From the middle of the 10th century, a religious movement spread rapidly throughout Western Europe, until it was eradicated by the Roman Church: Catharism.
The origin of the movement has been discussed by historiography, without conclusive results, so the debate is still open. Some authors consider it an evolution of Eastern heretical forms, while others see it as a totally Western impulse for renewal, arising from a part of the Latin clergy, dissatisfied with the Gregorian Reformation and linked to the arrival of Bogomilism in the East.
The movement received different names (Bulgarians, publicans, patarins, weavers, bougres…). The term “Cathar” was applied to them for the first time around 1163 by the Rhenish monk Eckbert of Schöu, who, in his discourses, used this word to refer to a heretical sect that arose in the cities of Bonn and Cologne.
A personage and a historical fact are relevant when analyzing the origins of Catharism: Nicetas, Bogomil bishop of Constantinople (some sources call him “Pope Nicetas”), and the great Cathar council held in Saint Felix de Caraman, in the south of France, in 1167. (A document has come down to us that relates what happened in that council: The Charter of Niquinta, published in 1660 by Gillaume Besse in his “History of the Counts, Marquises and Dukes of Narbonne”, although some authors doubt its authenticity).
Nicetas imposed on his arrival in Lombardy his absolute dualistic vision, and imparted among his followers the “Consolamentum”. He then went to Languedoc where, in the presence of representatives of the various Cathar churches, he presided over the council of St. Felix of Caraman, and confirmed six Cathar bishops (Robert d’Espernon, French bishop; Sicard Cellarier, bishop of Albi; Marcos, bishop of Lombardy; Bernard Raymond, bishop of Toulouse; Gerald Mercier, bishop of Carcassonne; and Raymond de Casals, bishop of Agen), and renewed the “consolamenta”.
In spite of the unifying attempt of Nicetas, more than of Catharism, we should speak of “Catharisms” because, in its origin, we find it linked to groups like the Albigensians, the Bogomils, Paterinos, or the same troubadours of the time. On the other hand, at least the communities settled in Italy were fragmented in six local churches with their own bishopric, there being no diocesan organization.
In order to understand the Cathar religion, we believe it is necessary to keep in mind its Gnostic roots and its dualism (proclaims the existence of two antagonistic principles at work in the world: Good and Evil).
Zoroaster or Zarathustra, the initiate who structured and shaped Mazdeism in Iran in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C., had already taught his students the existence of two gods, two opposing forces that confront each other in the Universe: the god of Good or Light, Ormuz, and the god of evil or darkness, Arriman.
Mazdeism taught that man lives in a continuous debate between these two forces or principles, and that he is punished or rewarded according to his own actions. Zoroaster’s teachings greatly influenced later religions, especially Christianity and Manichaeism.
Manes, born in the year 216, in Persia, picks up the torch of the mysteries of Zoroaster and also proclaims that in the Universe there are two principles: the god of Light and the god of Darkness or matter.
The beliefs of Manichaeism are linked to the Christian gnosticism of the first centuries and, in particular, to the Christian gnosis of Paul.
The Cathar religion, which spread rapidly throughout Europe at the beginning of the 11th century, clearly differentiated between the Spirit and its works, and the body, a material creation and therefore the work of Satan.
There is no lack of historical sources that allow us to delve into the philosophical, doctrinal and practical aspects that generated such antagonism. However, apart from the documents coming from the archives of the Inquisition and the treatises written in order to discredit the Cathars, three strictly Cathar documents have been preserved that shed light on the subject:
– The Book of the Two Principles, a Latin manuscript from the 1260s, which is a summary of a work composed by the Cathar doctor John Lugio in 1230.
– The Occitan ritual (or Lyon ritual).
– The Latin ritual.
