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Lacordaire, Life of St. Dominic. Chapter 1

Situation of the Church at the end of the 12th Century.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

The twelfth century of the Christian era dawned amid splendid auspices. The faith and the current ideas of the ages were in perfect harmony with each other; together they guided the West; out of a variety of races, at the same time obedient and free, they built up one single community. At the head of this vast social edifice was seated the Sovereign Pontiff, on a throne whence majesty descended to succour law, violated through human weakness, and the justice hastened to the succour of obedience, the claims of which were rendered almost intolerable by the despotic abuse of power. Vicar of God and of man, Christ at his right hand and Europe that his left, the Roman Pontiff, weak in his own weakness but strong in divine strength, urged on the nations in the ways of righteousness. Never had faith, reason, and justice met together on so lofty a pedestal; Never had the reunion of the severed members of the human race appeared so probable or so near. In Jerusalem, the banner of Christendom already waved over the Holy Sepulchre, and invited the Greek to a glorious reconciliation with the Latin church. Islamism, defeated in Spain and chased from Italian shores, beheld itself attacked in the very stronghold of its power, and twenty nations, marching together to the frontiers of christendom to defend the gospel of Christ from the pride of might and from the brutality of ignorance, promised Europe a cessation of those sanguinary migrations of which Asia was the home. Who could foretell the end of those triumphal ways just opened up by Christian chivalry in the east? Who foresee what the world might not become under a pontificate enabled to create, within, so vast a unity, without, so mighty an impulse?

But the twelfth century ended not as it had begun; and when, at eventide, it sunk beneath the horizon to rest in eternity, the church too seemed to set, her brow overclouded by a gloomy future. No longer did the cross of Jesus glitter on the minarets of the holy city; our warriors, conquered by Saladin, retained but a few feet of Syrian soil; the Greek Church, instead of drawing nearer to the Church of Rome, had, by the ingratitude and perfidy evinced by her members to the Crusaders, become confirmed in schism. With the East, all was over! Since then, history has demonstrated the consequences of that sad event: the fall of Constantinople; the occupation by Ottoman Turks of a portion of European territory; bitter slavery imposed on millions of Christians, and the whole of Christendom menaced by their arms until the time of Louis XIV; the incursions of Tartars into the heart of Europe during three centuries; Russia adopting the Greek Schism, and ready to descend on the West, to the destruction of liberty and law; Europe troubled by the downfall of the Mussulman races, even as she had been troubled by their ascendancy, and the partition of Asia become as difficult as her subjugation had formerly been. Montaigne says, “Defeat is sometimes better than victory;” and truly may we say that the non-success of the plans conceived by Gregory VII and his successors, with regard to the East, had revealed their genius far more clearly than the most victorious accomplishment of their designs could have done.

Within the Church the spectacle was no less sad. The efforts of Saint Bernard to re-establish wholesome discipline had availed but little to stem the simony, luxury, and avarice of the clergy. The wealth of the church, source of all the evils so eloquently depicted by Saint Bernard himself, had become the object of universal envy. The arrogation of the right of investiture by crosier and ring had been succeeded by violent usurpations and base and cowardly acts of simony.

“O vainglory!” cries Peter of Blois, “Blind ambition! Insatiable thirst for temporal honors! Lust of office! Ye are the worms that naw the heart and make shipwreck of the soul! Whence comes this plague, and whence this growing presumption, that urges the worthless to seek for office, and renders them the more desirous of obtaining, the less worthy they are to receive? Heedless of soul and body, these wretched ones lay hold on the pastoral office, an office fraught not only with danger to themselves but with perdition to all.” Thirty years previously, Saint Bernard, with bitter irony, uttered these words: “School boys and immature striplings are, on account of their lofty birth, promoted to ecclesiastical dignities, and pass from the discipline of the rod to the government of the clergy; oftentimes more rejoiced at escape from punishment, than flattered by filling a post of command; more delighted at their freedom from control, then rejoiced at the dignity to which they have attained.” This is the woe of the Church; you behold her, at the price of her own blood, converting infidel nations, softening their manners and forming their minds, clearing their forests and studying their towns and their solitudes with houses of prayer; then, after twenty generations of saints have enriched these tabernacles with every blessing of heaven and of earth, instead of the rich man, whose heart God had touched, coming to bewail his transgressions, and the poor man, so content with the will of heaven, that, bending his knees, he vowed to be poorer still; instead of the saintly successors of the Saints, now there is to be seen but the poor man’s desiring riches, the rich man’s desiring power, and many who even know not what they need.

