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From Other Worldly to Worldly: Materialism, Anomie, and the Decline of Catharism’s Charismatic Appeal
By Gregory Roberts
Honors Thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2007
Introduction: Catharism stands out among all the heretical movements of the Middle Ages not only because of its manifestly unorthodox doctrine but more importantly because it represented perhaps the greatest threat to the hegemony of the established Church in Western Christendom. The Cathars believed in a dualist cosmology that posited the existence of two coeternal gods, one good and one evil. The evil god had created everything in the visible world, and as a result the Cathars renounced virtually everything in it, including sex, foods derived from animals, and personal property. The human soul, the creation of the good god, suffered by its imprisonment in the visible world and was trapped by a cycle of reincarnation. Only the Cathar sacrament of the consolamentum had the power to purify the spirit and allow it to return to its heavenly home. Yet the purified state produced by this sacrament was easily corrupted – by the eating of meat, sexual contact, or any sin for that matter – and so most believers waited until their deathbeds to be ‘perfected.’ Only a select few opted to receive the sacrament while of sound mind and body, after which they are expected to live a strict life of asceticism. These spiritual elites became known as Perfects, Good Men or Women, and Good Christians – names indicative of their opposition to the Roman Church as much as their impressive apostolic piety. Few others could rival their devotion to humility, poverty, abstinence, and prayer, a fact that earned them respect even among those who did not adhere to their beliefs. They lived an itinerant existence, relying on the goodwill of others as they traveled from village to village preaching to anyone who would hear them. Believers supported them with gifts and adored them in the hopes of being ‘consoled’ on their deathbeds, for only perfected individuals could confer the consolamentum on others. Supporters thus built relationships with the Perfects in the hopes that their souls too would be made pure enough before death to escape the material world and yet another reincarnation.