The two orders are compared. We hear that both were founded by Spaniards and that both were founded to fight heresy, the Dominicans to fight a group called the Albigensians and the Jesuits to fight against Protestant groups.
Then we get a question and answer, the punchline: “What’s the difference? Seen any Albigensians lately?”
The problem with the joke is that it makes it seem that the Dominicans were able to defeat the Albigensians while the Jesuits failed in their efforts. In fact, the Dominicans were no more successful in uprooting ideas promoted by the Albigensians than the Jesuits those of protestants.
Seen any Albigensians lately? Unfortunately, yes. They’re everywhere.
So who were the Albigensians?
Warren H. Carroll gives an excellent summary of Albigensian heresy in his book The Glory of Christendom. When we speak of the Albigensians, we speak of Cathars and the heresy that spread and took root in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries. The Albigensians were Cathars named after the town of Alibi in Southern France. The name Cathar derives from the Greek word for pure or pure ones.
Their teachings strayed far from the truth of Christ. The Albigensians opposed the sacraments of the Church, but they created one of their own. They believed that the best form of death was suicide and their sacrament, which could be given only once, seems to have ensured that the person given the sacrament would die.
The Albigensians preached dualism or the idea of two gods, one good, and one evil. They preached against the humanity of Christ. They also preached against marriage. They believed that homosexuality and bestiality were better choices for those who needed a sexual outlet. They believed in reincarnation and that one could be reborn as either man or woman. They were vegetarians.
Such ideas are held by a variety of groups today opposed to Catholic teaching. So while the Albigensians are gone, their ideas exist today in a different form among different groups.
The Dominicans, maligned for their role in the Inquisition in contemporary myth, looked at the group and saw why they were successful. Despite their sickening beliefs, the Albigensians lived an austere life and appeared to be ascetics, which gained them admiration and followers. Their asceticism and austerity were seen as a contrast to the rich lives led by Catholic clergy.
Carroll recounts how St. Dominic traveled to the Albigensian country with his bishop, Diego of Osma, as a young priest. Bishop Diego looked at the situation and saw the problem as a failure of the Church to teach and preach the true faith, orthodox faith.
The bishop determined that the best way to stop the spread of the heresy was to send out preachers who could preach the truth while living life as poor beggars. They would become itinerant preachers, like Our Lord and the apostles, to reignite the faith in those areas where heresy was entrenched and spreading.
St. Dominic took on this challenge. Jordan Aumann tells us in Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition that in 1206 Dominic established a cloister of nuns. By 1214, he had followers, and in 1215 Dominic and his followers were authorized to preach in poverty as evangelists.
St. Dominic turned to the Mother of God for assistance, and she provided him with the Rosary. That he received the Rosary from the Mother of God at this time as a weapon against heresy and sin, as a means of shoring up the faith of those scandalized by heresy, shows us the wisdom of God’s providence since the Albigensian heresy had a special appeal to the women of Southern France, who held much power.
St. Dominic and the Dominicans and St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits were far more successful than the joke I started with suggests. Because the Dominican and the Jesuit preachers and missionaries stood firm in the faith and preached the true faith in the lands they evangelized – lands that initially were already Christian and where Christians were falling away from the faith – many were saved from heresy and perdition.
The Albigensians teach us another lesson. You can preach simplicity, austerity, or poverty while preaching error. Preaching poverty or living a life as a poor preacher is meaningless if you fail, like the Albigensians, to preach the truth of Christ.
The early Dominicans and Jesuits were successful in holding the line against heresy because they followed the example of the original evangelist, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the example of the apostles, who answered Our Lord’s call to “follow me” and then preached the truth despite the hatred and persecution they faced.
We must do the same today as we seek to evangelize once Christian lands where old and harmful ideas have taken hold.