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Cathars (Cathari or Catharists), a religious sect of the 11th century of remote Balkan origin, representing a renewal of Manichaeism, which spread through northern Italy and southern France. Their belief was based on a dualistic conception of the world. The visible world is subject to evil, the devil; the invisible world is subject to God. Satan, with Moses as his tool, delayed the redemptive work of God (hence they rejected the legal books of the Old Testament) until it was carried through by Christ, who had only apparently assumed human nature: Since the soul is the divine part of man, it must be freed from matter to enter the kingdom of light. On this basis they rejected marriage, forbade the eating of meat, demanded complete chastity, and denied the resurrection. They were hostile to the external church. Baptism and communion had no meaning for them, and they rejected the adoration of images. In the place of the two sacraments they believed in the baptism of the spirit (consolamentum) through the laying on of hands, and strict moral demands (poverty, chastity, asceticism), which were certain to lead to blessedness unless some sin was committed afterward.

The perfecti, with their severely moral conduct, exerted great influence on the people and through their itinerant preaching won many believers (credentes), who did not, however, leave the Catholic Church.

In southern France, where the moral and cultural level of the Catholic clergy was particularly low, the movement became very powerful. About 1200 most of the princes and barons were credentes. In the cities and castles perfecti preached openly and built chapels and schools for boys and girls. The Catholic Church here led a merely tolerated existence. Since the church was unable to subdue these Cathars, here known as Albigenses (after Albi, a city in southern France where they were very numerous), with spiritual weapons, she organized a crusade against them and in a bloody war lasting 20 years finally succeeded in crushing the movement.

The Cathars in Spain, Italy, and Germany were wiped out by the Inquisition. Yet they did not disappear without leaving their traces behind. In 1215 the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation was made a dogma in order to oppose the dualism of the Cathars. The consolamentum led to the development of the sacrament of the extreme unction; and the moral rigor of the Cathars led to the begging monastic orders.

The Cathars cannot be considered forerunners of the Anabaptists. Though both groups rejected infant baptism, their motives were far apart. The Anabaptists based their doctrine on the Bible, the Cathars on the (essentially Persian and pagan) opposition between light and matter, which completely devalues everything earthly. Spiritual baptism brought redemption from the world, but if even a single sin was committed afterward, salvation was forfeited. In order to avoid committing any possible sin after receiving this baptism, many chose to die (by hunger). In the matter of the rejection of war and of killing likewise, the Anabaptists based their belief on the Biblical prohibition, whereas the Cathars' belief was founded on their un-Biblical (though deep) conception of sin as the inclination toward matter; hence the eating of meat, killing of animals and human beings, sexual relations, and the owning of property were equally serious sins. He who rids himself of these things is saved; the ascetic life is therefore the guarantee of eternal life. The Anabaptists also were distinguished for their purity of conduct, as their preference for the Sermon on the Mount indicates, but they conceived moral living as a natural conduct of the regenerated man who follows in the steps of Christ. There was an equally serious difference between the two groups in the idea of the church. In spite of the great attraction of the Cathar doctrines for the masses, they made a sharp distinction between the credentes and the perfecti, and in spite of their opposition to clerical domination, they developed a sort of hierarchy in the course of time. We even hear of a Cathar pope!

In summary, it may be said that precisely the points of doctrine that are apparently common to both Cathars and Anabaptists show most clearly the fundamental difference between them, the difference between Persian religiosity and Christianity. Nor are there any external connecting lines between them. Catharism of all branches was literally wiped out by fire and sword.

See also Albigenses


Broeckx, Edmond. Le Catharisme. Hoogstraten: Haseldonkx, 1916.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. II, 471.

Holmes, Edmond. The Albigensian or Catharist Heresy: a Story and a Study. London: Williams & Norgate, 1925.

"Katharer" in  J. J. Herzog and Albert Hauck, Realencyclopedie für Protestantische Theologie and Kirche, 24 vols. 3rd ed. Leipzig: J. H. Hinrichs, 1896-1913.

"Katharer" in Die Religion in Geschichte and Gegenwart, 2. ed., 5 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 1927-1932.

Keller, L. Johann von Staupitz . . . Leipzig, 1888: 92, 247.

Lea, H. C. A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, 3 vols. New York, 1888.

Lindeboom, J. Stiefkinderen von het Christendom. The Hague, 1929: 43-66.

Zeitschrift für historische Theologie (1847).

Author(s) Horst Quiring
Date Published 1953

Cite This Article

MLA style

Quiring, Horst. "Cathars." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 22 Sep 2020.

APA style

Quiring, Horst. (1953). Cathars. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 September 2020, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 531-532. All rights reserved.

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