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Thread: A Summary of Cathar Belief

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    A Summary of Cathar Belief

    This is a work-in-progress I've had on hand for some time; it is by no means complete and likely to not be 100% verifiably accurate in its limited scholarship. It is, though, a quick look into one of the greatest opponents of the Church until the Reformation. There are far more in-depth studies, so regard this for what it is, simply a non-scholarly summary of Cathar belief and practices. I will update this from time to time for clarification or to add information left out of this original post; these will be marked in red for time.

    ~~~~~

    A SUMMARY OF CATHAR BELIEF

    (Note: The Cathars were a religious group that existed primarily in southern France during the 12th and 13th centuries. Their opposition to the Church led to their brutal extermination during the Albigensian Crusade mounted against them in 1280.)

    Theology: Cathars hold a Dualistic view in that they recognize the existence of two primary forces in the universe, one being that of Good and the other Evil. The Good is represented by ‘God’ (as presented in the New Testament) and is the ruler of the spiritual realm, while Evil is represented by ‘Satan’ (as presented in the Torah, but masquerading as God) who rules the material realm. Cathar beliefs have some ties to Gnostic traditions, but these are tenuous at best and not dealt with in this limited document.

    Cosmology: At one time, God and Satan both inhabited the spiritual realm; there was no material realm. In time, Satan fought with God for control of the spiritual realm and was defeated; one result of Satan’s defeat was his ejection from the spiritual realm and his creation of the material realm where he could rule. Satan created the world and its creatures, and created servants- Man- but in order to make them ‘work’ he had to infuse them with the spirits (angels) he had created or captured from God during the war in the heavens.

    The Torah (Old Testament) begins at the end of the war between God and Satan; in it is described, after a fashion, how the world and its creatures came into existence. The part that was not known at the time of its writing was that Satan was the deity in charge, and ruled using the name of God to hide his identity. It was not until the time of the New Testament that Man (and his inhabitant spirit combining to form a soul) was made aware of the deception and began to direct his efforts toward returning to the legitimate God.

    In Cathar belief, the physical realm (the earth and the physical universe) will cease to exist when the last of the trapped souls (those originated by God) return to the spiritual realm. The thought is that being in possession of those ‘God-spirits’ is what gives Satan his earthly power, and when those are gone he is essentially done and is returned to the spiritual realm to face God and the old struggle between Good and Evil begins anew.

    General Beliefs: In general, Cathars were opposed to the teachings of the Church, believing that the institution- as a creation of Man- was corrupt and led by those who would continue the deception that Satan was actually God.

    As for more specific beliefs and practices, here are some examples:

    Marriage: Marriage, as sanctioned by the Church, was worthless; the only true marriage could be between individuals in the sight of God. As all men and women were seen as equals- all inhabited by a divine spirit- there were no restrictions on who could marry whom.

    Sex: There were differing views on sex among Cathars, but the prevailing one was that there was no reason to condemn any form of non-procreative sex. Some held that sex for procreation was bad in that it simply provided a vessel for another soul to suffer through in this world, while others held the view that it gave another soul an opportunity to gain strength and retun to God. Either way, sex itself was not considered bad and was encouraged as one of the few pleasures this world has to offer.

    Material Goods: The less one had to do with the material world, the better. Living simply, renouncing luxuries, and recognizing that the world is an inherently evil place were basic tenets. (This was seen by others as a positive trait, compared to the wealth and gaudy trappings of the Church and its Priests.)

    Our Bodies: The sooner we learn of our spiritual nature and strengthen our souls through study, prayer, and the rejection of this world the sooner our souls might be freed to return to the spiritual realm of God. Some Cathars showed their disdain for their bodies (as works of Satan) by exposure to the elements or fasting or periodic mortification of the flesh. As such, there was no stigma on one committing suicide; the only consideration was concern if the individual’s soul was prepared enough to escape this world.

    Jesus and the Resurrection: Cathars held that, as this world was evil by its very nature, God would not have sent his son into it. As such, Jesus could not have been divine and was considered to be just a man, but more enlightened than others. This being the case, upon his death there was no ‘resurrection’ of the flesh- only the escape of Jesus’ soul to the spiritual realm of God.

    Reincarnation: The Cathars did believe in a form of reincarnation- more specifically, the 'transmigration of the spirit'. In their belief, the ultimate goal was to strengthen ones faith and soul to the point where, upon the person's death, the spirit would be released back into the spiritual realm to return to God. If, on the other hand, the person's faith was shaky and their soul not sufficiently strong, upon the person's death their inhabitant spirit would essentially go 'back into the bucket' to be placed in a new human body at a later time, and the process of gaining faith and strength would begin again (it's not clear if they believed the 'memory' of spirits continued to build through successive lives, though). Some Cathars believed one's spirit might be placed in an animal the next time around, and this motivated some to avoid eating meat so as to not injure or offend a possible inhabiting spirit. (Fish were not considered suitable vessels for transmigrated spirits, though, so eating them was always okay.) (7.10.19)

    Hell: To the Cathars this world IS Hell, created by Satan and fundamentally corrupt. This does not mean, though, that Cathars adopted a 'woe is me' attitude. Quite the opposite occurred: as this was what we have to work with, why not make it better and not worse? As a result the Cathars built a remarkably open, inclusive, and vibrant society in their lands and in that sense have been regarded by historians- despite the persecution by the Church- as one of the bright spots in an otherwise pretty bleak Europe of the times. Essentially, they didn't get bogged down with moaning about how bad the world was- even though they knew it was corrupt- and instead sought to thumb their noses at Satan by not giving in to despair. This view proved to be attractive to Christians, whose Church-provided alternative was eternal punishment and damnation if they didn't toe the line, and was a source of converts to the Cathar cause. (7.10.19)

