Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hell and the Cathars

One of the things that make heresies so attractive is that they tend to play down the aspects of Christianity that are unpleasant, such as the doctrine of Hell.
The Cathars, a Christian sect that sprung up in France and other parts of Europe, were dualists. They believed that earthly existence, including the human body, is evil, created not by the Christian God but by an evil god. The God whom they worshipped was a being of pure spirit who would never have stooped so low as to take on evil flesh. Thus they de­nied that Jesus could become incarnate and still be the son of God. They denied, too, the Christian understanding of the crucifixion and the cross as saving things. The Catholic Church saw the Cathars as dangerous heretics and persecuted them ruthlessly, even launching a crusade against them (the “Albigensian crusade”).

Not surprisingly, the Cathars also re­jected the traditional Christian doctrine of hell. For the Cathars, this world was the only hell (and it was hell enough, giv­en the persecution they suffered). There was nothing to fear after death, except maybe a sort of reincarnation that some of their sect taught. Their objective was to escape from the cycle of reincarnation, to earn the right to go to heaven and avoid another term of imprisonment here in hell on earth. (Read entire article.)


Mercury said...

The thing about Aquinas and the defense of the doctrine that the blessed "enjoy" the punishment of the damned is truly mind-boggling. How could anyone imagine such an "entertainment"?

Also troubling to me at least is that idea that God wants some people to be damned that His justice may be served. Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn't He will that all be saved (even if all, in the end, are not) - isn't the whole point of the Atonement that Christ suffered the demands of justice for our sake?

I struggle with the idea that even a venial sin is enough to warrant eternal hellfire in the system of God's justice. I know we believe that the Lord is merciful to those in invincible ignorance who follow the dictates of their conscience - but who can avoid venial sin? How can one get through a day knowing that even one's venial sins are in infinite affront to God? I'm sure I do more things to tick him off than to please him.

It's also no help to know that many medieval saints considered mortal sin things which we no longer consider sin, and perhaps even consider good - spouses making love during pregnancy or after child-bearing years, for example (both St. Bridget of Sweden and Bernardine of Siena said people go to Hell for that). Even the Curé of Ars thought dancing was a mortal sin.

Most of us who have come back to the Church after a time of living in sin have committed sins that people used to have to do penance for years - people have been made to go to Jerusalem on foot to expiate lesser sins than I've committed. Why would He have mercy on me?

So in the end, just trust the Magisterium, and trust God's Mercy?

sorry for the rant, but I don't know how people in the past didn't think about Hell ALL THE TIME.

elena maria vidal said...

Mercury! I didn't mean to do this to you! I only meant to emphasize the part of the article which mentions the Cathars, not the entire discussion on the medieval beliefs about Hell, which may or may not state some things out of context. I think St. Thomas meant that the saints accept God's will and rejoice in God's plan rather than the unique torments of the damned in themselves. That's my understanding.

People who have committed grave sins and do not repent are indeed damned on order to serve the justice of God. Otherwise there would be no hell at all.

Every teaching of every single saint was and is not necessarily the teaching of the Church. We are blessed now to have the Catechism. There was a lot taught about hell in the Middle Ages to counteract the false teachings of the Cathars who denied the Hell of the Damned. Life was short and often difficult and meditation on Hell (which St. Ignatius made part of his Exercises) can be beneficial for putting the trials of life in perspective.

We cannot judge the present against the past, and vice versa. One might say that people in the Middle Ages, who lived in a Christian society, had less excuse for committing egregious sins than we do, so the penances were more severe. We have much more to contend with in the struggle to live a life of virtue. We are always swimming upstream, whereas in the Middle Ages they were surrounded by signs of the Faith. Also, in the Middle Ages they were closer to the practices of the Early Church, which practiced austere public penances. For the early Christians, if you could not resist the temptations of the world and the flesh then how could you hold up under torture and the threat of a hideous death. So they had to be prepared for the ultimate test.

The main thing now is to follow the teaching of the Church and the advice of your confessors. If your confessor assigned you a certain penance then in supernatural faith you accept it. If on your own or with the permission of a spiritual director (which I recommend) you wish to take on more penances (people still go on pilgrimage to Compostela) then you are free to do so out of love of God. As Pope Paul VI said once, while the pope has the power to change the laws of the Church, the Justice of God remains. If we accept, with love, all the trials of life sent by God, then that is the highest form of penance. And love is the key ingredient for expiating sin, not suffering in itself.

Mercury said...

Thanks, Elena. And it is true that the Council of Trent changed a lot of the austere penances of the past. There are some things I have started do - kneeling without a kneeler, for example - but it's a far cry from eating dirt and tree bark, or exposing my body to the elements atop a column.

I've read that accepting the Aristotelian view of human nature has also led to less severity, since on the older, Platonic understanding of things, anything that was not total austerity (eating only when ABSOLUTELY necessary) was at least a venial sin. And certain views have changed definitively - a Catholic cannot hold in good faith in their entirety the teachings of St. Augustine, St. Bridget, or St. Bernardine about the physical side of marriage, since it would contradict Magisterial teaching.

My problem is that I have a very hard time even understanding what venial sin is, so I assume I'm sinning when I'm usually not, especially knowing that even my venial sins infuriate God so much.

As far as hell goes - I do pray for everyone, even those who seem to have died living sinful lives. just can't get over saying "oh well, that guy's in Hell." It's mind-boggling to me that many early Christians assumed that their parents and grandparents were all roasting in excruciating torment for all eternity - some even thought that was true of little babies.

I guess it would be a mistake to assume the medievals got everything right, just as it is a mistake to assume they got everything wrong, or that we get everything right.

elena maria vidal said...

Mercury, a mortal sin is: 1. always grave manner 2.committed with full knowledge 3. committed with deliberate consent. All three must be present for it to be a mortal sin. Otherwise it is a venial sin or not a sin at all, but a fault. I once read in a book (I think it was the letters of Fr. Caussade) that if the thought of offending God fills you with horror than you have most likely NOT committed a mortal sin. Scrupulosity can kill your spiritual life; the soul must grow in an atmosphere of freedom and confidence. Have confidence in God and Our Lady's intercession. "Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I believe in your love for me." "My Mother, my confidence."

The BEST penances are those God chooses for us in what He permits to befall us: humiliations, trials, illness, misunderstandings, loneliness, persecution. Afflictions we bear inside that are known only to Him can not only expiate our sins but give glory to Him when offered in union with Christ on the Cross. In such interior penances there is no self-love as there might be in penances we choose for ourselves.

I don't know that the early Christians believed as you say, since in St. Perpetua's dream she saw her little brother who had died before baptism in the place of expiation, which meant that he would go to Heaven eventually. And remember that the "Limbus Patrem" "the hell of the fathers" or the netherworld of the dead mentioned in the Creed, where Jesus descended after He died on the Cross, is not the same place as the Hell of the damned. So I don't think we can say that the early Christians believed that all their family members were going to be burning in Hell. Not necessarily.

Mercury said...

Elena, thank you so much for your words, especially about penance. I never thought of it that way - that the penances God chooses for us are free of any self-love. How true! I can think of a few things I'd have never chosen myself, but which I've accepted as part of His plan.

Thank you and Gos bless you. And by the way, you have one of the most civil blogs around.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Mercury. Too many blogs use religion as a club with which to clobber other people. But we are here to help each other.