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The Cathers (Catheri in Latin) were also known, popularly, as the Albigensians because there were so many in and around the city of Albi in France, but its influence spread far beyond the Languedoc. Cathars were prominent not only in the South of France but the Rhineland and Italy and not unknown elsewhere. It is a mystery to historians how the sect originated but, although there is no historical connection, it does bear certain similarities to the Manichean sect to which Saint Augustine had belonged before his conversion in the fourth century. Like the Manicheans, the Cathars proposed the idea that there are two Gods—a spiritual god who created our spirits and an evil god who created the material universe into which human spirits have been tricked and entrapped. The soul must escape this created universe and return to its pure spiritual nature. It does this by renouncing material realities, especially any of those things that have to do with sexual intercourse and generation as it supposedly is by a sexual curiosity that souls are entrapped into generation into the physical/material world. Another ancient heresy that taught this same doctrine as the Manicheans is Priscillianism but there is no historical evidence for a survival of either Priscillianism or Manicheanism that would explain the Cathars. By the way—both Manicheanism and Priscillianism were Gnostic sects and Catharism, while a medieval and not an ancient theology, should also be seen to be in the Gnostic tradition.
Another ancient heresy with which Catharism shares some similarity of doctrine is Donatism. Donatism taught that the validity of the sacraments as channels of grace depended on the worthiness of the minister. A bishop or priest who was himself sinful therefore could not effectively minister to others. Donatism was widespread, especially in North Africa, in the fourth and fifth century but this particular doctrine about the worthiness of the ministers resurfaced among the Cathars as it would surface again during the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Catharism spread like wildfire in the eleventh century in great part due to dissatisfaction of the common people with the wealth of the institutional Church and lax morality of the clergy. The use of Latin in liturgical celebrations had reduced the rites of the Church to vague and unintelligible rituals that appeared as superstitious and even magical. That these rites—baptisms, marriages, funerals, blessings of fields and crops and other rites of everyday life—required offerings of either money or in kind to an often undisciplined clergy from ordinary and even impoverished faithful while the wealth of the Church was vigorously displayed in its buildings, art, vestments and vessels eroded the faith of intelligent if uneducated people. Lay ascetics who practiced the highly disciplined life of the Cathar holy men—sexually abstinent, economically poor, vegan in diet (food coming from sexual congress—both meat and dairy—being forbidden) impressed many far more than did the too often indolent clergy. The simple rites—a “baptism” by laying on of hands and a holy communion of bread blest only by the recitation of the Lord’s Pryer—spoke effectively to simple people. While most converts were unwilling to accept the full discipline of the sect—vegetarianism and celibacy being two of the notable stumbling blocks—large numbers of initiates flocked to the movement remaining at a catechumenal stage until their last moments of life when they would seek the “consolementum” or laying on of hands. Of course, it should not be presumed that all Cathar holy men lived up to the demands of their ascetic vocation any more than all priests live up to theirs, but there is a consensus that the rumors of debauchery and charlatanism were more polemics by the institutional Church to destroy the credibility of the movement than serious and credible charges. While there certainly would have been some charlatans among them, their widespread success in making converts indicates greater credibility than some Catholic historians allow.