Soon, by dint of intrigue, the episcopal and abbatial crosier falls into hands unhallowed by pure intentions; the world has the delight of seeing its favorites ruling the Church of God and changing the mild rule of Jesus Christ for that of secular power. The cloisters re-echo to the yelping of hounds and the nailing of steeds. Who now shall discern between the false vocation and the true? With whom will such skill be found? Or who have leisure and thought to bestow on such a question as this? Earthly rank takes precedence of heavenly birth; and prayer, humility, patience, and zeal, flee away like timid fledglings to their nests, and the tombs of the saints are forgotten even in the saints’ own home.

Such was the sad condition to which a sacrilegious ambition had reduced a considerable number of the churches and monasteries in the West. The Holy See, although herself troubled by the schisms raised against her and fomented by the emperor Frederick I, ceased not to provide remedies for these grave disorders. In fifty-six years three ecumenical councils had been called, but were unable to do more than partially carry out a reform which the illustrious successors of Gregory VII were nevertheless pledged to effect.

One day, about the year 1160, Peter Valdo, a rich inhabitant of Lyons, saw one of his fellow-citizens fall at his side, struck by lightning. This accident led him to reflect: he distributed his goods among the poor and consecrated himself to the service of God. As the reform of the church was then occupying all minds, his very zeal facilitated the belief that this was the mission to which he was called; and collecting around him a few individuals, he persuaded them to join him in embracing an apostolic life. How almost imperceptible is often the border-line between the thoughts that render man truly great and those that convert him into a mere disturber of the public peace! Had Peter valdo only possessed more virtue and more genius, he might have been a Saint Dominic or a Saint Francis of Assisi; but he gave way to a temptation to which, in all ages, many men of fairly lofty genius have succumbed. He did not believe it possible to save the church by the church, and declared that the true spouse of Jesus Christ had, in the reign of Constantine, falling away by her acceptance of temporal wealth; that the Church of Rome was the great harlot spoken of in the apocalypse, the mother and mistress of all abominations; that the bishops were scribes, the religious, Pharisees; that the Roman pontiff and the whole of the episcopate were homicides; that the clergy ought to possess neither lands nor tithes; that it was sinful to endow churches or convents, and that all clerics should, after the example of the apostles, work for their own living; in fine, that he, Peter valdo, was about to re-establish on its primitive foundations, the true Church of God. The whole force of the waldensians lay in their direct attack on the church and in the real or apparent contrast of their manners with those of the clergy of their day. Arnold of Brescia, who was burnt at the stake in Rome, had been their precursor, a man whose figure stands forth on the page of history far more prominently than does that of Peter Valdo; but as the latter had the advantage of appearing on the scene later, and when this scandal had increased, the success was the more alarming. He was truly the patriarch of western heresies, and impressed them with one of the chief features distinguishing them from Greek heresies, to wit, a practical rather than metaphysical character.

