In an old (1950) monograph entitled The Truth about the Inquisition, Dr. John A. O’Brien, a Notre Dame history professor of the time, provides a brief but interesting exposé of the Albigensian heresy. Few people recall that that almost maniacal rebellion against Catholic teaching and, for that matter, commonsensical and civilized living was the trigger for the much-misunderstood Inquisition. O’Brien’s discussion makes one think of many aspects of our current civilizational crisis, even though the comparison could not have been so evident in 1950.
The Albigensians, or Catharists, were neo-Manicheans, regarding material creation as an evil and viewing all of existence as a conflict between evil matter and good spirit – but O’Brien says it was much more. Like all Gnostics, of which Manicheanism was a branch, they believed themselves to be the only “pure” ones and the only ones to have the truth. They were certainly a forerunner of Protestantism, and even more specifically of the most ardent of contemporary fundamentalists with their complete rejection of the Real Presence, transubstantiation, the Eucharist, and the Mass, and their belief that the Pope was the Antichrist. Their teaching and practice, however, had enormous implications for marriage, sexual morality, and social and political life.
The parallels to the present are almost uncanny. While hatred for the Church is nothing new, the visceral character of the Albigensians’ hatred bears a resemblance to the ugliest side of the Reformation and today’s assaults on religion. For example, O’Brien tells us how the Albigensians were known for indiscriminately chopping down crosses and stamping on them. In America today, we see the relentless efforts by rabid, uncompromising church-state separationist groups to remove all religious symbols from public places and the heightened vandalism of crosses and other Christian monuments.
The sexual libertinism, views about marriage, and feminism of our time resemble the Albigensian heresy. While the Albigensians considered sex an “inherent evil,” it seems as if it was not so much sex per se that they rejected but the proper context for it. They utterly rejected marriage, mostly because it meant bringing children into the world. Pregnancy for them was diabolical. Their confusion about sexual matters made them believe that marriage was worse than fornication and adultery. In our time, people don’t quite make this claim, but marriage has become irrelevant as the condition for engaging in sexual activity and no judgment is made about the morality of almost any sexual practices. For many, particularly in lower SES groups, marriage almost seems obsolete; children are routinely born out-of-wedlock. Others, particularly among the affluent, enter marriage – or what is called that – but have no intention of bearing children. While people may not proclaim pregnancy as evil, they act is if it is in our contracepting age.
As O’Brien says, for the Albigensians, even perversion was preferable to marriage. In our time, we witness the celebration of sexual perversion as a good thing in the form of “LGBT pride.” While the Albigensians wanted to abolish marriage, we have transformed it into something that they would have lauded: an association devoid of procreative intent or even, in the case of same-sex “marriage,” capability. As far as traditional, true marriage is concerned, we increasingly give it no special support or even recognition as uniquely important for society. We say that people are free to choose what “version” of it they prefer and be officially “affirmed” in their choice.