Sunday, August 4, 2013

God's Advocates: The Ascent of the Dominican Order

As some of you may know, I didn't get accepted to graduate school, so I'm contemplating a change of career. But in all the confusion, I forgot to share with you one of my writing samples, an essay on the history of the Dominican Order. It was one of several topics I had to choose from for a midterm paper for a particular class, and I could only cite from a preset list of sources. So if that's why I neglected to cite from your favorite seminal work on the Order, now you know. Enjoy!

Update: a few minutes after I posted this, a friend of mine remarked, "just in time for the feast of St. Dominic". Lo and behold, I check and find out out that today, in the pre-Vatican II calendar, is indeed the feast day of Saint Dominic. I have to confess that apart from my chosen patrons, I don't really keep on top of saints' days so there is no way I posted this essay on purpose, even subconsciously. Truly, I just couldn't think of anything better to post today. This is either providential or extremely coincidental.

God’s Advocates: The Ascent of the Dominican Order

            On the eve of the 13th century, it seemed that Christendom was a house divided against itself.  The eastern churches had already long since severed communion with Rome.  Meanwhile, the flames of Cathar heresy were spreading across southern France, the so-called eldest daughter of the Church, with alarming speed.  The classic monastic orders were accused of standing idly in solitude as their communities were falling into the hands of heretics, living in violation of their vows of poverty and chastity, or both.  Who, in those turbulent times, would stand in defense of the Catholic Church against the teachings of the Cathars and those others who accused the Church of straying from the gospel’s narrow path?  Among these few, Dominic of Osma and his Order of Preachers arose to take up the cause of orthodoxy.  The Dominican friars would go on to enjoy great prestige in the urban and intellectual life of Europe for the rest of the medieval era.  This essay will examine the personal experiences of the Order’s founder, a treatise by a Dominican Master on the formation of Preachers, and other accounts of the Order’s activities to demonstrate why the Dominicans were one of the most popular and successful orders of the age: because they were the most adept of all the religious orders at fulfilling the Church’s need for educated, articulate defenders.  Unlike the cloistered monks, the Dominicans actively engaged the laypeople of the cities throughout western Europe, bringing the message of the established Church to them in a way they could understand.

