top of page

Cathar or Albigensian Heresy

May 12, 2024

This week we move on to our next heresy. After jumping around through the centuries with iconoclasm, which began in force in the 8th century, we now move up in history to one of the first great heresies of the Middle Ages – the Cathar heresy, commonly called Catharism or sometimes called the Albigensian heresy. This heresy begins in the 11th century and reaches its peak in the 12th century. The word “Cathar” is taken from the Greek and means “pure, or - to purify”. This is how they saw themselves, much like the Gnostics of old, that they were the pure ones and possessed the knowledge to attain perfection.

This particular heresy has ties to the Gnostic heresy of the 1st and 2nd centuries. During this time in the Middle Ages there were still various sects around that held some Gnostic or Manichean and dualist beliefs and these sowed the seeds for what became Catharism in western Europe. The Cathar heresy, in summary, is a heresy that teaches that all matter is evil. A neoManichean or neo-Gnostic dualism; the idea that there are two principles in the universe, one good and one evil. The Cathars believed in reincarnation and that human reproduction was an evil thing, as it prolonged the evil material world in which man is but a sojourner or alien. They were strict vegetarians and abstained from all meat as well. They rewrote the entire story of creation into an elaborate mythology and for the most part did away with the majority of the Old Testament. They refused to accept the dogma of the Incarnation of Christ and viewed Him as simply an angel and His death and suffering was just an illusion. They taught that the resurrection was not an actual rising from the dead, but rather reincarnation. We see how serious and dangerous some of their teachings were. By the middle of the 12th century this heresy had coalesced into a fairly visible structure, appointing its own bishops, forming dioceses and parishes and a form of doctrine. Besides the beliefs already mentioned, the Cathars were divided into two groups – the perfect and the believers. The perfect had undergone an initiation into the “mysteries” of their beliefs and were held to a higher standard of perfection than the believers.

Now besides the severe doctrinal errors and damage done to the Church and the Faith, this heresy also causes problems in civil society. At this time, the Faith is one of the main unifying factors in the western world, especially with onslaught of Islam. It is the basis for the laws and functioning of society and since the Cathars have such radically different views, the problems soon begin and they see themselves as brining freedom and relief through their beliefs, which at the end of the day, were stricter than the laws already in force. This leads to a clash, not only with the Church, but also with the various rulers. There were attempts by Pope Innocent III to bring them back into the Church by sending St. Bernard of Clairvaux to preach and catechize and he met with some success. Also, we have St. Dominic appearing in this time and founding the Dominicans to preach and teach and convert the Albigensians. One of the things that St. Dominic fought most rigorously in the heresy was the denial of the Incarnation and the elimination, basically, of the Blessed Virgin Mary from salvation history. At the end of it all, those who refused to recant the heresy were excommunicated from the Church.

The Cathars in some areas were led into this rebellion by their leaders, rogue bishops and nobles who resented the authority of the Pope and the Church. In response to the heresy and its rapid growth, a crusade is organized in the year 1215, with military action happening on and off until the year 1255. The crusade brings out much cruelty on both sides, but as with the other crusades, it is also the victim of extreme exaggeration about the cruelty of the Church and the soldiers fighting for her. While there were some instances of extreme cruelty by certain individual leaders, that is an exception rather than a norm. There were instances of Cathars being burned at the stake for heresy or thrown in jail if they refused to recant and persisted in the heresy. These were civil penalties, not just Church penalties. We have to keep in mind that a heresy affected not only the Church, but the entire community. By the end of the 13th century, it has pretty much vanished with just a few isolated pockets here and there. And on that, we will close for this week.

God bless, Fr. Anthony

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Moving on through the heresies, the next major one, Protestantism, is in the Middle Ages.

Iconoclasm follow up

May 5, 2024 Follow up In regard to the recent series on iconoclasm and in particular the iconoclasm in the Catholic Church in the 1960s and on, we have seen the devaluation and depreciation of things

Iconoclasm IV

April 28, 2024 In this last installment of the Iconoclasm heresy series, we will be looking at the last time it reared its head in the Church. In the Catholic Church of the 1960s we find absolute litu


bottom of page