St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Defender of the Res Catholica

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) personifies the enigmatic nature of Catholicism. In barely a lifespan he combined the roles of theologian, contemplative, reformer, apologist, inquisitor, and popular preacher. Each of these functions forms a part of what might called the res catholica, the Catholic “thing” or reality. At the heart of this reality is the ecclesia, the Church founded by Christ, a timeless institution which nevertheless exists in time and history. At various times the Church has given expression to these functions in the persons of her members. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both personify the theologian. We encounter the contemplative in Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Irenaeus and Robert Bellarmine stand out as apologists for the faith.  John Chrysostom and Ambrose of Milan were extraordinary preachers. Dominic de Guzman personified the Inquisition. Each of these roles becomes active at various points in history for the purpose of formulating, contemplating, communicating, or safeguarding the substance of the Catholic reality.

Very seldom, however, have so many of these roles been assumed by one person, and with such remarkable dexterity as in the case of St. Bernard. Bernard’s multifaceted life embodied his devotion to the Catholic reality at a time when this reality needed contemplative expression as well as zealous defense. By briefly examining two particular ways in which Bernard operated, we can come to a basic understanding of how he understood this Catholic reality, an understanding which is pertinent to the Church in her contemporary situation.

Bernard was no systematic theologian. He lived at a time when the theology of the schools was just beginning to explore the systematic interrelation of the various points of Christian doctrine, and Bernard was certainly no schoolman. His theological formation was solidly within the monastic, literary-humanist vein, and he eschewed the critical, dialectical approach found in the nascent universities. But this does not mean that he was not a dogmatic theologian. While we identify him today as a “spiritual writer,” much of his writing consisted of a contemplative, mystical rumination on dogma. His signature work, Sermons on the Song of Songs, is a collection of eighty-six sermons on the first few chapters of the most mystical, yet most risqué book of Sacred Scripture. The Christian tradition, beginning with Origen, understood the Song to be an allegory of the nuptial union of Christ and the individual soul.  Writing within this tradition, Bernard offers a reflection rooted in Chalcedonian Christology. When discussing the opening verse “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth” (Song 1:1), he writes:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

I must ask you to try to give your whole attention here. The mouth that kisses signifies the Word who assumes human nature; the nature assumed receives the kiss; the kiss, however, that takes its being from both the giver and the receiver, is a person that is formed by both, none other than “the one mediator between God and mankind, himself a man, Christ Jesus.”

Bernard combined the seemingly contrary strains of affective, mystical contemplation and cerebral, dogmatic theology. This was because he believed that the depositum fidei provided the living reality for true mystical insight. The mystery of the Catholic reality, while ineffable, is nonetheless a mystery with substance and content.

It was out of devotion to this same mystery that Bernard engineered the downfall of one of the greatest philosophical minds of his age: Peter Abelard. Abelard is often hailed as a medieval protagonist of free thought whose career was tragically scuttled by intellectually reactionary ecclesiastical politics. While he was undoubtedly gifted, Abelard’s intellectual acumen was a source of disordered pride. He publically embarrassed his mentor, Anselm of Laon, at Paris in front of his students. His departure from the traditional way of doing theology, rooted in the discoveries of the Church Fathers, in favor of a very sharp but contemplatively sterile rationalism also suggested a certain arrogance. While the specific charges of heterodoxy that Bernard leveled at Abelard may have been based upon the former’s inability to follow the arguments of the latter, Bernard also perceived in Abelard’s ethos a disposition which, if allowed to continue, would poison the minds of young men preparing themselves for ecclesiastical office, rendering them ill-disposed toward the ineffable and mysterious nature of revealed doctrine. In a letter to the Roman curia warning them of the dangers of Abelard’s teaching, Bernard writes:

So mere human ingenuity is taking on itself to solve everything, and leave nothing to faith. It is trying for things above itself, prying into things too strong for it, rushing into divine things, and profaning rather than revealing what is holy.  Things closed and sealed, it is not opening but tearing asunder, and what it is not able to force open, that it considers to be of no account and not worthy of belief.

