With a story set in the fifteenth century featuring oppressed Christians, it is impossible to avoid talking about the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, they were the ones doing the oppressing. In a sense, it would be easy for me to paint the Catholic Church as pure evil—the persecutors of God’s people, the Mary-worshipers, the harlot of Babylon.
But Heretics of Piedmont would be very edgy, boring, and frankly, a bad novel if I went down that road. I certainly wouldn’t want to read a book like that. Representing the Roman Church with a straw man might seem like the way to travel, but I would be doing my readers a great disservice. I could have used scare quotes around the word church when speaking about Catholics, leaned into conspiracy theories about Jesuits (even though they didn’t exist yet), and resorted to a cheap caricature of what the medieval Catholic Church was.
I chose instead to make the Catholic Church a steel man, which essentially means representing them in their best form. For example, I gave them respect for their long-lasting traditions, well-thought-out apologetics, and learned scholars.
The main character in the story, Andreas, is a devout Catholic monk. I am not. So how could I possibly think like a Catholic and honestly portray a character that I cannot naturally relate to? By reading their side. By sifting through English translations of five-hundred-year-old Latin texts written by friars and Catholic theologians.
And what did the Catholic Church think about the Waldenses? Of course, I read the history as portrayed by the Waldenses. It was both enjoyable and spiritually challenging to me. Yet to see them from both my protagonist’s and antagonist’s point-of-view, I needed to read the Catholics of that time period.
One evening in December 2020, I sat down at my computer and watched a YouTube video of a medieval Latin mass. I scrutinized the whole thing, pausing constantly to take notes about where the priest was standing, what the cantor sang, and what each object was. Afterwards, I matched it with a missal (a book containing the liturgical text) for the Extraordinary Form of the Tridentine Mass (not exactly the same liturgy as the video, but close) to find out what exactly the priest was saying in each section. Then I followed the Catholic Encyclopedia trail to discover all the symbolism represented there.
Do I agree with it? No.
Time spent? Yes.
Time wasted? Absolutely not.
For lack of a better explanation, I wanted to feel what a Catholic would have felt—why the mass is sacred to them, why they pray to saints, and how they are devoted to the seven sacraments. Yes, my beliefs are vastly different. I am a sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia Baptist. But in order to understand my main character, I needed to understand genuine Catholicism—not a straw man or caricature.