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The Cathars

Cité épiscopale d’Albi

Who were these Cathars whose beliefs constituted such a grave threat for the Catholic Church right up until the start of the 14th century? This heresy, probably of eastern origin, could have come back to Europe with the crusaders but corresponded to a genuine concern for a Church considered overly materialistic and falling short of the perceived spirituality of the era when Christianity was practised in the Roman catacombs. 1

The crucial problem for all those attracted by the various movements associated with Catharism was the presence of evil in the world, everywhere that we find corruptible beings we find the conviction that there exist two worlds: the visible world of the senses, corrupted by the devil and the immaterial world, ruled by God.

Initially, close to monotheism, certain heretics believed in only one God but little by little dualism began to predominate and two rival and absolute principals, the God of good and the God of evil, both creators and eternally coexistent. This belief led Bernard Gui, the famous inquisitor, to accuse them of Manichaeism.

The Cathars emphatically rejected the dogma of the trinity, the Father being essentially superior to the Son and the Holy Spirit. On the other hand they believed in the existence of two Kingdoms, the Kingdom of Good and the Kingdom of Evil.

The evil god created the earth and the entire material world. Finding it deserted he decided to people it and in order to do so he went up to heaven and seduced some angels to accompany him to earth. To keep them there he gave them bodies and created the sexes, permitting them to procreate. The earth was thus peopled and it was uniquely the work of evil. For the Cathars, the god of the Jews (Jehovah) was in fact the god of evil since it was he that created the world.

The Cathars condemned Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses as ministers of the Devil, while they accepted Job, the Psalms, and Judges and their key text was John’s Gospel.

The world will have no end as the final judgement has already taken place, hell is on earth, nowhere else. If Christ was truly sent on earth by the good god then nonetheless he did not have a corporeal body and was a visible, but immaterial presence.

The Cathars then, rejected incarnation, redemption (the death of Jesus to save humanity) and the resurrection.

They also had an aversion for the cross, an instrument of torture, and therefore repulsive and in no way worthy of veneration. In consequence they rejected the sign of the cross and this became a useful tool for inquisitors aiming to confound a suspect. In this context man could be saved by a life of charity and reflection. He could be saved by rejecting the material world, after having received the only sacrament of the Cathar rite, the ’consolamentum’ (consolation). By this sacrament, man leaves earth spiritually before death takes his body to the grave.

If man was not ’consoled’ he would be reincarnated in other corporeal bodies for all eternity.

The Cathars were divided into two groups. The ’consoled,’ also called the Perfecti or the ’Good Men,’ formed the Cathar elite. The majority of Cathars were the Credentes (believers) who could aspire to receive ’consolation.’ In order to do so the ’Credentes’ were subject to a lengthy novitiate after which each must submit to an absolute celibacy while practising a strict dietary regime (no meat, milk or eggs). Only wine, bread, oil, fruit and vegetables were authorised.

The ’consolentum,’ the Cathar baptism, was received by a double laying-on of hands and a reading of the Gospel of St John after a period of abstinence and of acceptance into the community. The new ’Perfectum’ received a black habit which was abandoned as the persecutions intensified, being too easily identifiable and was replaced by a simple rope kept within his shirt.

The sacrament of the ’consolamentum’ was considered an absolution of sin. If a ’Perfectum’ were to commit a mortal sin - murder, theft or a sin of the flesh – he was obliged to confess and to submit once more to the laying on of hands.

Catharism based its own hierarchy on that of the Catholic Church in order to demonstrate its legitimacy as opposed to its rival, the ’servant of evil.’

In the Languedoc, Carcassonne, Albi and Toulouse all have Cathar Bishops. Each Bishop had two assistants known as the ’Elder Son’ and the ’Younger Son.’ Upon the death of the Bishop the Younger Son ordained the Elder as Bishop, becoming himself the Elder Son. An assembly of Cathar dignitaries then named another Younger Son who was ordained by the new Bishop. The persecutions of the 13th century meant the Cathars were unable to conduct their affairs openly and this caused such upheaval in their system of hierarchy that it gradually fell into disuse.

It is worth noting that the term Cathar that the inquisitors, and later, historians, applied to the heretics was never used by the Cathars themselves. In general they referred to themselves simply as ‘Good Men’ or ’Good Christians.’

Even those who could not agree with their theology were forced to respect the Cathars’ spirituality and their passion for justice, they never resorted to force or violence to impose their views. As for the Church authorities they only had recourse to violence (the inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade) when they felt the situation had become inextricable. For many years preaching and contempt were the Church’s only response to the heresy.

1Translated from Mémoires d’Albi, une ville à travers l’histoire. Georges Protet. Editions Grand Sud, pp 43-44.

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