Cathars (Cathari or Catharists), a religious sect of the 11th century of remote
Balkan origin, representing a renewal of Manichaeism, which spread through
northern Italy and southern France. Their belief was based on a dualistic conception
of the world. The visible world is subject to evil, the devil; the invisible
world is subject to God. Satan, with Moses as his tool, delayed the redemptive
work of God (hence they rejected the legal books of the Old
Testament) until it was carried through by Christ, who had only apparently
assumed human nature: Since the soul is the divine part of man, it must
be freed from matter to enter the kingdom of light. On this basis they rejected
marriage, forbade the eating of meat, demanded complete chastity, and denied
the resurrection. They were hostile to the external church. Baptism
and communion had no meaning for them, and they rejected the adoration of images.
In the place of the two sacraments they believed in the baptism of the spirit (consolamentum) through
the laying on of hands, and strict moral demands (poverty, chastity, asceticism),
which were certain to lead to blessedness unless some sin was committed afterward.
In southern France, where the moral and cultural level of the Catholic clergy was particularly low, the movement became very powerful. About 1200 most of the princes and barons were credentes. In the cities and castles perfecti preached openly and built chapels and schools for boys and girls. The Catholic Church here led a merely tolerated existence. Since the church was unable to subdue these Cathars, here known as Albigenses (after Albi, a city in southern France where they were very numerous), with spiritual weapons, she organized a crusade against them and in a bloody war lasting 20 years finally succeeded in crushing the movement.
The Cathars in Spain, Italy, and Germany were wiped out by the Inquisition. Yet they did not disappear without leaving their traces behind. In 1215 the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was made a dogma in order to oppose the dualism of the Cathars. The consolamentum led to the development of the sacrament of the extreme unction; and the moral rigor of the Cathars led to the begging monastic orders.
The Cathars cannot be considered forerunners of the Anabaptists. Though both groups rejected infant baptism, their motives were far apart. The Anabaptists based their doctrine on the Bible, the Cathars on the (essentially Persian and pagan) opposition between light and matter, which completely devalues everything earthly. Spiritual baptism brought redemption from the world, but if even a single sin was committed afterward, salvation was forfeited. In order to avoid committing any possible sin after receiving this baptism, many chose to die (by hunger). In the matter of the rejection of war and of killing likewise, the Anabaptists based their belief on the Biblical prohibition, whereas the Cathars' belief was founded on their un-Biblical (though deep) conception of sin as the inclination toward matter; hence the eating of meat, killing of animals and human beings, sexual relations, and the owning of property were equally serious sins. He who rids himself of these things is saved; the ascetic life is therefore the guarantee of eternal life. The Anabaptists also were distinguished for their purity of conduct, as their preference for the Sermon on the Mount indicates, but they conceived moral living as a natural conduct of the regenerated man who follows in the steps of Christ. There was an equally serious difference between the two groups in the idea of the church. In spite of the great attraction of the Cathar doctrines for the masses, they made a sharp distinction between the credentes and the perfecti, and in spite of their opposition to clerical domination, they developed a sort of hierarchy in the course of time. We even hear of a Cathar pope!
In summary, it may be said that precisely the points of doctrine that are apparently common to both Cathars and Anabaptists show most clearly the fundamental difference between them, the difference between Persian religiosity and Christianity. Nor are there any external connecting lines between them. Catharism of all branches was literally wiped out by fire and sword.
See also Albigenses
Broeckx, Edmond. Le Catharisme. Hoogstraten: Haseldonkx, 1916.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe; Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 471.
Holmes, Edmond. The Albigensian or Catharist Heresy: a Story and a Study. London: Williams & Norgate, 1925.
"Katharer" in J. J. Herzog and Albert Hauck, Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche, 24 vols. 3rd ed. Leipzig: J. H. Hinrichs, 1896-1913.
"Katharer" in Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 2. ed., 5 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 1927-1932.
Keller, L. Johann von Staupitz . . . Leipzig, 1888: 92, 247.
Lea, H. C. A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, 3 vols. New York, 1888.
Lindeboom, J. Stiefkinderen von het Christendom. The Hague, 1929: 43-66.
Zeitschrift für historische Theologie (1847).
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 531-532. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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