Catharism (from the Greek kataros, meaning "pure") was a religion popular in France in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, until it was squelched by the Inquisition in the Albigensian Crusade.

Cathars, like many other Christian sects to follow, tried to live chaste lives in communal harmony. Simplicity was considered a great virtue.

Doctrinally, they believed that the devil was a rebellious creature of God, that human souls were neither good nor evil (no original sin), but that time, the Earth, the material world and the bodies of humans had all been created by Satan. Human souls belong to the kingdom of heaven, but Satan tricks them and imprisons them in carnal bodies. The only exception to this was Christ, who only wore the semblance of a body. Also, there are angels on earth who only appear to be human. The Virgin Mary was one of these. Their theology borrowed liberally from Manechism, although I doubt most Cathars would have been able to tell you who Mani was.

Consequently, they rejected the worship of the cross and alliegance to the Catholic Church, which they belived would never bring salvation. In fact, the only way to get back to Heaven was to live a very pure life, denying the Satanic impulses of your carnal body, and you would be picked by Heaven to return when you died. If you weren't picked you would be reincarnated as an animal. (Wow! I've never heard of a Christian sect that believed in reincarnation before!)

The only sacrament recognized by the Cathars was the consolamentum. This was, roughly, a cross between ordination and confirmation, in which a person became a member of the community. A person would spend up to three years as a postulant, then two more as a novitiate, before donning the cap and black robe that marked them a full-fledged member of the community. Once that happened, they were "among the perfect and the pure," and could not engage in carnal contact* (even though they were married) and had to observe a strict diet (no meat, milk, eggs or cheese) which involved regular spiritual fasts. They also refused to kill people or animals, didn't take oaths, didn't swear, and believed in manual labor as a purifying activity.

* Okay, so this didn't make for a lot of little Cathars running around for the next generation. But like the Shakers, they ran orphanages and were about the only people around taking in abandoned children, who were then raised in the faith.

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