How to Spot a Heretic

Mary Magdalen
Painted by Frederick Sandys (1859)
I get it from starry-eyed prospective students all the time: they want to study...heresy.

Heresy, they have heard, is cool.

Heresy is hip.

Heresy is dissident, and being dissident is good. (At least, it is good again now that Donald Trump is going to be inaugurated as president.)

Heresy, of course, being hip, is nearly as fruitful a category as superheroes. But more often than not, the students have only one particular group of heretics in mind: the Albigenses or Cathars, famous because they were wiped out by a particularly vicious crusade.

That is, if they had existed they would have been wiped out. Apparently, some of my colleagues aren't so sure anymore. Maybe the Church just made them up so as to have somebody to send out inquisitors to talk to and, occasionally, torture. But if they had existed, they would have been cool. Because, you know, they were dissident.

It's rather like Social Justice Warriors today, who, I am reliably informed, do not exist except in the fevered imaginations of right-wing conservatives. But if they did exist, I am certain my students would want to study them. Because Social Justice Warriors are dissident. And being dissident is cool. Not to mention hip. And good.

That's what the Cathars, if they existed, called themselves: good men, good women. Just like Social Justice Warriors, if they existed, would call themselves good. Because they are! They want justice for society. They want everyone to be treated equally, with progress, tolerance, and diversity for all. Except they don't exist.

There are other ways in which the Cathars (who did not exist) resemble Social Justice Warriors (who don't exist either).

1. The Cathars (who did not exist) believed that the God described in the Old Testament was evil, while the God described in the New Testament was good. In their view, the evil God created the visible, material world, while the good God created the invisible, spiritual world. Accordingly, they rejected the Old Testament as the work of the evil God, who, in their view, was a liar and a murderer. They believed that all the patriarchs of the Old Testament were damned and that John the Baptist was a devil.

In similar fashion, Social Justice Warriors (who do not exist) believe that the Founders of the United States of America were evil because many of the Founders were slave owners and the Founders who weren't slave owners didn't refuse to sign the Constitution, while they, the Social Justice Warriors, have access to the good, living Constitution since discovered by their own leaders, if they had leaders, which they don't because they don't exist. They reject the history of the United States up to and including the present moment as utterly infected with evil (racism), wholly the creation of the evil (racist) Constitution of the Founders. Only they have access to the good, living Constitution, which the Founders did not write.

2. The Cathars (who did not exist) believed, as the Cistercian Peter of Vaux-de-Cernay explained, that "the Christ who was born in terrestrial and visible Bethlehem and crucified in Jerusalem was evil, and that Mary Magdalen was his concubine and the very woman taken in adultery [described in the Gospel of John]; for the good Christ, they said, never ate nor drank nor took on real flesh, and was never of this world, except in a spiritual sense in the body of Paul." Accordingly, they rejected all images of the crucified Christ as depictions of this evil Christ and called veneration of these images idolatry, which they demanded be removed from the churches.

Similarly, Social Justice Warriors (who do not exist) see the Founders as evil and call for the removal of all images of the Founders and other historic figures from campus buildings and other public spaces, saying that to allow these images is to condone the evils in which the Founders participated. They believe the Founders, most particularly Thomas Jefferson, had illicit relations with their slaves, which they, as Social Justice Warriors, would never do, if Social Justice Warriors had existed at the time of the country's founding.

3. The Cathars (who did not exist) believed all material existence was evil because matter had been created by the evil God. They, therefore, rejected the sacraments of the Church that involved material elements: baptism, for its use of water; and the eucharist, for its use of bread and wine. They also refused to eat flesh, eggs, and cheese, because these foods were the product of sexual reproduction. And they considered marriage an evil because it brought forth children, thus trapping more souls in the evil, material world.

Many Social Justice Warriors (if they existed) refuse to eat flesh, eggs, and cheese. They also think marriage is evil when it is for the sake of bringing forth children into the world, which is itself evil. ("I can't imagine bringing a child into a world with so much intolerance, pollution, overpopulation, and hate.") They hate fossil fuels because fossil fuels participate in the material world, unlike wind and solar power, which depend on the air and sun and don't make waste. They see the world of things as corrupt and despise those who make things for profit so as to make others' lives more comfortable and pleasurable.

4. The Cathars (who did not exist) rejected the hierarchy of the Church as utterly corrupt along with its sacraments. They rejected baptism as necessary for belonging to the Church, when all that was required was a laying on of hands by other good Christians. They believed that only their preachers cared about helping them, and they supported them with gifts and hospitality. They believed they could be saved only through these good men, whom they welcomed as teachers. But they also believed that if one of these good men fell into sin, for example, by eating even the smallest morsel of meat, all those consoled by his laying on of hands would fall back into sin, too.

Likewise, Social Justice Warriors (who do not exist) reject many of the institutions of the United States as utterly corrupt, most particularly, the idea of legally-enforced citizenship. They see no value in the teachings of the tradition, but only those teachings which they receive from their present leaders. They deny any legal requirements for entry into the United States (or any other country), which they insist should welcome all regardless of culture or willingness to assimilate to the values of the tradition. They believe that only their thought-leaders know the truth about salvation, but they also believe that even the slightest willingness to recognize any good in America (other than that which they identify) is cause for expulsion.

5. The Cathars (who did not exist) denied the doctrine of the resurrection of the body and insisted that souls, when they were saved, would be freed from the body. They believed all carnal sexual relations were "shameful, base, and odious, and thus damnable." They were, according to the Franciscan James Capelli, chaste and wrongfully accused of promiscuity. According to the Dominican Moneta of Cremona, they also denied the existence of free will. They refused to swear oaths or to kill for any reason. According to Peter of Vaux-de-Cernay, the Perfect or Good Men among the Cathars "sought to give them impression of never telling a lie, [but] they lied constantly, especially concerning God."

Social Justice Warriors (who do not exist) are often accused of being sexually promiscuous, but this, too, seems to be a slander, as sex for them is almost inevitably identified with rape. Whether women have the ability to protect themselves from rape seems to depend on the degree to which they are believed to possess free will. Social Justice Warriors say that they oppose killing, except babies in the womb, who don't exist either so long as they are only a clump of cells. And, according to Vox Day who says he has encountered many Social Justice Warriors, they always lie. Except they don't, because they do not exist.


Back in the thirteenth century, the Church expended a great deal of effort training preachers like the Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans to go out into the marketplaces of the villages and towns to instruct laypeople properly in the traditions of Christianity so as to counter the lies of the non-existent heretics. If only there were preachers willing to go to college campuses today to instruct the people in the history of our country and counter the lies of the Social Justice Warriors. If they existed.

Descriptions of the non-existent Cathars taken from Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages: Selected Sources Translated and Annotated (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969, 1991), pp. 235-41, 301-23.

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