The early years of medieval Christianity greatly diverged from what we commonly associate with the teachings of Christ in the modern age. During the 11th century, an influential but ephemeral religious group known as the Cathars emerged in the Languedoc region of France.
Their dualist, Gnosticism-infused teachings confused and infuriated the Catholic church, who often could not decide whether they were Christian heretics or not Christian at all. Their beliefs are recognized as “The Great Heresy” by Roman Catholics to this day, but their official classification as Christians continues to remain ambiguous.
The Cathars obscure origins have been subject to substantial speculation; however, Persia or the Byzantine Empire were the most likely sources of influence for this medieval movement. The Cathars shared their faith and love for Christ with Christianity, but departed from the doctrine in various ways.
The main difference between Christians and Cathars were two-fold;
- Cathars were Dualist, which means that they believed there were two main creative forces which governed the cosmos: A Good God, who created all souls and the immaterial heavens, and a Bad God, who created the physical world to entrap souls in flesh.
- Cathars were Gnostic, meaning they believed that the universal truth could be known only by direct experience, and that only an inner elite could penetrate the esoteric knowledge by living a disciplined, pure life of asceticism.
“The idea that human beings were sparks of light trapped in tunics of material flesh had a number of logical consequences:
1. Procreative sex was bad, since conception would result in another soul being trapped. For this reason, normal sex between man and wife was as bad as any other procreative sex. Marriage was worthless, while contraception was regarded with approval. Also, there was no reason to condemn any form of non-procreative sex.
2. The less one had to do with evil (ie material) things, the better. Eating animals, or animal products, was particularly abhorred, though fish were allowed (as they were thought to reproduce asexually and were not therefore able to imprison a soul).
3. The sooner we can shed this tunic of flesh, the sooner our souls could be free to fly like a spark of light back to heaven, the realm of the good God. There was therefore no reason to discourage suicide.
4. There was not any reason to regard men as better than women. The important part, the soul, was the same. Only the vile material body was different.
5. Since material objects were creations of the Bad God, it was absurd to imagine that they could be of any virtue. So, for example, jewels, money, relics, the Eucharist, reproductions of the cross, and church buildings were of no value whatsoever. Similarly the Catholic teaching about resurrection of the body was absurd. The very idea of a physical body in heaven was ridiculous. Further, it was not plausible that the Good God would send anyone from his realm into the evil material world of the Bad God. Jesus must therefore have been a sort of phantom, looking like a man but in fact immaterial.
6. Anyone who attached great value to material things was at best mistaken and at worst a disciple of the Bad God. It was no secret that the Pope was the richest man in Europe. Cardinals, bishops and priests lived in great luxury and dressed in gorgeous robes. Worse, the Roman Church encouraged the worship of material objects such as the relics of saints. And worse yet it venerated the cross – not only a material object but also an instrument of torture. There was no escaping the logical conclusion. Roman Catholics were worshipping the wrong God – the God of Evil who had created this world. The behaviour of devout Catholics seemed to confirm this conclusion. Carthars referred to the Roman Church as the Church of Wolves.”http://www.cathar.info/cathar_beliefs.htm#tenets
The Cathars did not believe in a priesthood or Church buildings, but maintained a distinct hierarchy, where the members of the congregation lead normal medieval lives while the elect Parfaits held administrative roles in the spiritual community.
Cathars believed in a heaven similar to Christian conception, but did not believe in hell, and emphasized that one could only reach Heaven after living a pure life isolated from the material world. If a soul was not pure upon death, it would be persecuted before it could reach Heaven, and it would flee “into the first lodging of clay that it finds”; in other words, it would reincarnate.
Both Catholics and Cathars believed their theology was the original, and that the other was a distorted knock-off. In this conflict, the Catholics created propaganda by inventing abhorrent practices, declaring that they were of Cathar origin to convince the public of the Cathar’s corruption. Their plan worked, and it lead to thousands of deaths in the Crusades and Inquisitions meant to extinguish the Cathar faith.
In the 14th Century, the Catholics had completely eradicated the Cathar movement from the face of the Earth, but the faith survived in the shadows, subtly influencing the Catholic church to this day.
New Catholic orders, known as the Dominicans and Franciscans, surfaced in the Languedoc region. Their black-robed appearance closely emulated the Cathar Elders, as they walked in pairs through the countryside and preached poverty just like their heretical predecessors. The first nunnery ever established by Saint Dominic is speculated to be the direct replica of a Cathar monastery, in which the nuns unwittingly imitated the Cathar Parfaites.
“From early days in its history the Church that developed into the Roman Catholic Church adopted popular ideas from their Gnostic counterparts. The idea of creating a canonical “New Testament” was one such idea. The first version of the New Testament was collated by a Gnostic called Marcion. The idea of Apostolic Succession is a another example. And what is technically called mitigated Dualism is a third. The idea of a God of Light locked in cosmic battle with a God of Darkness is characteristically Manichaean – ie Gnostic Dualist – idea. Mitigated Dualists taught that the good god will win in the end. Catholics take care not to refer to the evil principal as a god. Modern Catholic teaching on this point is indistinguishable from Catharist belief in its mitigated Dualist form, as long as Satan is denied the title of a god (though Satan is clearly called a god in the New Testament – see 2 Corinthians 4:4).http://www.cathar.info/cathar_legacy.htm#catholic
The truth about the origin and influence of the medieval Cathar era is perplexing and inconclusive. It is quite possible that the original Christian faith resembled the Cathar way of life, and it is equally conceivable that these traditions succeeded former Gnostic interpretations of Christianity. Nevertheless, the Cathar’s persistence and nonconformity in the face of the imperious Catholic church is a historic illustration of the deep-rooted dissent and diversity buried in modern theology.