Who are the Cathers?

compiled by Lewis Loflin

Catharism was a religious movement with Gnostic elements that originated around the middle of the 10th century, branded by the contemporary Roman Catholic Church as heretical. It existed throughout much of Western Europe, but its home was in Languedoc and surrounding areas in southern France. The Cathars were also sometimes labeled Albigensians.


Much of what one finds said of Cathar beliefs is based upon the claims and denunciations of their victorious orthodox opponents. In examining any declaration about Cathar beliefs, this historical fact must be held in balanced consideration.

It is commonly claimed that Catharism was based on the idea that the world is evil. This is rather a simplistic summary of a much more complex vision. It might better be said that the Cathars proclaimed there existed within humankind a spark of divine light. This light had fallen into captivity within a realm of corruption - identified with the material world.

This was a distinct feature of classical Gnosticism, of Manicheanism and of the theology of the Bogomils. This concept of the human condition within Catharism most probably was due to direct and indirect historical influences from these older and violently suppressed Gnostic movements. According to the Cathars, the world had been created by a lesser and evil deity known in Gnostic myth as the Demiurge. This creative force was not the "True God", though he made pretense of being the "one and only God" before whom was no other.

The Cathars identified this lesser deity, the Demiurge, with the being known by the name of Satan. (It should be noted that classical Gnosticism had not made this explicit link between the Demiurge and Satan). Essentially, the Cathars proclaimed that the God worshipped by orthodox Christianity was an imposter, and his church was a corrupt abomination deeply infused by the evils of the material realm.

The Cathars apparently believed that people could be reincarnated. Reincarnation was not however a desired event. The goal of the Cathar was liberation from the realm of limitation and corruption identified with material existence. The way to escape was to live an ascetic's life, a life dedicated to standing apart as much as possible from the material world and its many evils.

Those that did live this life were called 'Perfects' (Parfaits). By virtue of their noble dedication, they had the power to aid others to break free of material enslavement so that they might upon death achieve liberation and return to the realm of light that was their true source and ultimate destination. The Perfects themselves lived lives of unimpeachable frugality (this due to their belief that the material world was evil). Commonly, the wiping away of sin, called the consolamentum, was performed on someone about to die.

After receiving this, some believers were alleged (again, by their detractors) to stop eating, so that they could die faster, and with less taint from the world. The consolamentum was the major sacrament of the Cathar faith, marking entry to the ascetic life of the 'Perfects', or in modified form as an anointing of the dying, so that they would reincarnate as a 'Perfect'.

They did not perform any rite of marriage, as procreation (bringing more souls into the world) was frowned upon. It was as a result of this particular belief that the slanderous term "buggery" was coined (after the 'Bulgars', or 'Bougres') since if they were to give in to sexual temptation, this would at least ensure that no children resulted.

The Cathars held many beliefs that were odious to the rest of medieval society - but of course the Cathars themselves judged medieval society and its social and religious structures to be odious! They did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity claiming it was an invention of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catharist concept of Jesus resembled modalistic monarchianism in the West and adoptionism in the East.

Modalistic monarchianism: Argued that the Trinity is one God with different modes of divine action rather than distinct persons.

Adoptionism is a minority Christian belief that Jesus was born of Joseph and Mary in the normal way. Jesus was adopted as God's son (Son of God) at his baptism.

The Western concept resembled the Oneness doctrine of the nature of God taught by Oneness Pentecostals and Swedenborgians today. Most Cathars, however, believed that Jesus had been an apparition, a ghost, that showed the way to God. They refused to believe that the good God could or would come in material form, since all physical objects were tainted by sin.

This specific belief is called docetism. Furthermore, they believed that the god of the Old Testament was the Devil, since he had created the world to keep them in obedience to Him. Some did not think that the rite of communion even blessed the bread, they did not accept the Catholic sacraments as valid. See Docetism

Women were treated as equals, because their physical form was irrelevant.

One of their ideas most repugnant to feudal Europe was the belief that oaths were a sin, because they attached you to the world. To call them a sin in this manner was seen as very dangerous in a society where illiteracy was wide-spread and almost all business transactions and pledges of allegiance were based on oaths.

Objection to the Cathars was not only theological, in as much of what the Cathars taught and practiced was considered to be very destabilizing in its effects on society. The dualism of the Cathars was also the basis of their moral teaching. Man, they taught, is a living contradiction. Hence, the liberation of the soul from its captivity in the body is the true end of our being. It was alleged by their opponents that suicide was customary among them in the form of the endura (starvation), however their is no historical evidence to suggest this.

Their Catholic enemies argued that extinction of bodily life on the largest scale consistent with human existence was considered the perfect aim and logical end of Cathar teaching. As generation propagates the slavery of the soul to the body, perpetual chastity should be practiced, by all Cathars, at all times. Matrimonial intercourse is unlawful; concubinage, being of a less permanent nature, is preferable to marriage. Abandonment of his wife by the husband, or vice versa, is desirable. Procreation was abhorred by the Albigenses even in the animal kingdom. Consequently, abstention from all animal food, except fish, was enjoined. Cathar

Perfects also practiced a diet very similar to strict vegetarianism, with one exception. They were required to avoid eating anything considered to be a by-product of sexual reproduction, including cheese, eggs, milk and butter. Having said this, they were allowed to eat fish, as little was then known about the mating habits of marine creatures which were generally believed to simply appear spontaneously in the sea.

