Whenever the moral confusions facing our Church begin to trouble me, to give me the slightest sense that the gates of Hell really might be prevailing, I know what to do: Stop reading that document from the USCC — just put it down, kick it across the room — and pick up something more uplifting, like an account of historical heresies or toxic ideologies. Whatever our current problems — pro-choice nuns, open-borders bishops, baffled pastors, or sullenly worldly laymen — they pale beside the tales of really outrageous ideas that once threatened the Christian world.
If you’re feeling blue, read up sometime on the Albigensians, who revived the ancient Gnostic idea that the material world was the product of an evil, lesser god — who blocked our access to the higher, holy, purely spiritual God. (The young Augustine believed this creed in his Manichean period.) The creator-demon enslaved us through all the passions of our bodies (that’s how they read St. Paul’s disparaging references to “the flesh”), which we must overcome via extreme asceticism, and finally defeat through the triumph of universal celibacy: we should “trap” no more celestial spirits in the cage of suffering flesh. Failing that — and since this heresy arose in sunny southern France, most did — believers at least should attempt to prevent conception, or abort their infants. Marriage was held to be blasphemy, adultery innocent, and suicide a sacrament. This heresy claimed to be the true and primitive Christianity, which corrupt clerics had hidden beneath the Church’s veneer of ritual and hierarchy.
Troubadour poets encoded Albigensian catechisms in their songs about “mysterious” and unattainable love, helping it spread widely through society’s rich and well-armed elites. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the Western idea of passionate, all-conquering (and often tragic) romantic love was invented by these lyrical heretics. Meanwhile, gaunt and earnest mendicants preached this new faith to the common people. So popular did this new religion prove that St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers to combat it by peaceful means, fielding an army of equally fervent ascetics who insisted on the goodness of Creation, the holiness of marriage, and the power of the sacraments to infuse the lumpy imperfections of grossly material life with eternal spiritual meaning. But the heresy was so deeply entrenched, and its followers posed such a revolutionary threat to the social order — think of them as 13th-century Bolsheviks — that in the end it took a bitter, international crusade to stop it from spreading. The cruelty of that crusade was not one of Christendom’s finest moments, but perhaps the viciousness Catholics were willing to use in stomping out this heresy stemmed from the ugliness and the insidious appeal of its creed.
Its appeal? Why, yes. There isn’t much spiritual or intellectual benefit to be had in reading about the heresies of the past unless we try to understand what it was that attracted men to them. Temptation offers people satisfaction with one hand, while it steals away joy with the other — or else it wouldn’t work, would it?
Now, on first glance, taken as a package with all its horrible implications of abortion, sodomy, and suicide, the Albigensian message sounds straightforwardly diabolical. We cannot imagine how it would attract millions of Christians, requiring the founding of a great religious order or the waging of a bloody, destructive crusade. But we owe it to ourselves to make that imaginative effort. Heresies rarely spring fully armed, like Athena, from a single miscreant’s head. (There are exceptions, of course.) Rather, they arise as simplistic answers to widely felt anxieties, one-sided resolutions of serious tensions implicit in Christian faith — for instance, between faith and reason, justice and mercy, or the divinity and the humanity of Christ. In the case of the Albigensians, the painful tension it promised to resolve was between the goodness of God and the evils we seem to find in Creation. This paradox of faith confronts us today as much as it did the troubadours, and I can best bring it alive by reproducing an exchange on the subject between two old friends of mine, Franz and Rayne.
Franz: How’s the beagle doing? Is she okay with the Texas heat? I’ll be back in town to suffer along with you all in a couple of weeks.
Rayne: I don’t know if I can keep on taking care of her for you. I might have to send her back to New Hampshire.
Franz: Why? What happened?
Rayne: You know that baby ‘possum that lived in my apartment complex? The one Susie likes to sniff after? The one you let her chase?
Franz: At a safe distance, sure. Susie needs to follow her instincts.
Rayne: Well she caught the poor little thing. Last night I was walking her down the street, she caught the scent, started yelping so loud it was likely to wake the entire neighborhood, and before I knew it she had that baby ‘possum in her mouth and was shaking it to death.
