Catholic Church attempt to repress heresy in Christendom

Since the church's founding, it has encountered numerous difficulties in the shape of heresy. When various interpretations of Jesus' lessons were offered in the Middle Ages, it still persisted. In the 11th century, Catholic authorities faced a challenging job in their battle against heresies. The public's reaction to the Middle Ages' clerical reform movement may have contributed to the increase in heresy in the 11th century. Lay persons were not allowed to participate in the church's sacramental practices during this time. Additionally, Catholic doctrine was carefully defined and regulated. (Gibbs et al 54). Initially, there was no agreement among the catholic authorities on how the heresy should be suppressed. The clerics resisted the use of physical force as suggested by secular authorities. However, heresy caused greater concern to the church towards the 12th century; so the papacy agreed to the use of the secular methods to repress heresy. This essay explains how the Catholic Church tried to suppress heresy in Europe during the Middle Age (1050-1275 BC). The most successful method used by the Catholic Church to repress heresy in Christendom during the Middle Ages was the use of inquisition.

Generally, heresy refers to the disagreement among various members of the church on the doctrines and teachings of the Christian Faith. Beckum, Linda and Daniel (54) define heresy as an opinion or belief held deliberately against the teachings and beliefs of the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church was most affected by the Heresy in the Middle Ages because several heretics created a state of misunderstanding about the Jesus teachings. Some of the teachings concerning the divinity of Jesus and his teachings contradicted with the teachings of the Catholic Church. A heretic is someone whose faith, practices and beliefs contradict with those of the church. Different heretics believed in different principles and concepts, but some heretical concepts were more popular than others.

A heretic group called Cathars from Languedoc, France, believed that the sacraments of the Catholic Church were not true. They also believed that the devil created the world (Barber 2014). According to them the sacraments represented the frauds committed by an evil church (Michael and Leigh 2007). The Catholic Church began an aggressive move to suppress these heretic groups. They started with ecclesiastical proscriptions and imprisonments which did not involve torture. However, the heretics increased in number and intensity. So the church decided to use physical torture through secular authorities.

Although heresy was common since the beginning of the church, the Catholic Church took strong action against it during the Middle Ages. At this time, the Catholic Church was becoming more powerful in Europe than in the earlier years. As a result of this growing influence of the Catholic Church, other Christian groups began to dissent. The papacy then started to device ways of suppressing such dissenting voices. For instance, Pope Alexander III encouraged informers to discover evidence of heresy between 1162 and 1163 BC. Pope Lucius III also decreed that any convicted heretic should be handed over to secular authorities for action, which was often characterized by physical force.

Various councils were hosted by the Catholic Church to discuss about heresies and give verdict on the heretics. Pope Alexander III presided over the Third Council of the Lateran attended by 302 Bishops of the Catholic Church in 1179 (Gibbs et al 2006). The council removed schism from the church, and condemned the heresies propagated by Cathar, one of the heretic groups. It was through this council that the Pope instituted ecclesiastical discipline against heresy.

In the first canon of the third council of Lateran, the council ordained that only cardinals had the responsibility to elect a pope. This decision would help the Catholic Church to avoid schisms in the Church which usually occurred through elections, leading to separate religious groups that would propagate heresies. Furthermore, two-third majority was required for any election to be valid. Anybody would be excommunicated if he declared himself the pope without winning with the required majority.

Canon 27 of the Third Council of Lateran was very important for the suppression of heresy. The canon stated that princes were responsible for the repression of heresy. This decree allowed the secular authorities to banish and excommunicate heretics from the society (Barber 2014). The council helped in eliminating heresy in the Middle Ages when several groups were becoming uncontrollable by the church. The involvement of princes ensured that the suppression of heretics gained both political and religious authority.

There were several other councils that addressed the problem of heresy. From 1022 to 1163, the Catholic Church initiated eight councils to condemn the Cathars for deviating from the teachings of the orthodox Catholic Church (Barber 2014). Like the third Council of Lantern, the council of Tours also ordered the imprisonment of heretics, and the confiscation of their property.

