The Cathars were a medieval Christian sect deemed heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. Because a great many contemporaneous documents pertaining to Catharism were destroyed in attempts to crush the heresy, present-day knowledge of the faith comes mainly through the critical writings of the Church.
Although Catharism is widely believed to have spread into western Europe from the Balkan countries beginning in the eleventh century, its historic origins and precise pathways of propagation remain uncertain.
Due to Catharism’s similarity to Christianity, it was not considered a novel religion, but an insult to orthodox belief — a heresy. Like their orthodox counterparts, Cathars believed that Jesus Christ had been sent to earth by God the Father to save their souls. But there the similarities end.
Cathars believed that Christ was sent to Earth as a man, not the Son of God. They did not believe in Baptism by Water, the Holy Trinity or the Blessed Virgin Mary. They practiced a Baptism of Hands in which a previously baptized Elder, called a Perfect, would bestow a spiritual purification upon a congregant, frequently near the end of his or her life.
On the creation side of the picture, Cathars believed that the world had been created by Lucifer, the archangel who turned against God the Father, precipitating the War in Heaven. As the Cathar creation story goes, while the Demon and his army of traitorous minions were being cast into the darkness, Lucifer stole a portion of light from the beatific vision. He fell into darkness and created Earth which, as the realm of the Demon, constituted Hell.
In an effort to regain entry to Heaven, the Demon created Man to gather grace on behalf of his fallen army whose spirits he transmuted into particles of light and instilled them into the bodies of Adam and Eve. Their offspring would serve as grace-accruing proxies for the Demon’s defeated, angelic warriors.
As humankind multiplied, vast numbers of fallen lights ensconced themselves in newborns by whose grace they might regain the sight of the Father in Heaven. In opposition to the Demon’s grand plan, the Cathars resolved to thwart his efforts by avoiding the instruments of procreation, abstaining from acts of conjugation and emulating the life of the man sent by the Father to redeem humankind – Jesus Christ.
The Cathars wore belly cinctures in mortification of the flesh and wooden-soled sandals in emulation of Christ. They gathered and prayed in secret nighttime enclaves. They confessed in public on certain days of the year and fasted on certain days of the month.
Perhaps the most notable event in Cathar history is the mass burning alive of over two hundred Cathar Perfects after they refused to renounce their faith on March 16, 1244.