The Tragic Fate of the Cathars

In the twelfth century, a religious movement known as Catharism, with distinctly Gnostic elements, emerged in southern France. The people behind the movement were known as Cathars (“pure ones”), although sometimes they were referred to as the Albigensians because they lived near the town of Albi. The Cathars protested against the excesses of the Roman Catholic clergy. Although a few Cathars had been put to death, the group began to flourish under the protection of William, Duke of Aquitaine. No doubt shocking to the orthodox Roman Catholic Church, several priests espoused Cathar beliefs and joined the Cathars. The Cathari elders embraced an ascetic lifestyle and were were known simply as good men or good women. The followers received baptism of the Spirit before death, ensuring that they would become elders or Perfecti.

Beliefs of the Cathars

The Cathars, like Gnostic Christians centuries before them, believed in a divine spark imprisoned in humans. The material or physical realm had been designed and created by an inferior god/Satan/Demiurge. The God of orthodox Christians was not the true God but rather an imposter, and his church was corrupt. Humans, through their individual efforts, had to free themselves from the material existence to obtain enlightenment and liberation. Otherwise, they were destined to have to repeat life in the material realm through reincarnation.

The Cathars rejected the Trinity, the Hebrew scriptures, and the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. They also rejected the idea of purgatory and hell. To the Cathars, the entrapment of the divine spark in the physical human envelope made this world the real hell. They were pacifists whose nonviolent beliefs extended toward animals. They eschewed meat and dairy products. The Cathars believed that the spirit was found in the soul that was itself contained within the human body. Keeping their spirit pure so that it could return the the realm of Light (God) was the most important task in life.

Hierarchy of Structure

The Cathar hierarchy contained two tiers: Perfecti (perfect ones or elders) and Credentes (believers). Both women and men could become Perfecti, and both practiced extreme asceticism. It was not imposed upon the Credentes. The Perfecti wore black robes and lived their lives as Jesus had, depending upon alms for food, doing penance and prayer, serving others, and teaching. To become a Perfecti, one had to undergo the ritual consolamentum, a baptism by the Holy Spirit and an ordination into the ascetic element of the group. The Perfecti stood as spiritual exemplars to the community.

The Credentes led a lifestyle more worldly than the Perfecti. They could even marry. But they had to swear oaths not to take a life or kill animals. If death approached, a Credente could accept the rite of consolamentum and stop eating and drinking to hasten death. The Cathars worshipped the God of Love rather than the deity of the Hebrew scriptures.

Suppression by Massacre

Pope Eugene III decided that church had to put an end to the Cathars. He sought and received help from Bernard of Clairvaux, Cardinal Peter of St. Chrysogonus, and others, but wiping out the movement proved futile. The Roman Catholic Church issued edicts against the Cathars, but this didn't suppress them either. The Church tried other tactics as well, but without success. Noblemen protecting the Cathars were excommunicated and put to death. In A.D. 1208, the Pope ordered a crusade against them and a papal decree proclaiming that all Cathar lands would be confiscated. The result was the Albigensian Crusade, which took place over the next forty years, during which northern French landowners took up the fight in the south against the Cathars.

The Cathars espoused Gnostic beliefs in the divine feminine and practiced gender equality. They venerated Mary Magdalene, and her legends, myths, and stories are kept alive in oral traditions that are especially strong in southern France where the Cathars once flourished.

The community of Béziers fell on July 22, 1209, the feast day of Mary Magdalene. The Cistercian abbot Arnaud-Amaury, who commanded the siege, was asked how he could distinguish Catholics from Cathars in the battle. He supposedly said that he killed them all, for God would recognize his own. The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene housed 7,000 people and they were all slaughtered. Thousands of other townspeople were killed as well. Some scholars say the figure for the dead could have been as high as 20,000 people, including women and children. Still, Catharism did not die.

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