Saint Dominic as painted by Fra Angelico, also a Dominican

            The Order’s roots begin with its namesake, Dominic of Osma, then a humble religious priest.  In 1205, he accompanied the bishop of Osma to visit Pope Innocent III in Rome.  Along the way, the two journeyed through southern France, the stronghold of the Cathar sect.  There, they met the Cistercian legates sent by the Pope to dispel the heresy and diagnosed just why the Cathars were so successful in leading the people of the region astray: “its clergy had grown amoral and overrich.  And they told the pope that ‘in order to shut the mouths of the wicked, the clergy must follow the Divine Master’s example in the way they acted and the way they taught, stand humbly in the sight of God, go on foot, spurn gold and silver; in short, they must imitate the Apostles’ way of life in everything they did.’”[1]
            The clergy, in short, had grown lax with centuries of privilege and patronage.  Their demands for alms and obedience fell on deaf ears when they were put in competition with the “perfect” of the Cathars: the purest of the sect’s ranks, who refused money and possessions, abstained completely from sex, and subsisted on a very strict diet.  While those rules may not seem different from the vows which professed monks must observe, the Cathars taught a radically different doctrine.  Like the Manicheans a millennium before, the Cathars preached a dualistic reality where a God of light and a God of darkness were equally matched in a great battle for the fate of the world.  Where the Catholic God was the creator of all material things, the Cathar was expected to shun them because they were a product of the evil deity.  The inherent evil of possessions gave the Cathar “perfect” a special incentive to live out the ascetic ideal; in doing so, their example put the Catholic clergy, even the most strictly observant religious of their time, to shame.  The “perfect”, furthermore, gave their weaker brethren only one condition for achieving salvation: “all they needed to do, in order to impregnate them with the coveted Spirit, was to stretch out their hands over them before they died.”[2]  It was a lot less to ask for than the Catholic clergy, who expected alms, penances, pilgrimages, and confession to men far less impressive than the Cathar leaders.
Left: Pope Innocent III excommunicating the Cathars (also called Albigensians). Right: The Albigensian Crusade.
            A call to the true spirit of poverty, then, was the prescription which Dominic brought to his pontiff in Rome.  Innocent gave Dominic his blessing and sent him back to the Cathar lands.  The people of Languedoc saw Dominic and his bishop return on foot, clad in simple garb, as poor as their opposition.  The two sides engaged in one dispute after another, but victory for the Cathars would not come so easily this time, for Dominic was a man of letters.  He knew Occitan, the language of the region.  He carefully prepared his arguments ahead of time, in writing.  In the “tournaments” arranged by the nobles and townsmen, he matched the Cathars’ objections point by point, and in the eyes of his judges, stood victorious.  This initial victory, won through the double-edged sword of poverty and reason, would shape the methods of Dominic’s followers for centuries to come.[3] 
            Dominic cemented his work in Languedoc by founding a convent adhering to the strict rule of St. Augustine, competing directly with the Cathar houses for women.  From there, he attended the Fourth Lateran Council which, despite its attempts to reign in the creation of new religious orders, authorized him to form the Order of Preachers.  The Dominican friars were a new force to be reckoned with: they did not seclude themselves behind walls, but worked in the towns and freely mingled with the laity.  Their rule, based on that of Augustine, stipulated, “We shall receive no property nor income of any kind.”[4]  It was a stark departure from the way monasteries supported themselves, which typically involved the collecting of tithes from tenants on their lands, just as feudal lords did.  The Dominicans’ rule even dispensed them from praying the hours of the Divine Office, which all other religious were obliged to observe, when they had a mission to perform among the people. 
The very name of the Order says much about their cause: to win the hearts and minds of the laity through the use of argument.  Humbert of Romans, fifth Master of the Order, penned a manual “On the Formation of Preachers” which illustrates how a friar would translate his method of argumentation from the university lecture hall to the pulpit.
Now there are some preachers whose preparatory study is either all devoted to subtleties... or, at other times, it is exclusively devoted to looking for novelties, their intention, like that of the Athenians, being always to find something new to say... But a good preacher's concern is rather to study what is useful.[5]
Humbert of Romans, fifth Master of the Order
Humbert repeatedly warns the aspiring preacher against overburdening his argument, whether it is by citing an endless list of authorities, citing multiple sources which all say the same thing, or ascribing too many meanings to a single word.  These faults are not likely to be committed by a simple-minded priest who has only a cursory knowledge of Scripture and no exposure to the early Fathers.  They are cautions for friars who were formed in the Dominican intellectual tradition, disputed theology in Dominican centers like the University of Paris, and were armed with the maxims of their intellectual heavyweights such as Albertus Magnus or Thomas Aquinas.  All the weapons of scholasticism would be useless if they all reached over the heads of an ordinary audience.  Humbert says, “A short act of worship encourages devotion, but one that is too long just sends people to sleep.  So concise preaching is useful, but it becomes useless if it goes on too long.”  He then goes on to warn the preacher of using one tactic exclusively, whether it is an argument, an anecdote, or an authority.  It is better to make moderate use of all three at once, then “The hook of preaching has a strong triple line attached to it, and that is a line which no fish can easily break.”[6]  Humbert’s language reminds his reader that the friar, for all his erudition, must stay true to what the gospel calls him to be: a fisher of men.
