The Cathars – Not The Good Guys After All

Many people who know little about the middle ages or Christian theology are nevertheless quite sure that the Cathars were the good guys in all possible respects. One reason may be that it was the Inquisition who tortured suspected Cathars and not the other way round, so that they engage our sympathy for the victim and the underdog. Nothing wrong with that, although if the Cathars had triumphed, one might ask how long it would take them to start torturing their own dissidents. After all, what the schism was ultimately all about was tithes: “follow the money”. Another reason is the fact that women, who could not and still cannot become Catholic priests and bishops, could make the grade of Perfecta, so that the Cathars profit from our sympathy for female emancipation. Nothing wrong with that either, although the fact that a Perfectus would lose his salvation if he accepted food from the hand of a woman is far less known and celebrated.

What the New Age adulation of the Cathars wholly omits, because it is known only to the specialists, is just how horribly easy it was for the Perfectus to end up damned – actually much easier than for his Catholic opposite number. For the Perfectus obtained his salvation not only from extreme personal asceticism but also from being inducted (“consoled”) by a Cathar bishop; now, if this bishop subsequently sinned and fell, then this meant that he had never properly been saved in the first place, that consequently his sacraments were never valid, and therefore the Perfecti whom he consoled are not in fact saved either. This remained true even if the Perfecti in question were living without sin in another country and never heard the news of their consoler’s moral lapse and damnation. In the Cathar church, therefore, there could be no assurance of salvation, not unless you knew absolutely that the bishop who had consoled you had died in a state of purity, and the bishop who consoled him likewise, and so on all the way back. A Catholic was saved by the grace of God and obedience to the Church, a Protestant would later be saved by faith alone, but a Cathar Perfectus was saved by ascetic purity – not only his own but also that of other people over which he had no control. The universal church had debated this in the fifth century and concluded that the sacraments of a sinful priest were nevertheless valid, because they were God’s doing and not his; but the Cathars were far less generous to the individual and their God was of no help at all, you had do it all yourself.

To the laity they were less generous still. Salvation was only available through heroic asceticism of which the vast majority of people were not capable; these remained in the world, marrying and eating meat, and their only job was to feed, clothe and serve the Perfecti. Insofar as ordinary people could achieve salvation at all, it was by deathbed “consolation” – in the same way and for the same reasons as Christians had once accepted baptism only on their deathbed, because then you have little opportunity to sin again. It seems, however, that the common people also envisaged themselves as being saved through their humble veneration and spiritual maintenance of the Perfecti spiritual elite, rather than via any kind of direct relationship with God. Salvation thus comes from other men. In comparison, Catholicism is positively egalitarian.

If we look at the doctrines of Catharism and what they actually offered people, therefore, the movement becomes incomprehensible other than against the background of gross worldly corruption of the established church, which charged more while not setting such an admirable example.

Posted on May 18, 2011 at 09:58 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Jews, Cathars, Gays And Witches

5 Responses

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  1. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on May 18, 2011 at 16:43

    Accepting the sacrifice of Christ’s death, the god of Christians absolved the human race of its past sins and pardoned them of any punishment due. Fundamentally, Christian salvation is unconditional, universal, and indifferent to whether the saved is aware of the salvation. Various Christian religions modify the gift of salvation to impose any number of un-Biblical requirements such as being “born again” or accepting Christ as one’s savior. These are intended more to bind the subject to a church than save him, and are entirely misguided.

    Once saved, of course, an individual may damn himself (in spite of his salvation) in the time remaining in his life. A virtuous life is not a necessary requirement for Christ’s salvation, though, but for entry into the Christian afterlife. If “salvation” is used to mean absolution of historical sins in one context, and to mean entry into heaven in another, then this is the classic error of equivocation. I’m not sure that most Christians grasp the difference. It sounds like the Cathars didn’t.

  2. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on May 19, 2011 at 10:34

    Mr. F., I don’t understand your point here. If absolution of past sins is not about entry into a better afterlife, what is it good for? You also mention pardon of punishment due. What is that about if not entry into heaven? So I am not in fact convinced that these are two different things.

  3. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on May 19, 2011 at 21:43

    I couldn’t have been less clear, could I? I’ll try again.

    Some 2,000 years ago, a purported god was sacrificed to his father as the proper offering to induce the father to forgive the sin that we inherit from our ancestors who committed the original sin that kept us out of heaven. That done, we are each to live our current lives in a way that keeps us from being damned yet again, as an individual, by the father god. So the absolution for the original sin is a necessary but not sufficient condition for entry into heaven. My embedded point was, however, that no one has to do anything except be born to receive the gift of salvation–the absolution of the sins of our ancestors.

  4. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on May 20, 2011 at 09:43

    That’s clearer, thanks. But say, if you were a first century christian and another said to you, Fnortnerius, now that Christ has paid off the debt from before we were born, how do we stay saved and get into heaven, what would you answer? For the sources seem a bit confused: Paul thinks that the atonement is ongoing, while Peter and James talk as if you have to be grateful enough to stay out of trouble henceforth. I don’t agree with you that being born again is a later Protestant invention (remember who first used the phrase), but that is not to say that the recipe is clear.

  5. Written by Mr Fnortner
    on May 20, 2011 at 16:53

    The bottom line here is that Christianity’s teachings are a complete muddle right from the start. Dependency on the source of a teaching for its meaning and form betrays a lack of authenticity–perhaps more than a little imagination and wishful thinking have gone into Christian articles of faith–and leaves believers open to serious emotional manipulation.

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