By Raymond A. Powell
Koinonia, Vol.14 (2004)
Introduction: Of all the heresies in the Middle Ages, none posed more of a threat to the Catholic Church in either perception or reality than did Catharism. Though there is no consensus among scholars about actual numbers of those committed to Cathar teaching, there is no question that in certain areas of Europe, especially Southern France and Northern Italy, Catharism had wide popular appeal and the support of significant local figures. The phenomenon of Catharism made a great impact on the Catholic Church. The anxiety caused by this heresy led to the “professionalization” and standardization of inquisitorial procedure under the control of the papacy. It was against Cathars that the Dominican mission first took shape. Yet despite endless speculation about the origins of the heresy, widespread interest in the details of Catholic suppression, thorough analysis of the relationship between Catharism and national/regional identification, and some attention given to the social background of adherents, little serious modern study has been done on what the Cathars actually believed.
The neglect of Cathar theology reflects in part the interests of modern historians. But it stems also from two other causes. The first is the limited number of sources available for a study of Cathar doctrine. Despite the survival of a few actual Cathar documents, there is not a great deal of information about what Cathars believed. Much of what has survived is evidence gathered by authorities of the inquisition, which must be treated with great caution. The second reason for scholarly neglect is the fact that, aside from an agreement on dualism, Cathar theology seems more diverse than systematic. There were at least three major sects within Catharism, each with its own unique teaching, and inquisition registers can leave the impression that there were as many understandings of Catharism as there were Cathars. A full treatment of Cathar doctrine lies outside the scope of this article, which seeks to provide an analysis of Cathar apocalypticism. But in the process of examining the apocalypticism of the Cathars, it will be necessary to consider a number of other elements of Cathar belief. As the relationships between Cathar beliefs are examined, I hope a certain logical coherence in Cathar doctrine will emerge, a pattern that may provide a useful tool for future considerations of Cathar theology, and which will at least point to the need for, and value of, such future studies.