The Cathars are thought of at best, as an austere group of puritans and at worst, as a heretical sect who were massacred by the Church. New information is coming to light all the time that clearly contradicts the traditional views that are held about them, which it has to be said are largely the result of the notoriously unreliable, and extremely biased Inquisition records. To say the Inquisition was unbiased is akin to stating that the Nazis could give a truthful historical record of the Jews.
The Cathars are believed to have originated with Manichaeanism, which took root in Persia during the 3rd century CE, as both shared a common belief in Dualism, i.e., the concept of good and evil, or light and dark. I believe however that these beliefs predate Manichaeanism by at least a few centuries.
To the Cathars the physical world, and everything in it was created by the force of darkness, and therefore regarded as irrelevant to salvation. The spiritual, or unseen world was created by a God of Light, who was unconcerned with the material world, and did not judge on the basis of what you did, or did not do, or how much money you had.
They looked down on the cross, as they regarded it as symbol of being bound to the physical, that they regarded as an illusion. They also believed in reincarnation, (as do a third of the current world’s population) and that the only way to free yourself from an endless round of incarnations was the denouncement of the material world as illusionary and transient, which indeed it is. It is virtually impossible for me to elaborate on this in a few words. It would take a tome in itself in order for me to do this. If you wish to understand more then I recommend that you read the Conversations with God books by Neale Donald Walsh.
Contrary to Church view, the Cathars were not against the idea of marriage, and were not anti sex either, unlike the Church which stated that sex only ceased to be sinful once the wedding ceremony had taken place. The Cathars recognised that sex between two people who genuinely loved each other could never be sinful, and that a simple wedding ceremony could not change that. As for the claim of ritualistic suicide, there is no evidence whatsoever to back this up. There is nothing as powerful as taking your interpretation of the beliefs of your enemy and painting them in the blackest paint possible in order to discredit them, and in doing so, prevent people from deserting the fold. This is what the Church appears to have done.
While it is true that the feudal society rested largely on oaths of loyalty sworn between peasants and their so called superiors, this only served to keep the ignorant peasants in even more poverty. The Cathars believed that no one human being was superior to any other, and although their opposition to taking oaths may have undermined society, in this case I consider it to have been a good thing. In many ways, it can be seen that the Cathars were light years ahead of their time.
It was not the Cathars who twisted the Bible in order to gain converts, but rather the Church itself. If unrest was the result, then this was due to the Church’s persecution of the so called heretics. Cathar Preachers travelled throughout the region on foot gathering many new converts as they went. Unlike the Church they did not need to resort to using guilt, bribes and emotional blackmail, for they led by example, not fear.
There is no doubt that Church corruption was rife at that time. Many of the regions Churches had not held mass for over 30 years, while the Priests ran their own commercial businesses, had mistresses, and ran large estates. Against this background it is not surprising that people left the Church in droves, and instead turned to Catharism. With the resultant drop in revenue, the Church began to feel more and more threatened and alienated.
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest services the Cathars did for the population was the removal of the fear of hell and damnation, which for years had been used by the Church as a means of control, and kept the populace in chains. To a large extent this is still in place today, as these ideas have become so ingrained in our consciousness. There is a certain insidiousness with the way in which the Church gathers the followers it needs in order to continue. Even in our supposedly enlightened times people are still afraid of leaving, for they believe that if they do they will be forced to spend the rest of eternity in hell. To the Cathars, life on Earth was hell, as they believed the God of darkness had created it.
Bibles placed on the Index of Forbidden Books were those that were considered to be inauthentic by the Church, yet the Bible that most people know did not even exist until 325 CE when the meeting of the Council of Nicaea was convened. Following this meeting, all the different Holy Texts were gathered together, and those that did not agree with Church orthodoxy were destroyed. Fortunately, many have since been re-discovered, including the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls. These paint a completely different picture of Christianity to that which is presented by the modern Church, and is in many ways very similar to Catharism. It is obvious from the differences between these ancient texts and the Bible that heavy, and selective editing has taken place. I believe the Cathars were closer to the real teachings of Jesus than Christianity has ever been, and the Church realised this. This is the real reason that the Cathars (and countless others like them) were persecuted.
If the Protestant Churches were removing whole sections from the Bible and re- wording certain phrases, then they were only doing what the Church themselves had been doing for centuries. When the Church claims that no authentic version of the Bible was ever placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, this may well be right, but since there is no authentic copy of the Bible it is impossible to really know.
Figures show that during the five ‘official’ Inquisitions that existed throughout history 4000 executions occurred. This is bad enough, but this figure does not include the countless others who perished as a result of other forms of punishment. A common form of punishment meted out by the Inquisition was to make confessed heretics go on a pilgrimage of Holy Sites. This often took them away from home for years at a time leaving their families to starve. This figure also does not include the many thousands who died as a result of torture, before they could be brought to trial.
When Galileo stated that the Earth was the centre of our Solar System, and revolved instead around the Sun, he was imprisoned for his beliefs and forced to recant his views. The Vatican initially gave him permission to publish his findings, but later recanted, and he was arrested by the Inquisition and interrogated for 18 days. Despite refuting his beliefs (under threat of torture) he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Church finally accepted that Galileo might be right in 1983 and conceded to forgive him. In September 1998 the newspapers reported that the Vatican had prepared a document, in advance of the millennium, asking to be pardoned for the sins that they had committed in the name of God, over the last 2000 years. The 35 page document (they must have committed a lot of sins!) was said to analyse the violence and repression prohibited by Church teachings, but used to suppress those that challenged their views. This was the first time that many of these atrocities had been mentioned by the Church at all. I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies.
Nine months later, on 28th July 1999, Pope John Paul II finally admitted in a statement that heaven and hell are not places, but rather, states of being. He said that hell is the result of having separated yourself from God, who is the source of all life and joy. Doesn’t this sound very much like the Cathars views? Perhaps the two Churches were not so different after all.