An Introduction to Catharism
Catharism, like any Protestant denomination and most other heresies, is defined in two ways:
- What they didn't like about the church they split from (Catholics)
- What they believed differently from the church they split from
Bernard Gui said:
...they usually say of themselves that they are good Christians, ...hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ and his gospel as the apostles taught... occupy the place of the apostles. ...they talk to the laity of the evil lives of the clerks and prelates of the Roman Church... ...they attack and vituperate, in turn, all the sacraments of the Church, especially the sacrament of the eucharist, saying that it cannot contain the body of Christ... Of baptism, they assert that the water is material and corruptible... and cannot sanctify the soul... ...they claim that confession made to the priests of the Roman Church is useless... They assert, moreover, that the cross of Christ should not be adored or venerated... Moreover they read from the Gospels and the Epistles in the vulgar tongue, applying and expounding them in their favour and against the condition of the Roman Church...
— On the Albigensians
What we know of the Cathar is limited and skewed, as the Church destroyed many of their works. Thus, we have a few works of theirs, and the statements of their enemies (not always the most reliable sources, no?). The Cathari generally referred to themselves as Good Men or Good Christians (it is debatable whether the term Cathars was used by them - this AAR will strive to use Good Men and Good Christians when Cathari refer to each other), and it is clear that they rose in parallel with Bogomilists, and shared many beliefs with them.
Cathars seem to have risen quickly in the mid 12th century, finding popularity in the Rheinland (especially Cologne), France, and Northern Italy. There was cross-pollination with Bogomilists, culminating with the Council of Saint-Félix which was attended by Nicetas, the Bogomilist Bishop of Constantinople. They were able to flourish in the relatively liberal and open areas of Europe, and it is clear that Cathari teachings were popular not only with the masses, but also with Church officials. An entire cathedral chapter in Orleans defected to Catharism. The church found itself outmatched in open theological debates, losing adherents, priests, and even money (as Cathars refused to tithe).
The faiths were, quite simply, doomed to conflict. The Catholic Church reveres both the Old and New Testament, whereas the Cathars disowned the Old Testament. To the Cathars, the God of the Old Testament was the Demiurge (similar to the Devil). The Cathars believed that the world was created by the Demiurge, and thus all material things were corrupt and somewhat evil. Good things (souls, for example) were created by their Good God, the God of Light.
Cathars denigrated the feudal system, as it depended on oaths. To the Catholic Church of the period, the Feudal system was an extension of divine right, and it was the natural order of things. Cathars were closer to the original church in their belief in the evils of riches, whereas Catholic Bishops were notorious for living well. Even Pope Innocent III, the richest man in Christendom, noted of the Archbishop of Narbonne:
"…He knows no other god but money and has a purse where his heart should be. His monks and canons take mistresses and live by usury… Throughout the region the prelates are the laughing stock of the laity."
The Cathars also spurned the Catholic veneration of the cross and relics, as they were physical things. They refused to eat meat, believed in reincarnation, and believed non-procreative sex was superior to procreative sex (the opposite of the Catholic Church).
With the Cathars drawing from Catholic lands, nobles, priests, and believers, Catholicism could only react with reform, stunning theological arguments, or bloodshed.