The fourth council of Lateran called by Pope Innocent III in 1215 became the most absolute and significant council among all others until today. In this council, the Innocent emphasized that there is only one Universal Church, and salvation cannot be found elsewhere (Beckum et al 2005). The council also introduced the transubstantiation of the bread and wine that represented the body and blood of Jesus. It also set the reformed ecclesiastical life and directed Catholic believers to celebrate the Eucharist and take the sacraments at least once in a year. The Fourth Council of Lateran also condemned the heresies of Waldensianism and Albigensianism. Waldensianism suggested that laity can take the role of a priest when the priest has participated in a mortal sin.

The council of Lateran excommunicated heresies that went against the holy and orthodox Catholic faith. The Catholic authorities ruled that anyone who has been condemned as a heretic should be handed over to the secular authorities to give them the punishment they deserve. The secular authorities would also confiscate the property of those to be condemned by the council (Barber 2014). The fourth Council of Lateran also ruled that secular authorities must be compelled to take an oath publicly to defend the faith, including the expulsion of heretics from the land. Anyone who does not take the oath may be excommunicated by bishops of the province. The council also ruled that any believer who receive, support and defend heretics should be excommunicated.

Various popes also used missionary work, persuasion and crusades Pope Innocent III was among the first Popes to express dissatisfaction with the increase of heretic groups such as Albigensian and Catharist in Southern France. He saw the need to suppress the Cathari and Albigesian heresies urgently. The Catharis were Manicheans who believed in two gods. They suggested that the flesh was created by an evil god, so it is evil. Several Catholics fell into their heresy. Pope Innocent III tried to repress Catharism through missionaries. He also tried to persuade local authorities to help him in suppressing the heresies.

Pope Innocent III sent his agents to persuade the prince to punish the heretics and take their property. In the 1100s, the Catholic authorities punished disobedience through ecclesiastical censures. One of Innocent’s agents, Peter de Castelnau, was very vigorous when dealing with heretics. Castelnau was a French ecclesiastic who was appointed as one of the legates sent to suppress the Cathar heresy. He played a significant role in the diplomatic and missionary work of Pope Innocent III because he preached in the city of Languedoc, inhabited by the heretic group of Albigensians. However, he was assassinated in 1208, possibly by Raymond’s agent (Baigent and Leigh 78). This persecution led to the excommunication of Raymond and the beginning of the Albigensian Crusade.

The pope also sent other agents to Languedoc to preach according to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Some of them including Bishop Osma and Dominic Guzman held formal disputes with chiefs of the heretics in their hometowns. This diplomatic attempt to repress heresy was not successful, especially after the murder of his agent Pierre de Castelnau. Following this failure, the pope initiated a crusade against the heretics.

Albigesian Crusade which lasted between 1209 and 1229 involved severe punishments for the heretics. It was headed by the military in Languedoc to suppress the Cathars (Pegg 2008). The pope promised to offer the land of the Cathar to anyone who was willing to join the military crusade. It also took a political position because it was supported by the French crown. The belief of the Cathars on the inherent sins of the physical world contradicted with the catholic beliefs on incarnation and sacraments. Pope Innocent III used the crusades to condemn this contradicting belief and prevent further schism and heresy in the church.

By 1215, the crusaders had achieved great success, but the heresy was not completely eliminated. They captured many lands belonging to the Cathars, but they faced several challenges of violence along the way. The crusaders faced a lot of dangerous revolts between 1215 and 1225, losing many of the lands they had captured. However, the crusade was renewed. Catharism was effectively destroyed in 1244.

The crusaders caused a lot of destruction to the lands of the heretics. Pegg (2008) argues that the crusade caused massacres and destruction of property. For instance, the crusaders killed many heretics in Beziers when they refused to surrender in 1209. The whole city experienced massacre, causing deaths of approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people. The crusaders also captured the city of Carcassonne in 1209 and disconnected water supply in the communities. The people in this town were compelled to leave.

Although the Albigensian Crusade managed to destroy Catharism, the church continued to face challenges of heresy from other heretic groups. As a result, the Catholic Church took new measures to repress the remaining heretic groups. For instance, the Dominican Order and the Inquisition were initiated towards the end of the Middle Ages to curtail heresy. These events took place in the Middle Ages as the heretics continued to spread their heretic beliefs about Jesus and his teachings.

Some scholars contend that the Albigensian Crusade was a form of genocide because it caused mass murders of Albigensians. Pegg (2008) argues that the Albigensian Crusade was a foundation and precedent for future genocides such as the Holocaust. The crusade was also considered as an ideological genocide because people were killed for having different ideologies from those of the mainstream Christian faith.