The latter (from around 1250) are of great importance for everything concerning the Cathar liturgy. To these three valuable documents should be added two apocryphal gospels that had a clear influence on the doctrinal formulations of the Cathars:
– The Secret Supper or Interrogation of John, a writing transmitted by the Bogomils around 1190 and which was of particular importance among the French and Italian Cathars; and
– The Ascension of Isaiah, an ancient Bulgarian text used among the Bogomils.
The book of the two principles advocates a creative dualism based on the existence of two opposing orders of reality: the spiritual, invisible and eternal reality, and the visible, temporal world, in which evil and destruction reign.
The Cathars could not conceive that a single Being, wise and kind, could have created both orders of existence at the same time, so they presupposed the existence of two distinct and opposite creators: the first order of existence would be the creation of the Good God or Legitimate God, while this material world was considered the work of the Evil God.
The creator principle of the World (the bad God), would be co-eternal with the Good God, but he was not a true God. He is the Prince of this World, the Prince of Darkness, but he does not have the absolute existence that only the true God possesses.
Faced with this absolute dualism, other sectors of Catharism advocated a moderate dualism, considering this world as the work of Satan or Lucifer, who in his fall, his rebellion against his creator, threw the souls into the “land of oblivion”, the world of matter, where the soul loses the knowledge of its origin and essence.
For moderate dualists, Christ alone is the Creator, since he is God. But Lucibel, the prince of war and calamities, “has not created, but has transformed the world, a gross and terrestrial image of the perfect and celestial world“.
In both cases, according to the Cathar conception, there is no other hell than that of this world. Man participates, through his soul, in the Kingdom of the Spirit, and through his body in the world of the evil God. Salvation would take place through the union of the soul with the Spirit. Such a union could only take place by means of the baptism instituted by Christ and transmitted without interruption by the Apostles: the baptism of fire, the effusion of the Holy Spirit by those who possess it, through the imposition of hands.
The “consolamentum” or baptism of fire
The baptism of fire, or of the Light, was the principal Cathar sacrament, and, according to their conceptions, the true baptism of Christ. Both the Occitan ritual (or ritual of Lyon) and the Latin ritual describe the baptism of fire extensively under the name of Consolamentum or spiritual baptism. Through it, a true mystical union is realized between the soul imprisoned in the body and its Spirit.
The Consolamentum was received by the novices at the time of their ordination, after a three-year stay in a house of the Perfect Ones, during which they were prepared in the teachings and in the practice of the strict rules of life.
In the Occitan Ritual we read about it:
If you would receive this power and strength, you must keep all the commandments of Christ and of the New Testament according to your power. And know that he has commanded a man to commit neither adultery nor murder, nor lie, to swear no oath, not to steal or steal away, not to do to his neighbor what he would not have done to him, and that a man should forgive those who have wronged him, to love his enemies, and pray for his slanderers and his accusers and bless them, and if his robe is stolen, to give the robe also; not to judge or condemn, and many other commandments.
The ordination ceremony took place in the presence of other Perfects. After the exchange of ritual phrases, the officiant placed the New Testament on the head of the neophyte and placed his right hand on him to perform the Consolamentum or spiritual baptism. But before being able to receive the Consolamentum, the novice had to go through a period of work and rigorous asceticism known under the name of endura.
The true meaning of the “endura” has certainly been misunderstood, accusing the Cathars of committing suicide. Nothing could be further from the truth. The “endura” certainly represents death, but not of the personality, but the annihilation of the impious in the being, in the microcosm, and the sanctification of the whole system. The fundamental basis of such work was to withdraw from the world in order to consecrate oneself entirely to God, and to purify the body by means of a strictly vegetarian diet.
Even simple believers, in case of serious illness, could receive the Consolamentum, which did not mean that the heavenly gates were automatically opened to them, but that they could be forgiven.
Once the novices were consecrated, becoming Perfect Ones, they had to live and travel, two by two, preaching and exercising some of the offices learned in their communal stay.
In the next part, we will see the second aspect of Catharism that we have mentioned: its relationship with Roman Christianity.