    Legal Matters: Cathars did not swear oaths to God, which created a dilemma for them in business concerns; as most common people could neither read nor write, contracts were often simply oral with the parties swearing to uphold their obligations. At best a Cathar could offer his personal honor, but swearing to God was out of the question. In criminal cases, Cathars refused to sit in judgement of others; when those nobles who were Cathars were presented with criminal cases, they would be likely to ship them to a neighboring non-Cathar ally for trial. (7.10.19)

    Violence: Historically, Cathars renounced violence and sought to avoid hostile encounters, preferring to settle differences peacefully. However, given the dim view of Cathars by the Church and the various crusades mounted against them, it is an almost certainty that some Cathars did fight their oppressors. However, it is also known that many Cathars- in particular the Perfects- did not fight to defend themselves and willingly went to their deaths at the hands of the Church, secure in their faith that their soul was ready to see God. Sadly, many of these men and women met their deaths by being burned alive but to their credit almost none thus captured recanted. (Those who escaped the holocaust of death were forced to publicly recant and sew a yellow cross on their clothing to show they were former ‘heretics’- and any display of their former faith meant immediate execution.)

    Historical note: At the siege of Beziers in July of 1209, there were so many defenders mixed together- Cathars and their Christian allies- that the Papal Legate, Arnaud Almaric, uttered the now infamous order to his officers and nobles: "Kill them all, God will know his own".

    Cathar Practices: The Cathars had very little in the way of ceremony or sacraments. This was in deliberate contrast to the pomp and pageantry of the Church. Historically there were two orders of Cathar, one being the Credentes (the Believers) and the other the Parfaits (the Perfects).

    The Believers were the rank-and-file followers of the faith; they were required only to uphold the beliefs of the faith and to work towards strengthening their souls. A brief ceremony, the Consolamentum Minor (Minor Consolation) was performed and the new Cathar was then referred to as ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’.

    The Perfects were those Cathars who had spent considerable time in study and practice of Cathar beliefs and holding themselves to a higher standard than that of the Believers. Perfects sometimes renounced all belongings and traveled, others renounced sex and avoided contact with the opposite sex, still others were simply more strict with themselves. To become a Parfait one had to demonstrate his or her commitment and pass on their knowledge and guidance to others. It was a general practice that only a Perfect could perform the Consolamentum Major and appoint a new Perfect, but when no other Perfects were available one could take on the increased responsibility themselves and be officially ‘Perfected’ at a later time.

    One other ceremony, called the Solace, could be performed for someone who was in immediate danger of dying. The Solace conferred the status of Perfect to those who requested it, or for those who were too sick or badly wounded. If the person survived, the Solace was voided, but the individual was free to undertake the Consolamentum Major at a later time if he or she wished to do so.

    A final practice was the Endura, being an individual’s choice- when in terminally ill health or gravely wounded- to voluntarily end his or her life. This usually took the form of a self-imposed fast with the individual refusing all food and water until they expired. The Endura may or may not have been combined with the Solace or the Consolamentum Major, depending on the circumstances and the individual’s wishes. As there was no stigma on suicide, this was considered an honorable way to end one’s life.

    There were no designated ‘churches’ for Cathars, as they preferred instead to meet in the open or at an individual’s house.

    As for religious services, the only regular community meeting was that of a monthly Confession, during which the Cathars confessed their sins in a simple call-and-response led by a Perfect (or a Believer if no Perfects were available).

    Cathars wore no specific symbol of their faith; they regarded the cross as an abomination and an insult to God as the cross was an instrument of torture. They did, however, tend to wear dark-colored clothing (so as to not appear too worldly or ostentatious) and Perfects almost always adopted black garments. One of the few surviving Cathar artifacts is a dove carved from stone; some believe this might have been a religious symbol but proof is lacking. In modern times, though, Cathar sites in southern France are usually marked with the symbol of a dove. It is known that in honor of their Christian allies and protectors, Cathars would sometimes adopt the 'Occitan Cross' for identification, but not for a specifically religious purpose. (7.10.19)

    End Notes: Unfortunately, there is little factual evidence of Cathar belief extant; only a handful of documents known to be of Cathar origin exist. Most of what is known of the Cathars is derived from the writings of Church priests and the notes of the interrogators of the Inquisition.

    The Cathar influence on the church was no small feat, though; one of the Church’s answers to the Cathars was to create various orders of monks and nuns in order to provide a ‘Christianized Catharism’ to those who wished to devote their lives to the church in a more significant way than the layman. The Inquisition, too, was created specifically to combat the spread of Cathar belief- but even some of those Inquisitors saw the merit in Catharism and joined them instead.

    Following the extermination of the Cathars, other sects arose in opposition to the Church but were put down as ruthlessly as were the Cathars. It was not until 1517, when Martin Luther published his Theses that the Church was to face as credible a challenge to its power since the time of the Cathars.


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    Senior Member SaxonPagan's Avatar
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    That's an excellent résumé, Johan!

    These really captured my imagination when I was based down in Toulouse and sometime during the mid-80's a girl I knew took me to see the newly-built "Chevaliers Cathares" in Narbonne ...


    They paid the ultimate price for their denunciation of the corrupt Catholic Church and are still hailed as martyrs to this day. A lot of places such as cafés and restaurants in the region have names associated with them.

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    However, it is also known that many Cathars- in particular the Perfects- did not fight to defend themselves and willingly went to their deaths as the hands of the Church, secure in their faith that their soul was ready to see God. Sadly, many of these men and women met their deaths by being burned alive but to their credit almost none thus captured recanted.
    Several books I have tell of them going to the stake with great willingness and even singing hymns!

    They believed in reincarnation but not in a positive sense and it was something they sought to avoid in order to break the endless spiral of their earthly suffering.

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