclusion. But down here in the trenches of everyday life, the Church Militant is often tempted to wonder when and if God will ever intervene to defeat the wicked and vindicate the righteous. We fight our own internal inclinations to good and evil within ourselves daily. This leads to fears, doubts, and feelings of guilt that can drive the conscientious believer to distraction.
Dualistic religions tried to relieve the distress caused by the good and evil in our lives by accepting the dynamic tension between them as the normal state of affairs for man. They saw no use in fretting over peccadilloes or even in feelings of guilt for more egregious violations of the moral law. They changed the moral landscape, substituting ascetic practices and personal piety for community norms or standards. This eliminated the need for communal worship, the sacraments, and other external expressions of the Christian religion. This relaxed attitude toward certain moral norms allowed people more leeway in making their personal judgments on what was the best course of action. Right and wrong were rejected in favor of maintaining a proper balance between the dialectic tensions in life. Soon other rites and practices began to take the place of Mass and the sacraments in the spiritual life of these dualists.
Other movements such as the Waldenses and the Beguines began as spiritual movements among laymen who wanted to live lives of prayer and devotion while remaining in the lay state. The Church's spiritual life was strongly geared toward monastic communities, and many laymen felt left out. This was especially true as the more educated members of the middle class began arising in urban centers. They desired a deeper understanding of the Faith and a more rigorous spiritual discipline.
Even in some rural areas, simple peasants clung to the traditional practices of folk-religion from their ancestors which they found more meaningful and comforting than many of the Church's rites, which were generally in Latin and which they only marginally understood. Many Church officials condemned these movements as heretical, superstitious, or even Satanic. A dialectic antipathy developed between those officials and the laymen involved with these groups. Their desire for a more deeply spiritual life often put these groups at odds with established Church authorities. Many of these people thought the local clergy were not spiritual enough and therefore not fit to be ministering to those who were pursuing perfection in the lay state. The movements developed their own ministers and spiritual directors. It was a very short conceptual leap from there to open defiance against the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church.
There has been a revisionist movement among historians recently to deny the heterodoxy of the Cathars or to deny that they even existed as a true movement. Part of this may be because the Cathars advocated birth control, abortion, euthanasia, and ritual suicide -- all of which many modern secularists support. Frassetto will have none of it. His detailed account makes it clear that Catharism existed and was indeed heretical by Catholic standards.
A third group of heretics were those who raised serious academic questions concerning the legitimacy of Church teachings. Groups like the Lollards and the Utraquists were inspired by dissident theologians like Wycliffe and Hus to abandon accepted doctrinal positions and to seek justification for their dissent in the Bible or in the nominalist philosophy of their time. These last sets of controversies set the stage for the Protestant Reformation and anticipated many of the objections that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, et al. would later make against the Church.
Frassetto talks about only certain of the heretics from this period. Joachim of Flora gets a few passing comments. The Eucharistic controversy involving Berengarius of Tours is not even mentioned. Neither is the widespread problem of the Spiritual Franciscans, which was a major concern in the 13th century. He also fails to deal with the suppression of the Knights Templar for alleged heresies.
Another glaring omission is the absence of any mention of the Great Schism between the Eastern Churches and the Latin West over the question of the procession of the Persons of the Trinity in the Godhead. Both the Councils of Lyons II and Florence tried to deal with this matter, but to no avail. The issue still stands between the Eastern and Western Churches. There is also no discussion of Averroism and the philosophical and theological influence of Islam on the intellectual life in the European universities. The 16th-century Reformers were all university educated and strongly influenced by the via moderna, which has some connection to the philosophical fatalism of Islamic thinkers.
It is also disappointing that Frassetto did not include an appendix to describe in more detail the theological and historical link between the several medieval heresies and the Protestant Reformation. Frassetto does make some scattered references to the medieval heresies as having foreshadowed Luther, but he fails to inform the reader that Luther vehemently defended the orthodoxy of such heretical groups as the Bogomils, the Paulicians, the Utraquists, the Waldenses, and the Cathars. As far as Luther was concerned, the Pope was the Antichrist, and any group that attacked the papacy (or was attacked by it) deserved the support of the emerging Protestant movement. Luther did this to counter the claims of Catholic apologists who insisted that historic Christianity was solidly Catholic. The Wittenberg heresiarch claimed that resistance to the papacy, not loyalty to it, was the mark of the true historic Church.
This outrageous claim was -- and is -- patently false, as any competent Church historian can show. Frassetto makes it clear that all of the heretics he deals with were indeed doctrinally heterodox and were openly defiant and dismissive of Church authorities. Luther's ranting on this topic is seen by many modern scholars as evidence of his mental instability and of his inability to deal objectively with historical, doctrinal, and biblical facts. Luther's antinomian doctrine of justification by faith alone unformed by charity was to him an essential catharsis for the Anfechtungen: the times of spiritual trial, terror, despair, and religious crisis that he experienced throughout his life. These feelings were most likely the symptoms of severe clinical depression -- more than once Luther admitted that they tempted him to suicide. Reinterpreting history was to Luther a necessary form of self-deception to preserve his sanity and his life.
Calvin and his followers were guilty of misrepresentation as well. They went so far as to make common cause with the remnants of the Waldensian movement that remained in the Alps. Calvin and his agents invented a most imaginative false-history about the Waldensians, claiming that they were the remnants of true Bible Christianity that had escaped to the Alpine valleys in the fourth century when the Roman Church became apostate from the Gospel. One of Calvin's agents in this affair was a Huguenot named Pierre Allix who eventually immigrated to England and accepted ordination in the Anglican Church. While serving as the secretary for Salisbury Cathedral, Allix wrote several books in support of this wild anti-historical fantasy. For several centuries, these books have been reprinted by radical Protestant groups to counter the mainstream religious histories and create false credentials for the Protestant religion. They are still in print today. I have seen these ludicrous claims about the Waldensians bandied about in books written by the late Jerry Falwell. These false histories also inspired the writing of a book called The Trail of Blood by J.M. Carroll, the foundational document of the Landmark Baptist movement and what is commonly known now as the High Church Baptists or Baptist Successionism.
There is also the disturbing fact that the pessimism of the 16th-century Protestant movement with regard to human nature and the culture of medieval Europe closely paralleled similar teachings of the heretics of the previous five centuries. An investigation into the influence of the dualist heresies of Luther and Calvin has yet to be done. The uses the Reformers made of the medieval heretics is a story in its own right that has yet to be told.
These are contemporarily relevant topics that are related to the medieval heresies. By understanding the true nature of heresies, we can overcome many centuries of Protestant disinformation and misrepresentation.