The Dominican Order is also known as the Order of Preachers. It was initiated by the Spanish Catholic priest Dominic of Caleruega in 1216 to preach the true teachings of the church and speak against heresy (García-Serrano 23). Members of this movement carried the letters O.P. after their names to mean the order of preachers. The members of this group included nuns, lay and secular Dominicans, active sisters and friars. The Dominican Order placed preachers at the center of their intellectual activities in the Middle Ages. The order was characterized by intellectual tradition that led to the rise of several philosophers and theologians.

Dominic initiated the Dominican Order to challenge the beliefs of Cathars which contradicted with the Catholic beliefs on incarnation and sacrament. The movement was a response to the heresy of Cathars or Albigensians, intended to bring back the heretics to the orthodox Catholic Church. The unorthodox movement towards heretic beliefs was boosted by the actions of members of the church. Members of the Holy Church acted offensively and ceremoniously, against the expectations of a Christian believer (García-Serrano 134). On the contrary, the Cathars exhibited the value of self-sacrifice which appealed many believers.

In this regard, Prior Diego suggested that the Catholic authorities should demonstrate reformed apostolic lives as required in the orthodox Catholic Church. The legates agreed to live according to the required standards of reformed apostles, but they demanded for a strong leader (Baigent and Leigh 2007). Prior and Dominic took up the challenge and led a delegation of legates to convert Albigensians by preaching to them and leading by example. Although Dominic converted a good number of Albigensians, he did not achieve the results he expected.

In an attempt to promote the Christian Faith among the Albigensians, Dominic established a convent in Prouille to bring together the Albigensian women he had converted to the Christian faith (Boyle et al 1995). This convent formed a basis for the establishment of Dominican nuns who were older than friars. Prior Diego also built a monastery for girls who were sent to Albigensian families because their parents were too poor to support them. The monastery later became Dominic’s missionary headquarters.

Dominic encouraged his legates to observe an institutional life to revolutionize the pastoral ministry of the church. He ensured that his followers were well trained on religious issues. He used the Augustinian rule to institute is order. St. Augustine’s rule was anchored on preaching to bring salvation to human soul. The Dominican Order was also characterized by charity and study of the word (Michael and Leigh 87). These concepts were used consistently to defend the church from the influence of heresy. According to Dominic, it is difficult for people to preach things that they do not understand. Therefore, he educated his followers and encouraged them to live a sanctified life to demonstrate to the people how a true Christian should live. By doing this, Dominic hoped that the life of his followers would appeal to the Albigensians, and they would possibly be converted.

The Catholic Church also used physical torture through the inquisition in the 12th century. The inquisition was instituted in France by the Catholic Church to deal with sectarianism and heresy in religion, especially from the Cathars and Waldensians. The term inquisition in Latin means a court process that uses the Roman Catholic Church. Other heretic groups that the Catholic Church attempted to combat through the inquisition included: the Hussites, Beguines, and the Spiritual Franciscans. Inquisitors acted as informers to identify heretics and report them to the Catholic authorities. They were picked from the Dominican order, unlike in the past when the Church used local clergy to act as judges to the heretics.

The inquisition was common in the late Middle Ages, around 1250s. It became a popular way of compelling heretics to abandon their heresies. The inquisition was instituted by the Roman Catholic Church in series. The first inquisition was instituted in 1184, but it was permanently instituted in 1229 after the Albigensian Crusade (Michael and Leigh 2007). Like the Dominican Order, the inquisition was organized and run by the Dominicans. It was organized first in Rome, and later at Languedoc, South France, where the Albigensian heretics were found.

The inquisitions are famously known as the medieval inquisitions, and they lasted between 1184 and 1230s. Within this era, there were two groups of inquisitions – the Episcopal Inquisition and the Papal Inquisition (Michael and Leigh 2007). These inquisitions were used by the papal authorities to discipline heretics with an aim of repressing heresy. The Medieval Inquisition used various procedures to fight against the heretics.

The inquisition used physical torture, authorized by the catholic authorities as well as the secular political authorities. Pope Innocent IV authorized the use of force against heretics under certain circumstances. Physical torture was used by the inquisition to force heretics to confess and accept the orthodox Catholic teachings. In fact, the catholic authorities gave absolution to inquisitors who used physical torture.

