medieval print showing Cathars being cut down by knights
800 years ago, the medieval Roman Catholic Church launched what became known as the Albigensian Crusade against the socio-religious group known as the Cathars. Undertaken primarily by the French kingdom at the instigation of the Church, the military action against the Cathar denomination eventually resulted in the extermination of most of its members. The crusade lasted for 20 years and at the end, the Church was left as the supreme Christian authority in western Europe (at least until the Reformation.) One of the prime reasons the Cathars were targeted by the Church was the elimination of a powerful competing Christian belief system which at its core renounced Catholic doctrine and thereby circumvented its political power. For the French, the invasion and sack of the Languedoc region where the Cathars were based cemented their political control over a rich province. Eventually, an estimated 1 million people were killed over the 20 years of war. The Albigensian Crusade, brutal as it was, was the source of a famous quote by one of the knight-commanders: when asked by his men whom should be killed and whom should be spared, he replied, “Kill them all; God will know his own.”
(The name “Albigensian” comes from a theological debate which took place between Catholic and Cathar priests in the town of Albi. Cathars were thence also known as Albigensians. The name ‘Cathar’ derives from the Greek katharoi, which means ‘pure.’ Our word for purification, ‘catharsis’ has the same Greek root.)
One of the main heretical doctrines which so inflamed the Church was the Cathar belief of dualism. Their cosmological viewpoint held that all matter was the creation of a force or deity which was not the true God, but a usurper. In classical Gnostic beliefs (which heavily influenced Catharism,) this entity is known as the “demiurge.” For the Cathars, all matter is a prison, enslaving our intrinsic divine spark in the physical world, and in a physical body. Jehovah of the Old Testament was a pretender, in reality an agent of darkness who sought to imprison humanity in the shackles of an illusory plane. Catharism viewed the physical world as a state to be transcended. It had no value, and indeed, blinds us to true enlightenment, which could only be attained by individual efforts to free the spirit from the material world in order to reunite with the Divine.
But what set the Church on a collision course with Catharism were two important tenets espoused by the Cathars; First, that no temporal power, institution or person could be a middleman between attaining union with the divine. This was an assault on the Church’s role of shepherding the Christian flock into heaven. The next Cathar belief which struck to the core of Roman Catholicism was their disavowal of Jesus dying on the cross, and the subsequent Resurrection. For the Cathars, Jesus was in fact pure spirit. His appearance as a man was an illusion. And because flesh and matter were evil, Jesus could never have incarnated in flesh as the Son of God. The Cathar belief in the illusory nature of reality was quite literal; hence, the Crucifixion was illusory as well. And being illusory, there could be no such thing as Christ dying for the sins of humanity. It was this main tenet, classified by the Roman Church as supremely heretical, that drove first religious, and finally military action against the Cathars.
There are many similarities between Catharism and Manichaeism, which also preached the duality of the universe, and its division into Light and Dark. Manichaeism was founded by the prophet Mani in the 3rd Century A.D. It was also a form of dualistic Christianity where God and Satan had equal, albeit opposite roles in the cosmos. (Saint Augustine of Hippo was a Manichee in his younger years, but converted to Christianity.) It was Satan who created the physical world, with God presiding over a kingdom of pure light. Where both Manichaeism and Catharism believed in the physical world being inherently evil creations, the Manichees did not reject the physical world; rather, they held that Satan and his physical creation was in a constant state of interaction with God and his Kingdom of Light. What resulted from this intermingling was the cosmos and humanity. It is humanity’s task to liberate portions of divine light that have been imprisoned in Satan’s physical creation.
The south of France in the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire contained a large community of Manichees, and it is believed their sect evolved or least heavily influenced what later became the Cathar movement. As it stood in the medieval world, Catharism could not be tolerated by the Catholic Church, which had to strike down any and all threats to its doctrinal control within Christianity. And so Catharism met the same fate as a multitude of other Christian offshoots such as Arianism and Celtic Christianity. Or did the Cathars disappear? An intriguing medieval conspiracy theory has it that some survivors found a welcome refuge amongst the most famous of European chivalric orders – the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, better known to us as the Knights Templar.
But the Catholic Church has evolved. Today, Pope Benedict sent his best wishes to Hindus for the Divali festival. He is also scheduled to visit the Synagogue of Rome in January, only the second Pope to do so. His predecessor John Paul II did much to solidify the Church’s program of reaching out to Protestants and non-Christian faiths, and putting to rest the ghosts of intolerance and repression that still have life in the history books. The Cathars themselves might appreciate this modern irony; that their Catholic adversary would one day rid itself of much of the narrow-minded worldly obsessions which dominated its early history.