Their belief in metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, the result of their logical rejection of purgatory, furnishes another explanation for the same abstinence. To this practice they added long and rigorous fasts. War and capital punishment were absolutely condemned in a crusading age. For these reasons and others, civil and religious authorities took a hard stance against the Cathars.


In 1147, Pope Eugene III sent a legate to the affected district in order to arrest the progress of the Cathars. The few isolated successes of Bernard of Clairvaux could not obscure the poor results of this mission, and clearly shows the power of the sect in the south of France at that period. The missions of Cardinal Peter (of St. Chrysogonus) to Toulouse and the Toulousain in 1178, and of Henry, cardinal-bishop of Albano, in 1180-1181, obtained merely momentary successes. Henry of Albano's armed expedition, where he took the stronghold at Lavaur, did not extinguish the movement.

The persistent decisions of the councils against the Cathars at this period - in particular, those of the Council of Tours (1163) and of the Third Council of the Lateran (1179) - had scarcely more effect. By the time Pope Innocent III came to power in 1198, he had resolved to suppress the Cathari.

St Dominic encountered them while traveling, and tried to combat the strange doctrines. He had concluded that only the best of preachers could win over people who had falling in with the Cathari sect. This lead to the establishment on the Dominican Order in 1216. The order was to live up to the terms of his famous rebuke, "Zeal must be met by zeal, humility by humility, false sanctity by real sanctity, preaching falsehood by preaching truth."

At first Pope Innocent III tried pacific conversion, and sent a number of legates into the affected regions. They had to contend not only with the Cathars, the nobles who protected them, and the people who venerated them, but also with the bishops of the district, who rejected the extraordinary authority which the Pope had conferred upon his legates.

In 1204, Innocent III suspended the authority of the bishops in the south of France. Papal legate Peter of Castelnau, known for excommunicating the noblemen who protected the Cathars, excommunicated the Count of Toulouse as an abettor of heresy in 1207. Peter was then murdered near Saint Gilles Abbey in 1208 on his way back to Rome, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "probably at the connivance of Raymond VI, count of Toulouse". As soon as he heard of the murder, the Pope ordered his legates to preach the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars.

This war threw the whole of the nobility of the north of France against that of the south, possibly instigated by a papal decree stating that all land owned by Cathars could be confiscated at will. As the area was full of Cathar sympathizers, this made the entire area a target for northern nobles looking to gain new lands. It is thus hardly surprising that the barons of the north flocked south to do battle for the Church.

In one famous incident in 1209, most of Beziers were slaughtered by the Catholic forces headed by the Papal legate. Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Citeaux, was asked how to distinguish between the Catholic and Cathars, and allegedly answered, "Kill them all, God will know his own". The Catholic Encyclopedia denies these words were ever spoken.

The war also involved Peter II, the king of Aragon, who owned fiefdoms and had vassals in the area. Peter died fighting against the crusade on September 12, 1213 at the Battle of Muret.

The war ended in the Treaty of Paris (1229), by which the king of France dispossessed the house of Toulouse of the greater part of its fiefs, and that of Beziers of the whole of its fiefs. The independence of the princes of the south was at an end. But in spite of the wholesale massacre of Cathars during the war, Catharism was not extinguished.

In 1215, the bishops of the Catholic Church met at the Fourth Council of the Lateran under Pope Innocent. One of the key goals of the council was to combat heresy.

The Inquisition was established in 1229 to root out the Cathars. Operating in the south at Toulouse, Albi, Carcassonne and other towns during the whole of the 13th century, and a great part of the 14th century, it succeeded in extirpating the movement. From May 1243 to March 1244, the Cathar citadel of Montsegur was besieged by the troops of the seneschal of Carcassonne and the archbishop of Narbonne.

On March 16, 1244 a large and symbolically important execution took place, where leaders of Catharism together with more than 200 Cathar laity were thrown into an enormous fire at the prat des cramats near the foot of the castle. Moreover, the church decreed severe chastisement against all laymen suspected of sympathy with Cathars (Council of Narbonne, 1235; Bull Ad extirpanda, 1252).

Hunted down by the Inquisition and abandoned by the nobles of the district, the Albigenses became more and more scattered, hiding in the forests and mountains, and only meeting surreptitiously. The people made some attempts to overthrow the Inquisition and the French, and insurrections broke out under the leadership of Bernard of Foix, Aimerv of Narbonne and Bernard Delicieux at the beginning of the 14th century. But at this point vast inquests were set on foot by the Inquisition, which increased its efforts in the district.

Precise indications of these are found in the registers of the Inquisitors, Bernard of Caux, Jean de St Pierre, Geoffroy d'Ablis, and others. The sect was exhausted and could find no more adepts, and after 1330 the records of the Inquisition contain few proceedings against Cathars.

The last Cathar Perfect, Guillaume Belibaste, was executed in 1321. Other movements, such as the Waldensians and the pantheistic Brethren of the Free Spirit survived into the 14th and 15th century, until they were gradually replaced by, or absorbed into, early Protestant sects, such as the Hussites.

Extracts retrieved from "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathar"