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(Cathars). A Christian sect that had numerous adherents in Western Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. The Cathars were sometimes referred to as the “Albigenses,” the men of Albi, one of their chief centers of influence in the south of France. The sect enjoined strict asceticism on its members, but as the teachings grew in popularity and the number of followers increased there was considerable relaxation of the original strict disciples. As a consequence the sect was divided into two bodies, the “perfect” and the “believers.” The perfect included the bishops and deacons and were raised to that rank through an elaborate ceremony of initiation.

It is possible that the significance and influence of the Cathari has been underestimated by modern historians. That the orthodox church of the time did not is evidenced by the scale of the persecutions and crusades against them. At their peak they were active in France, Northern Italy, and England and their teaching appealed to the laboring classes that had long been suppressed by the ruling classes. Together with the Waldenses, the Cathars encouraged a simple lifestyle and their priesthood exemplified this philosophy, being committed to a life of poverty, in direct contrast to the opulent lifestyle of the Catholic priests.

The central belief of the Cathars was dualistic, that is, that the material world is evil in nature and was created by Satan, whereas the spiritual world is good and created by God. This was in direct conflict with the orthodox Christian teaching and in 1179 the Third Lateran Council declared the Albigensians anathema. In 1208 Innocent III (1198-1216) began the Albigensian Crusade in an attempt to extirpate the sect by force of arms and many died, but the crusade failed in its object. Over the ensuing years the church carried on a relentless program aimed at the complete elimination of all the heretical sects and to this end established the infamous Inquisition. In spite of this persecution, the Cathars continued to cling to a precarious existence through to the 15th century. Of all the so-called heretical sects that sprang into existence around the 12th century, only the Waldenses continue to exist in the 20th century.

Teachings. The Cathars suffered a number of doctrinal divisions, but it is possible to outline a core of teaching on which most were agreed. The physical world was considered evil and the human spirit was “prisoner” in the material world. They believed in the perfectibility of the human spirit through a number of incarnations. A pure diet and lifestyle was demanded and they abstained from all flesh foods. There was a sharp division between the “Elect” and the “Believers.” The former practiced strict celibacy, believing that procreation resulted in more spirits being condemned to life in flesh. So extreme was the asceticism of the Elect that they did not disapprove of suicide.

The Believers adopted a much more orthodox lifestyle and in time the number of Elect diminished, but the Cathars continued to gain adherents for some time, but the combination of Christian persecution and the more popular doctrine preached by the monks of the Friars Minor (Franciscans) that the world is essentially good resulted in the virtual extinction of the Cathars early in the 15th century.

For further discussion, see Arthur Guirdham, The Cathars and Reincarnation (1970; Quest ed., 1978).