Franz: And you had to see that? I’m so sorry.
Rayne: Maybe you shouldn’t encourage her so much. For instance, by chasing skateboarders . . .
Franz: It’s not her fault. Generations of British hunters taught her ancestors to hunt really effectively — and turn the prey over to humans. She didn’t eat the ‘possum, did she? Susie thought she was killing it for you.
Rayne: Thank you so much, Susie.
Franz: But she’s descended from wolves — and it was God Who made them hunters.
Rayne: Yeah, does that ever make you wonder?
Franz: What do you mean? Is the existence of predators a theological problem?
Rayne: All of nature is based on creatures’ fighting for survival, viciously competing for resources, and tearing each other part. Harmless creatures like sheep — the image for Christians throughout the New Testament — seem like they were put here to be torn apart by wolves or cougars.
Franz: There’s something noble about predators. They work very hard to stay alive. They’re hungry most of the time, and they’re always ready to sacrifice their share of the kill to keep their young alive. When I watch nature shows, I usually root for the lions.
Rayne: What about vicious parasites, the ones that devour other animals slowly from the inside out? Do you root for the heartworm that would gnaw out Susie’s vitals?
Franz: Touché. But if you think about it, if animals weren’t born to die, there would only ever have been one generation of them. No kittens, puppies, or baby chicks — we would have to inherit the same pets Adam and Eve left behind. They’d be very old, and very wise, I imagine.
Rayne: Old dogs that wouldn’t learn new tricks.
Franz: You might say that the goodness of these lesser creatures is temporary, but fully good while it lasts. It is good that animals are born, reproduce, and pass away. It’s not good that human beings die — that wasn’t part of the original plan.
Rayne: So animals were made to be ephemeral, and it isn’t evil when they die?
Franz: That’s the Thomist answer. Although some Eastern theologians believe that animals lived in peace before the Fall of man. It was we who introduced death into the world.
Rayne: So the T-Rex was really gnawing grass with those long, razor-sharp teeth — it’s just that we’re somehow too sinful to see it?
Franz: I certainly hope not. In fact, if you take it literally, the picture of a lion lying down with the lambs, and subsisting on hay . . . it’s kind of repulsive. It seems like a perversion of God’s Creation.
Rayne: And that Creation was built with dead baby ‘possums in mind?
Franz: They were integral to its structure. No dead baby ‘possums — no redwood forests, and no Gulfstream waters. It’s a package deal.
Rayne: So what was God thinking when He made the lion — and the heartworm? What does it tell us about Him?
Franz: That there’s part of Him that is starkly incomprehensible to us — that painfully transcends our sentiments and our conceptions. He isn’t some great big cuddly Santa Claus in the sky. As if the Passion narrative and the reality of Hell weren’t sufficient to convince us . . .
Rayne: Okay, so human suffering and death resulted from Original Sin — and we were somehow immune to the painful aspects of Creation before our first ancestors sinned?
Franz: Augustine said that we were fashioned out of the dust of the earth, as “contingent” creatures, whose bodies are caught up in what Plato called “Becoming” (as opposed to “Being”). We started off with the “preternatural gifts,” which preserved our contingent flesh from corruption. When we sinned, we became too dangerous to ourselves to live forever, so God withdrew those gifts. Then we had to wait for Christ to gain them back, along with much more, of course.
Rayne: But animals were suffering, and they’ll go on suffering, till the end of time — won’t they?
Franz: The Resurrection will bring with it a new Heaven and a new earth.
Rayne: Where the eagles will be chomping on chestnuts, right beside the squirrels?
Franz: I hope not. It’s a bit depressing, but Aquinas thought there would be no animals or plants in the New Jerusalem.
Rayne: Really? So what will it be like?
Franz: He bases his picture on the Book of Revelation and depicts it as a really enormous and extraordinary city.
Rayne: Like Dallas?
Franz: More like Manhattan.
Rayne: Well that’s some consolation for you, isn’t it?
Franz: For what?
Rayne: For the absence of beagles.
Franz: Cold comfort, come to think of it . . .