The religion of the “good men”
At first, the religion of the “Good Men” developed within the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Cathars did not assume, in their entirety, Christian dogmas and rejected the Old Testament, they claimed primitive Christianity, proclaiming a total detachment from matter (incarnation of evil), and a move towards a rigorous asceticism.
It is evident that such a radical position soon attracted the suspicions of Catholic orthodoxy. This led to a second phase, in which the Cathar religion was seen as a danger for the future of the Roman Catholic Church and in which, for about a century, Catharism developed in parallel, but on the margins of Roman Christianity.
The third phase is the cruel and fanatical persecution to which the “Good Men”, the “Pure”, or “perfect”, a term used by Roman Catholics to mock those they considered their adversaries, were subjected.
In the year 1165, the Council of Lombers was held near Albi, the last attempt at rapprochement between Cathars and Roman Catholics. However, the council turned out to be a real failure and, as a result, the Church of Rome decided to extirpate the Cathar religion by force, as it was considered a heresy and a real threat to the unity of the Roman Catholic Church.
The crusade against the Cathar heresy
Catharism was first and foremost a Christian religion that claimed to be the mouthpiece of the authentic message of Christ.
We have a letter sent to Bernard of Clairvaux by Provost Evervin of the abbey of Steinfield (German diocese of Cologne) in 1147, in which he refers to a group of Christians considered heretics:
Recently, in our house near Cologne, heretics have been discovered, some of whom, to our satisfaction, have returned to the Church. Two among them, namely, those whom they called the bishop and his companion, have confronted us in an assembly of clergy and laity, at which his illustriousness the archbishop was present with persons of the high aristocracy; they defended their heresy with the words of Christ and the apostles (…) When this had been heard, they were admonished three times, but they refused to repent; then, in spite of us, they were taken by a people with too much zeal, thrown into the fire and burned. And what is most admirable is that they entered the fire and endured their torments not only with patience, but even with joy. On this point, Holy Father, I would like, if I were near you, to have your answer as to why these children of the devil can find in their heresy, a value similar to the strength that faith in Christ inspires in true religious?
According to Evervin’s testimony, these “sons of the devil” said of themselves that they were the Church of Christ, heirs of the apostolic tradition, because they followed Christ, and that they were the true disciples of the apostolic life, because they did not seek the world nor did they possess any house, fields or money, just as Christ himself did not possess anything nor did he allow his disciples to possess anything. They claimed that they were “not of this world”. Evervein also points out that they baptized and were baptized, not with water, but with fire and the Spirit, invoking the testimony of John the Baptist. Such baptism was carried out by the laying on of hands, through the ritual known as “Consolamentum“.
The “Cathar heretics” questioned the sacraments of the Church of Rome, saying that it was not necessary to baptize children, nor to pray for the dead, nor to ask for the intersection of the saints. (at the end of the 12th century, Matfre Ermengaud de Bézier, in his treatise against the heretics, pointed out that of all their errors, the most important was the interpretation of the sacrament of baptism).
According to Evervin’s testimony, the structure of the Community of heretics comprised three levels: “the elect” (those who had received the “Consolamentum“, the “perfect ones”, the innermost group), “the believers” (those who followed the doctrines, but had not been baptized), and “the listeners” (those who listened to the preaching of the heretics). The provost points out that such heretics had their own pope and that, even among the women, there were “elect”.
The Cathars made profuse use of the New Testament, as well as some books of the Old Testament, although they showed a clear predilection for the Gospel of John. They also held the prayer of the “Our Father” in high esteem, considering Christ as the means by which God revealed himself to humanity.
The Cathars’ interpretations of the Holy Scriptures soon unleashed the wrath of Roman orthodoxy, to the point that Pope Innocent III organized a crusade to put an end to what was considered the Cathar heresy. Thus, in 1209, an army of some 30,000 soldiers devastated the south of France. In Béziers alone, one of the first cities to fall, more than 15,000 men, women and children were exterminated. The Crusaders, under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, spread terror and propagated the collective burning of thousands of “good men”.
It is worth asking what horrible crimes justified such cruel persecutions and massacres. Bernard of Clairvaux, considered a saint by the Roman Church, and declared enemy of Catharism, in his sermons 65 and 66 on the Song of Songs (most likely with the letter sent to him by Evervin in mind) compares the heretic (Cathar) to a fox that conceals its acts:
“If you question them about their faith, no one seems more Christian than these heretics. If you observe his manner of life, you will find him blameless in everything; and what he preaches he proves by his works. You will see that he frequents the church as a testimony of his faith, honors the presbyters, gives his alms, goes to confession, participates in the sacraments. Is there anyone more faithful?
Reviewing his life and customs, with no one he is violent, he involves no one, with no one he overdoes himself. Moreover he pales by fasting, he does not eat his bread by the bucket, he works with his hands to earn his living”.
Despite the ironic tone of the text, Bernard of Clairvaux’s moral portrait could not be more commendable for men and women who are branded as heretics and agents of the devil.
The reality is that the Cathars’ Christianity and their practical way of living it threatened the dogmatic structures of the Orthodox Church, for the “good men” did not believe in baptism by water, nor in the Eucharist, nor in any other sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church.