Catharism was a Christian dualist or Gnostic movement between the 12th and 14th centuries in Southern Europe, particularly what is now northern Italy and southern France. The name comes from the Greek word katharos meaning “pure.” Catharism originated in Persia and spread to Europe by the 12th century. At its height, Catharism was extremely popular and a major threat to the Roman Catholic Church. The Cathars rejected the material world and believed in reincarnation. They also rejected the Old Testament and Catholic practices like the Eucharist, baptism, and marriage. The Catholic Church declared Catharism heretical and launched the Albigensian Crusade to eliminate the movement, resulting in the massacre of thousands of Cathars. Here is an overview of Catharism and what the Bible has to say about some of its key beliefs:
Central to Catharism was dualism, the belief that the physical world was evil and created by Satan while the spiritual realm was good and created by God. This was influenced by Gnosticism and Manichaeism, which also taught that spirit is good while matter is evil. The God of the Old Testament who created the physical world was considered evil. The dualistic theology led Cathars to reject the material world and physical body as unholy.
The Bible clearly teaches that God created both the physical and spiritual realms and that creation is fundamentally good:
“God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
“For everything created by God is good.” (1 Timothy 4:4)
While creation is affected by sin, it is not inherently evil. The material world will be redeemed, not rejected (Romans 8:19-23). Dualism as taught by Catharism is unbiblical.
Rejection of the Old Testament
Since they viewed the God of the Old Testament as evil due to creating the physical world, the Cathars rejected much of the Old Testament. They saw the God of the New Testament as good and a different God altogether.
However, the Bible teaches that there is only one God throughout both the Old and New Testaments. God does not change (Malachi 3:6, Hebrews 13:8). While the Old Testament law was fulfilled in Christ (Matthew 5:17), it is still God’s Word and useful for teaching (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Rejection of any Scripture is unwise and unbiblical.
Due to their disgust with the material body, Cathars believed in reincarnation. Once a soul achieved liberation from the material realm after multiple reincarnations, they could return to the spiritual realm forever.
The Bible clearly teaches that we only have one life to live and then we face judgment before God:
“It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
There are no second chances at life. Reincarnation is unbiblical.
Rejection of Sacraments
Since Cathars saw the physical world as evil, they rejected Catholic sacraments related to the physical body such as baptism and the Eucharist, which they saw as idolatry. They also rejected marriage since it led to reproduction and thus enslavement of more souls in physical bodies.
However, the Bible affirms water baptism (Matthew 28:19) and communion/the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19-20) as practices Christians should observe. Marriage and procreation are viewed positively in Scripture as part of God’s plan for humanity (Genesis 1:28). While abuses can occur, the sacraments themselves are not intrinsically evil.
In rejecting the material realm, Cathars practiced extreme asceticism. Their perfecti abstained from all flesh — even milk and cheese — and some avoided all physical intimacy. Regular believers were encouraged to follow the ascetic example.
However, the Bible warns against the harmful forms of extreme asceticism (Colossians 2:20-23). While self-discipline is important, our bodies and physical needs are not intrinsically evil as Cathars believed. Balance is key.
Since they saw the material world as evil, Cathars largely rejected violence in any form, even self-defense. They refused to bear arms or take lives. Most adhered to strict pacifism.
Scripture permits governing authorities to exercise justice, even violently, to restrain evil (Romans 13:1-7). Complete passivity in the face of evil is discouraged. However, on an individual level Christians are called to show grace and long-suffering when wronged, leaving vengeance to God (Romans 12:14-21).
Salvation by Knowledge
Catharism reflected Gnostic teaching in suggesting that salvation came through a special knowledge (gnosis) of the divine spark within the human soul. Some believed this special knowledge could only be obtained from their teachers. Access to knowledge was limited.
The Bible teaches that salvation comes by God’s grace through faith in Christ alone, not by works, ritual or special knowledge (Ephesians 2:8-9). Knowledge of Christ is freely accessible to all through the preaching of the gospel as revealed in Scripture (Romans 10:14-17).
Two Classes of Believers
Like the Manichaeans, Cathars divided believers into two main classes: perfecti and credentes. The perfecti renounced the material world, living extremely ascetic lives. The credentes lived normal lives but followed some Cathar practices. This created division between the spiritual elite and regular believers.
The New Testament rejects class divisions between believers. Unity and equality are emphasized (Galatians 3:28, James 2:1-13). A hierarchy based on extreme asceticism has no biblical warrant.
Due to persecution, Cathars were forced to hold their worship services and rituals in secret. Their traveling, clandestine preachers ministered quietly to avoid capture and death.
While prudence in the face of persecution is permitted, and the early church sometimes had to meet secretly, the normative pattern is public gathering and open preaching. Secrecy breed suspicion and keeps the gospel hidden.
Denial of the Incarnation
Since they saw matter as evil, some Cathars rejected the doctrine of the Incarnation – that Jesus took on a real physical body. They believed Jesus only took on the appearance of a body, not an actual body susceptible to real human sufferings. This resembles the heresy of Docetism.
Scripture repeatedly affirms that Jesus took on a genuine physical body that experienced pain, hunger, weariness and death. Any denial of the full humanity of Christ is antichristic (1 John 4:2-3).
The Albigensian Crusade
Catharism reached its zenith in the 12th-13th centuries in Southern France, where a Papal representative was even killed. This sparked Pope Innocent III to launch the Albigensian Crusade to stamp out the movement in the early 1200s. This culminated in the massacre of Cathars in towns like Beziers and Carcassonne. Thousands were killed and Catholic authority was restored in the area. Attempts to revive Catharism over the next few centuries were met with fierce resistance and persecution by the Inquisition. It was extinct by the late 14th century.
Despite their unbiblical beliefs, the brutal suppression of Catharism by the Catholic Church was morally wrong and violated key biblical principles:
1) Faith cannot be coerced (John 14:6).
2) Heresy should be refuted by Scripture, not the sword (Titus 1:9).
3) Repaying evil with evil is forbidden (Romans 12:17).
4) The Bible condemns religious persecution (Acts 26:11).
The church should have relied on persuasion, teaching, reason, and the power of the Holy Spirit – not carnal weapons – to correct the theological errors of the Cathars. Their massacre was tragically unjust.
In summary, Catharism was an ascetic, dualistic medieval Christian movement deemed heretical for teaching gnostic doctrines contrary to biblical revelation. While their critique of Catholic abuses had merit, their theology fundamentally contradicted Scripture’s affirmation of the material world as God’s good creation. By rejecting the Old Testament, the Incarnation, sacraments, the resurrection hope, and other core doctrines, Catharism placed itself outside the bounds of biblical orthodoxy. The violent suppression of the movement by Catholic crusades and inquisitions was morally and scripturally unjustifiable. The church should have combatted the heresy through persuasive teaching of the full gospel message revealed in God’s Word.