The Cathars (from the Greek katharos meaning ‘unpolluted’ or ‘pure’) were a group of Christian mystics who changed the face of Christianity in Europe. They were at their most popular in the 11th and 12th centuries in the region north-west of Marseilles called Languedoc, near the modern frontier between France and Spain. They also were present in Spain, the Rhineland and Flanders, and Italy.
Their powerful influence came about in the midst of great adversity because they were branded ‘heretics,’ rooted out and exterminated by the dominant Church of Rome. They rejected many of its beliefs, texts and doctrines but they were well-supported by local nobility and popular among peasants and artisans.
One group of Cathars was known as the Albigenses taking their name from the local town of Albi, the scene of a huge massacre between 1209-1220 during which between 9,000 and 20,000 citizens were butchered. This happened because the credentes (Cathars believers) could not be distinguished from the Catholics. It constitutes ‘one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history.’ (Lemkin, R)
Cathar practices probably developed as a consequence of traders coming from Eastern Europe bringing the teachings of the Bogomils, named after their founder the priest Bogomil who denied the Christian conception of the world of matter as a vehicle of grace. In France, they were heavily persecuted until the 13th century when the last group was burned at the stake by the Roman inquisition at the fall of Montségur hilltop Fortress in 1244 where they were hiding. However, those outside France continued to be rooted out and killed as late as the 19th century in Bosnia.
They referred to themselves as Les Bons Hommes, Les Bonne Femmes or Les Bon Chrétiens (the Good Men, the Good Women or the Good Christians). They had no hierarchy or physical church and those who silently knew they were Cathars were divided into 2 groups – the elite or Perfecti, who had mastered all the arduous trainings and travelled around in same-sex pairs as healers and the credentes, or believers who may be at various stages of training and vied for the honour of housing the Perfecti.
The Perfecti lived a life of austerity and extreme poverty and were believed to be the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. They believed they were heirs to the true heritage of Christianity and that the Catholic church had turned its back on Christ’s message in favour of reveling in vast material power and wealth.
Catharism : origin and doctrine.
They were dualists as are most of the followers of the world’s major religions but they were ‘absolute dualists,’ or monistic, their worldview dominated by the opposing principles of Good and Evil, the material world being intrinsically evil and to be overcome. Like Buddhists and Hindus, they considered time was cyclical not linear and so offered infinite opportunities to reincarnate until purification was complete. Also, that all beings were made from the same material substance created by Satan (the evil God or fallen angel) as a rebellion against the ‘Good’ God, but that humans each had a trace of the Divine Light of their origins trapped inside them which would eventually lead them back to God.
Catharism is an ancient faith based on Manichean dualism established by the Babylonian prophet Mani c. 215-216 C.E., which pre-dated Christianity itself. In respect of the Christian Bible, the Cathars’ abhorrence of physical matter was encapsulated by the God of the Old Testament, and the natural goodness of mind or spirit by the message of Jesus Christ of the New Testament, the spiritual Christ, which they lived by.
The Church of Rome hounded the Cathars forcing them to flee and hide in the abandoned hill-top castles of Languedoc. It insisted that provincial rulers use torture to maim them and if they refused they themselves would be punished. Made official by French law in 1229, their property and land were authorized to be confiscated which proved to be a great incentive for greedy state officials.
Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) launched a vicious crusade against the Good Men redirecting his military armies from the Holy Land so determined was he to wipe them out. This was triggered by the assassination of Peter of Castelnau, the papal legate responsible for opposing the Cathars.
During inquisitional interviews, if lay people showed favour in any way to the Cathars, they were often treated as heretics themselves. On 8th September 1308, all 114 inhabitants of the village of Montaillou in Ariege were arrested on heresy charges and found to be of the Cathar persuasion according to the relentless interrogation of Jacques Fournier, the Bishop of Palmiers at the time.
The Cathar Creed
After the extermination of supposedly every remaining Cathar in France in 1244, the Cathar creed of the Church of Love was discovered 700 years later in 1986. It was found using the techniques of dowsing or divination, so it could be argued that there is no actual scientific evidence to support its existence, but it is followed widely today by revivalists. It was left for future Cathars who the Perfecti predicted would be born 700 years later in the mid 20th century and who would continue on their work when the material world was on its knees.
In summary, the Church of Love has no membership or fabric, no hierarchy or structure and there are no rivals because it is not competitive: ‘Those who are, know.’ It has no ambition, seeking only to serve, and recognizes no barriers of any kind. It acknowledges all great teachers of the Truth and their teachings, saluting those who have blazed a path but paid the price for it. However, it professes not to teach but instead to be and by simply being, enrich. It recognizes the whole planet as a Being which humans are not separate from. It proclaims itself only in subtle terms of love, the dedication of each Cathar to the silent loving of their neighbour, the planet and the environment while carrying out their role in society however mundane.
Cathars have no expectations of any reward either in this life or the spiritual world except the ‘ineffable joy of being and loving.’ They never feel fear or shame, they keep no secrets or history or perform any initiations. Only the power of love will allow the world to change and that will come about only if humans change first. The influence of Catharism is still apparent in the south-east corner of France, its revivalist practitioners still working to purify the world of evil.
The Cathar Influence
The medieval Catholic Church was greatly influenced and still bears those indications today. Inspired by the goodness of the Perfecti, the papacy of the Middle Ages created new orders like the Dominicans and Franciscans which imitated them. As a result of Cathar asceticism, finally celibacy was imposed on the Roman Catholic clergy after centuries of empty talk, and church buildings were greatly simplified – the cathedral at Albi is a spectacular example.
As for gender and the role of women in the church in the Middle Ages, the introduction of devotion to Mary Magdelene could be seen as a way of countering the prominence of women among Cathar Perfecti. In modern days, women are gradually preaching, teaching and administering sacred rites on an equal footing with men in the church. Thus the Cathar prophecy is steadily coming true. Protestantism was also influenced in similar ways.