Thus, Bernard the mystical theologian felt compelled to become Bernard the proto-inquisitor, and through political maneuvering effected Abelard’s condemnation and early retirement.

Moreover, this same man who meditated profoundly on loving God, and shared these meditations with his fellow monks, channeled this same love into the Crusades. To view armed conflict in the light of love is, in the minds of most of our contemporaries, the height of scandal, and while it is not my intention to provide a complete apology for the Crusades, their true nature is best understood in terms of the devotion that motivated them. If the Crusades are a scandal, it is not a scandal borne of hypocrisy.  Such inferences reflect more the cynicism of our own age than the mentality of Bernard’s time. Bernard undoubtedly recognized the tragedy of war.  At the same time, he was enough of a realist to recognize the inevitability of war in a fallen world, a world in which the Church had vital temporal interests. Among these temporal interests were the holy places of the Orient. Bernard writes:

Surely then the nations who choose warfare should be scattered, those who molest us should be cut away, and all the workers of iniquity should be dispersed from the city of the Lord—those who busy themselves carrying off the invaluable riches placed in Jerusalem by Christian people, profaning holy things and possessing the sanctuary of God as their heritage.

Interestingly, Bernard viewed the profanation of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest site in Christendom, as itself an occasion of scandal.  Thus he called upon Christian men-at-arms to rescue the historic church, calling for “the destruction of every lofty thing lifting itself up against the knowledge of God which is the Christian faith, lest the Gentiles should say, ‘Where is their God?’” Moreover, the defense of the holy places was necessary in order to preserve faith in the spiritual realities they signified: “The temporal glory of the earthly city does not demolish the heavenly rewards, but demonstrates them, at least so long as we remember that the one is the figure of the other, and that it is the heavenly which is our mother.”  Bernard’s zeal for the temporal holdings of the Church in Jerusalem was thus ordered toward his love for the souls of the faithful.  He recognized a distinction, yet an undeniable connection, between the temporal and spiritual well-being of the Church.  For Bernard, the temporal and the eternal together constituted the res catholica, the Catholic reality.

In our contemporary situation, this twofold unity of the Christian reality is under attack. The Church is relentlessly attacked in popular culture—and by many of her own members—on two counts: her efforts to recover Catholic higher education, and her attempt to defend the right of Catholic institutions to refuse to provide or subsidize morally objectionable services. Bernard’s example is an object lesson on these two fronts.  In the area of intellectual life, his stern but charitable dealing with Abelard reminds us of the importance of zealously defending the Catholic intellectual heritage by insisting that intellectual rigor be rooted in piety, understood as loyalty to the depositum fidei, for only on the basis of such loyalty can intellectual prowess bear fruit for the life of the Church.  In political life, Bernard’s commitment to the temporal interests of the Church and the divine realities they signify reminds us of the importance of the current political struggle facing the Catholic Church in the United States in regard to the H.H.S. contraception/sterilization mandate. The so-called compromise offered by the current administration in the White House, which exempts only religious organizations that provide specifically religious services to their adherents, effects a new dichotomy between the spiritual and the temporal interests of the Church.  The commitment of the Church to health care, education, and material charity signify her commitment to the salvation of souls, and together they constitute the full Christian reality.  They are thus inseparable, and must be safeguarded with equal zeal. Thus, we repeat the words of Bernard of Clairvaux to all Catholics involved in the struggle, be they bishops, priests, religious, physicians, lawyers, social workers, or professors: “March forth confidently then, you knights, and with stalwart heart repel the foes of the cross of Christ.”

Author’s note: The quotations from Bernard of Clairvaux found in this essay are drawn from editions of his writings published by the Institute for Cistercian Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


  • John P. Bequette

    John P. Bequette is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His interests include medieval Christian thought, the lives of the saints, and Christian humanism.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...