Favored by similar circumstances, a heresy of oriental origin, already introduced into Germany and Italy, established its headquarters in the South of France. This heresy, always attacked, and never destroyed, dated from the end of the 3rd century. It had sprung to life on the frontiers of Persia and the Roman Empire, and consisted of a blending of Christian with ancient Persian doctrines, attributing the mystery of the world to two conflicting principles, co-eternal with each other, the one good and the other evil. Such mixture of religious and philosophic ideas was then very general; the tendency of weak minds is to attempt to unite that which in reality is incompatible. A Persian named Manes gave the finishing touch to the monstrous alliance of which we speak. Less fortunate than other heresy arcs, his sect could never attain publicity, that is, have temples, priests, or any recognized followers. Imperial edicts, supported by public opinion, were perseveringly launched against it, and this prolonged its life. The state of public society is a proof that error can subsist but for a brief time, and this, shortened in proportion to the hollowness of its basis and the immorality of its teachings. Driven from the light of day, the Manicheans sought refuge in obscurity; they formed themselves into a secret society, the only way this in which error can prolong its existence, the advantage of a secret association consisting less in the ease with which it enables them to elude the law, than the facility it affords them for escaping from the voice of public reason. Nothing can hinder a few men, united by dogmas however perverse, and practices however ludicrous, from recruiting their numbers out of the ranks of ill-balanced minds, from attracting the romantic by the charm of initiatory rights, from influencing them by means of dogmatic precepts, retaining them by promise of a grand and distant goal, the secret of which they imagine to have been transmitted to themselves throughout a hundred preceding generations, and fascinating them by the secrecy with which all is surrounded. Such a secret society exists at the present day, consisting of perhaps no more than three initiates, and ascending by an invisible chain even to the cave of Trophonius or to the crypts of Egyptian temples. These men, proud of their precious deposit, traverse the path of ages, profoundly indifferent to all that is occurring, judging of everything by the privileged doctrine which has fallen to their lot, and pre-occupied with the one desire of engendering a soul, to whom at their own death they may transmit their precious legacy. These are the Jews of error. Thus lived the Manicheans, appearing in history from time to time, like those monsters who pursue their secret course in the depths of the ocean, and whose gigantic form now and again is seen above the surface. But their appearance in the twelfth century was rendered striking by their assuming then, for the first time, the form of a public society. Strange and unheard-of spectacle! These sectaries, constantly kept in subjection by the lower empire, now openly established themselves in France, beneath the eyes of those very pontiffs who were sufficiently powerful to compel even the emperor himself to respect the law of God and the will of Christian nations. Nothing reveals so clearly the reaction stealthily at work in Europe. Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse, was at the head of the French Manicheans, commonly called Albigenses. He was great-nephew to the celebrated Raymond, Count of Saint Gilles, whose name is interwoven with the grandest names of the first crusade, with those of such men as Godfrey of Bouillon, Baldwin, Robert, Hugh and Boëmond. Abandoning the heritage bequeathed to him by his ancestors, he headed the most detestable heresy to which the east had given birth, having himself succumbed to the secret mysteries of the Manicheans, and to the Waldensian disguise in which they had enveloped themselves, in order that they might the more easily gain access to the western mind.

This was not all. The teaching of the Catholic School, now resumed after a long interval, became tinged with the hue of Aristotelian philosophy, the tendency of which was to give reason precedence of faith in the exposition of Christian dogmas. Abelard, a man more renowned for his faults than for his errors, had fallen victim to this mode of dealing with theology. St. Bernard accused him of changing faith, grounded on God’s word, into mere opinion, based on the principles and conclusions of human reason; and although St. Bernard gained an easy victory, and was honored by the genuine submission and reconciliation of his adversary, the evil still continued. It is at all times difficult to withstand certain influences, proceeding from a remote and lofty center; the Grecian epoch was still held in high esteem by cultivated minds, and considered by them as the most exalted point to which human genius could attain. Christianity had not had leisure to create a literature that would compare with that of Greece, nor form a philosophy and science of her own. Doubtless, the germ of such existed in the writings of the fathers; But, it being more convenient to accept a ready-made form of philosophy and science, they accepted that of Aristotle. Unfortunately, Aristotle and the gospel do not always agree; Hence, three parties, one, sacrificing philosophy to Jesus Christ, according to these words, “Ye have but one Master, Christ;” the other, sacrificing Jesus Christ to philosophy, on the ground that reason is the first light of man, and, as such, must always retain its supremacy. The third party admitted that there were two kinds of truth, that of reason and that of faith, and that what was true in the one might be false in the other.

In fine, heresy and schism, favored by the corrupt state of ecclesiastical discipline and the revival of pagan learning, threatened Christianity in the West, at the same time that the non success of the Crusaders completed its ruin in the east, and opened the gates of Christendom to the barbarians. True, the popes courageously resisted the increasing dangers of the situation. They subdued the Emperor Frederick I, animated the people to new crusades, summoned councils for the suppression of error and corruption, watched over the purity of doctrine in the schools, and with a firm hand strengthened the alliance of European faith and thought; and from the vigorous sap of this old pontifical tree, Innocent III sprang to life. No one individual can of himself sustain the weight of things human and divine; the greatest men need the reunion of a thousand concurrent forces, and those which Providence had granted to the past seemed insufficient for the future. The work of Clovis, St. Benedict, Charlemagne, and Gregory VII, still undestroyed, and animated by their genius, stood in need of a fresh infusion of that spirit in whom alone is immortality. It is in such supreme moments as these that we must give heed to the counsels of God. Three hundred years later, He will abandon half Europe to error, in order one day to derive from that very error, triumphs, the secret of which we already begin to discern; but at that epoch it pleased Him to rescue his church by the direct road of mercy. Jesus Christ glanced at his own hands and feet, wounded for our sakes, and from this look of love were born two men, St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi. The history of these two men, so similar, and yet so different, should never be separated, but that which God created in the same moment, no one pen can describe. It will be enough for us if we succeed in giving some faint idea of the holy Patriarch Dominic to those who have never studied his life.

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