Between 1227 and 1241, Pope Gregory IX assigned inquisition duties to the Dominican Order and Franciscan Order (Michael and Leigh 45). Friars who taught law and theology in various universities were recruited into the inquisition process. The inquisition procedures used in the ancient Roman courts were exercised in the inquisition. The inquisitors worked with bishops and assessors to judge heresy. Local authorities also played a significant role in the inquisition because they set up tribunals to prosecute those who deviated from the original Catholic teachings.

Inquisition was largely common in Spain and Portugal where multicultural communities lived alongside each other in the Middle Ages. Muslims and Jews living in Portugal and Spain had significant religious influence on the local communities. In this regard, Catholic authorities decided to use the inquisition to encourage Christians to remain within their orthodox Roman Catholic beliefs. With increasing heresies and the influence of multicultural and interreligious interactions in the Middle Ages, the catholic authorities felt a threat of its believers being swayed out of their beliefs and teachings. Spanish inquisition took place in Iberia, Reconquista, Leon, Aragon and Castile. However, these inquisitions happened much later after the Roman Catholic inquisitions in Rome and Languedoc.

During the Middle Ages, it was acceptable to inflict physical pain and torture as a way of interrogating or punishing people who have deviated from the norm (Colitto and Henderson 251). The Catholic authorities borrowed this tradition when they tortured heretic prisoners during the inquisition. The inquisitors applied different forms of torture to inflict pain and force heretics to confess the orthodox Christian faith. The method used to inflict pain on people depended on the social status of the victim and the crime committed.

The methods used to torture people during the inquisition were expected to result in no bloodshed, death or mutilation. Commonly, the catholic authorities approved the Judas Cradle as the appropriate method of torturing the heretics. In this method, the accused people were hanged by their wrists and hoisted above the ground surface. The inquisitors then hanged heavy weights on their ankles. Those who were proclaimed as heretics were executed without bloodshed or mutilation. In this regard, the appropriate method of execution during the inquisition was to burn the victim to death.

The torturers during inquisition also used methods and devices that would inflict pain and prolong life to the best of their ability. Those who were destined for execution were tortured for a long time to make them talk and reveal more details about their crimes and their accomplices. This practice was common in the Middle Ages as a way of punishment and compelling people to confess their crimes. Baigent and Leigh (139) argue that torture was not a method of punishment during inquisition, but simply a way of making heretics to talk and tell the truth.

In conclusion, the Catholic authorities used both diplomatic and forceful methods to repress heresy. Some of the methods used by the Catholic Church to achieve this include: using councils, crusades, the Dominican order, and diplomatic missionaries. Pope Alexander III took the initial step to send legates or agents to the areas inhabited by heretics such as Waldensians and Cathars to persuade and preach to the heretics to change their ways and beliefs. However, these diplomatic missions did not achieve the intended results. In fact, one of the agents was murdered, leading to the Albigensian Crusade. This crusade involved attacks on heretics, leading to destruction of property and death of many people. It is considered by some scholars as a form of genocide due to its destructive nature. Various councils were also held to discuss various teachings, discover heretics, and excommunicate them. The Dominican order was also used to set a good example to heretics through reformed apostolic lives of the catholic authorities. The inquisition used force to inflict pain to heretics as a form of punishment, compelling them to confess the orthodox Christian faith.


Baigent, Michael, and Richard Leigh. The Inquisition. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Barber, Malcolm. The Cathars: Christian Dualists in the Middle Ages. New York, NY: Routledge, 2014. Print.

Beckum, Linda R, and E R. Daniel. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215: Church Reform, Exclusivity, and the Jews. Lexington, Ky: publisher not identified, 2005. Print.

Boyle, Leonard E, John J. Reid, Alphonsus P. Smith, and Richard A. McAlister. The Dominican Order and Theological Study. New York, N.Y: Dominican Province of St. Joseph, 1995. Print.

Colitto, Alfredo, and Sophie Henderson. Inquisition. Toronto: McArthur & Co, 2011. Print.

García-Serrano, Francisco J. The Expansion of the Dominican Order in Castile, 1217-1348. Ann Arbor (Michigan: UMI, Dissertation Services, 1996. Print.

Gibbs, Marion, and Jane Lang. Bishops and Reform, 1215-1272: With Special Reference to the Lateran Council of 1215. Place of publication not identified: Read Books, 2006. Print.

Pegg, Mark G. A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

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