            All the Order’s talent still would not have assured their preeminence in the life of Christendom if it were not for the support they enjoyed from Rome.  Pope Innocent’s entire legacy was based on the assertion of papal primacy.[7]  To assert his influence over the kings of Europe, he first had to establish firm control over the bishops.  Powerful though the papacy was, it was still a tall order in a world of decentralized authority, where bishops reigned supreme within their dioceses.  The Lateran Council charged bishops with the duty of stamping out heresy by any means necessary, and threatened those who failed to contain the threat with deposition.[8] 
However, a more reliable solution for the Pope was to sidestep the bishops entirely.  The Dominicans, among other mendicant orders, were exempt from the local bishop’s authority in a number of ways.  The Council, for instance, forbade anyone “without the authority of the Apostolic See or of the Catholic bishop of the locality” from preaching, whether publicly or privately, under pain of excommunication.[9]  Even a priest in good standing could not simply go to the next town and preach without that bishop’s permission.  The Dominicans, to the contrary, held Rome’s trust and were authorized to go preach wherever they desired.  With no restrictions on where they could work or build monasteries, the Dominicans established themselves all over Europe, especially at intellectual centers from Bologna, to Montpellier (in the heart of the formerly Cathar stronghold in Languedoc), to as far as Oxford, where they were nicknamed the Blackfriars after their distinctive black cloaks.[10]  The papacy, in turn, used its close relationship with the Order to tighten its hold on the universities.  With loyal Dominicans at the forefront of so many schools, the papacy could ensure the dissemination of orthodox teaching everywhere; under the Order’s auspices, Catharism was doomed to extinction.
Santa Maria Novella, the chief Dominican church in Florence
Dominicans continued to play a large part in the history of the Church long after the Cathars had been eradicated.  If the Renaissance first emerged from the city of Florence in the course of the 14th century, the Blackfriars can proudly claim to have been among its architects.  Gene Brucker asserts that the Dominicans were “the most active and distinguished” religious order of that era.[11]  Where other orders in the city, such as the Camaldolese, suffered from poor education, family allegiances, and moral laxity, the popes could rely on the Dominicans to produce capable administrators and irreproachable spiritual leaders.  From Florence alone, the Order could boast of one canonized saint and three blesseds, including the renowned artist Fra Angelico.  Brucker adds, “A more significant index of distinction is the number of Florentine Dominicans who became bishops.  Twelve held sees between 1360 and 1430, and another (Leonardo Dati) was elected general of the order.”[12]  The most remarkable of these prelates was Fra Antonino Pieruzzi, elevated to the Archbishop of Florence’s throne in 1446.  A man of education and piety, he demanded that the priests of his diocese actually carry out their spiritual responsibilities.  When words failed, he had no qualms with imprisoning or even torturing priests who were lax in their duties.  At the same time, Antonino was not unbending to the realities of his city: merchants were children of God just as much as knights and peasants, and they could carry out their trade honorably.  “Just prices” were subject to the unseen forces of the market.[13]  He was later to be proclaimed a saint.
From the Order’s humble origins under Dominic to the flowering of the Renaissance in Italy, the Dominicans’ dual application of education and poverty gave them the edge needed to win the respect of both the Church’s hierarchy and the faithful at large.  Like the Jesuits of the Counter Reformation period, the Dominicans of the Middle Ages served as the Pope’s own shock troops in a war against heresy.  They produced a legion of saints and achieved a foothold in institutions of higher learning across the Catholic world and defined its mode of thought for centuries to come.  Nowhere is their legacy more felt than in the canonization of Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologiae as the definitive treatise on Catholic theology.  When the Council of Trent was finally convened to answer the challenges of Protestantism, two books were laid upon the altar: the Bible, and the Summa.  Surely, no Dominican could ask for a greater proof of his order’s contribution to the intellectual treasury of his church.

Works Cited
Brucker, Gene A.  Renaissance Florence.  New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969.
Duby, Georges.  The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420.  Translated by Eleanor
Levieux and Barbara Thompson.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
Hollister, C. Warren, Joe W. Leedom, Marc A. Meyer, and David S. Spear, ed.  Medieval
Europe: A Short Sourcebook, Fourth Edition.  McGraw-Hill Humanities: 2001.

[1] Georges Duby, The Age of the Cathedrals: Art and Society, 980-1420, trans. Eleanor Levieux and Barbara Thompson (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981), 139.
[2] Ibid., 133.
[3] Ibid., 139.
[4] Ibid., 140.
[5] Humbert of Romans, “On the Formation of Preachers,” in Medieval Europe: A Short Sourcebook, Fourth Edition, ed. C. Warren Hollister et al. (McGraw-Hill Humanities, 2001), 247.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Duby, 137.
[8] “A Canon from the Fourth Lateran Council”, in Medieval Europe: A Short Sourcebook, 255.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Duby, 141.
[11] Gene A. Brucker, Renaissance Florence (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969), 199.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., 201.

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