While on holiday in the Pyrenees Orientales, I visited the so-called Cathar country where in the 13th century, at the command of the Pope, crusaders massacred thousands of innocent people because they held beliefs that were anathema to the Catholic Church. The Cathar communities came into being in the 12th century and had been almost completely eradicated by the end of the 14th.
They refused to recognise the authority of the Roman Church because they considered it corrupt and insufficiently Christlike. In this respect they shared some of the same concerns as St Francis, who, however, was obedient to the hierarchy of the church. The Cathars based their criticism of the church on a theology which was radically different from mainstream Christian tradition.
1. They insisted that there were two “principles” or Gods, one the true father of Jesus whose goodness liberates humanity from all material evils into the life of the spirit, and another who created the material universe and imprisoned humans in material bodies.
2. Much of the Old Testament they saw as witness to the activities of the evil God.
3. Jesus himself had no material body but was a disguised spirit, who therefore could not undergo a real death. For the Cathars, Jesus was the revealer of the life of the spirit.
4. Material sacraments like holy communion and baptism were rejected as unspiritual.
5. Conception and birth, as the means by which material life is continued, were seen as without value, if not evil. Some of the Cathar community might marry but those who desired to be perfect did not. As sexual difference was unimportant, women were encouraged to be leaders along with men.
6. The gospel teachings of Jesus were taken literally and put into practice: voluntary poverty, sharing of goods and love of neighbour were marks of the Cathar communities, as was admitted even by their orthodox enemies.
I have read an extended statement of Cathar beliefs by one John Lugio, dated 1240, in which he explains why he believes in “two principles” rather than one. He refers to the common problem of evil in the world and asks how so much evil can proceed from the will of a good Creator. If such an omnipotent creator intended the world to be this way, then he cannot he called good.
He recognises that the Catholic theologians have answered this difficulty by arguing that God gave human beings free will, so that they could choose good or evil. John counters this by saying that this just pushes the issue back one stage: if God is God he must known that some humans would choose evil and so he must either have intended the world to be as it is, or at least allowed it to be so. This last possibilty, that the Creator has given freedom for creatures to make their own choices and has allowed their bad choices although they give him pain, is rejected by John. He imagines God considering the evil of humanity:
“‘It repenteth me that I have made them; namely, I shall have to undergo suffering and pain in the future, through myself alone, because I made them.” And so it seems manifest, according to the doctrine of those persons who believe that there is only one First Principle, that this God and His Son, Jesus Christ, who, according to them are one and the same, causes Himself sadness, sorrow, and suffering, bearing pain in Himself without any extraneous intervention by anyone. But it is impossible and wicked to believe this of the true God.’
John glimpses a truly radical truth about the creator, that creation involves acceptance of the cross, because only through the suffering of God can human evil be forgiven and overcome. But he cannot accept this because his view of divine perfection excludes suffering. Therefore he concludes that evil originates in another principle or God, whom he designates as the creator of material reality. Faithful believers fight alongside the true God against the Evil One on behalf of spiritual goodness.
I am suggesting that Catharism, along with other dualistic theologies, grew out of a profound apprehension of evil, of the wrongness of the world as it is. Conventional Christianity concentrates on personal sin but accepts worldy life as basically OK. More radical believers have often questioned this acceptance and tried to make sense of a world-gone-wrong. We can be pious and say that God simply endures the wrongness of the world, or we can be more daring and say that God has chosen this world and its wrongness over a world where goodness is achieved by compulsion. And we can assert that the consequence of this choice is that God in his/her goodness suffers grief and pain. This vulnerability of God draws the believer to God’s side, walking the way of Jesus so that God may win against the odds. The Cathars thought this commitment entailed the existence of two opposed deities; I think it points to the astonishing permissiveness of the one God, who grants a genuine freedom to his/her creation, but maintains his/her goodness at the cost of pain.
All of which is to say that although I totally disagree with Cathar theology, I can sympathise with their radical commitment to the gentleness of Jesus, their risky choice of the narrow path in a landscape of precipitous heights and depths. They were exterminated by the Church because they challenged its corrupt power. The worst thugs in Europe were employed by the Holy Father to cleanse the Albigensian lands of people whose only crime was being too clean.
A Cathar martyr described the conflict as between a “church that hides and a church that flays.”
I have described this historical event in the language of theological realism: God is this, God is that; but of course both Catholic and Cathar were engaged in inventing their Gods, as believers like me still do.