Freedom of conscience in Occitan Catharism – talk by Eduard Berga Salomó at the Symposium ‘The golden thread of the free mind’


The history of the human being is the history of the conquest of freedom. Freedom as a species, in prehistoric times; freedom as a people in the first civilizations; individual freedom in our Christian era.

Christianity has paved the way for individual freedom in the West by offering everyone the possibility of receiving the Spirit in their own inner being, through the baptism of the Paraclete and through the formation of an Ecclesia, a community of equals who share the same love for God and for their neighbour. In this way, we broke the link with an external intermediary who served as a mediator between the human being and the divine.

Over time, however, this fraternal spirit which animated the first Christians was diluted within an institution which ended up constituting itself, with the arrival of Constantine the Great, in a structure of universal power, at the same time spiritual and temporal. Those who still sought an intimate and direct connection with the divine, such as the Gnostics and the Manichaeans, were labelled heretics and excluded from the social community. It is thus that the extraordinary fruit which Christianity had given in the first centuries thus gradually perished; its seeds fell to the ground and were apparently lost.

The fall of the Roman Empire and the advance of the northern tribes allowed the ecclesiastical institution to consolidate its temporal power. Evangelical teaching was reinterpreted. A cultural elite of pastors guided the Christian flock, but the moral decline of the institution endangered its continuity.

With the arrival of the first millennium, the first voices were raised to demand a renewal of Christianity. The Roman Church began the Gregorian reform with a double objective: on the one hand, to consolidate its spiritual power and its authority in matters of material power and, on the other hand, to redress moral behaviour, both that of the ecclesiastical community and that of its parishioners. For this, it undertook a profound transformation of sacramental, liturgical and ritual dogmas, which had an enormous influence on all aspects of European social and cultural life. In this way, directly or indirectly, the Roman ecclesiastical institution again seized social control.

Faced with this position of power, discordant voices arose within and outside the Roman Church, calling for another type of Christian renewal. These voices insisted above all to follow the example in the Gospels of a fraternal community, founded on love and service to others. It was not a question of ‘imposing’ an external Christian morality by force, but of showing by its own example the path that each human being could follow in order to become, himself, a cristinus, a little Christ, as Arnaldus de Vila Nova would later express.

This dissenting vision gave birth, here and there, to communities of Christians throughout Europe, who clearly broke away from the dominant social paradigm. For them, the dogmas and interpretations of the official Church were empty words, because ‘only the law of the Holy Spirit written in inner man was valid as the canons of Orleans expressed it in 1022, when they were accused of heresy.

Their approach was very simple: the Kingdom of God is not found in the outside world but within the human being. What one would have to do is detach oneself from the weight of all that binds and confines the consciousness within this material reality. Thus, faced with the insecurity that the Church maintained for fear of losing its material or spiritual possessions, the dissidents advocated a complete detachment to the goods of this world as a means to find the free Spirit that each one possesses in his inner being.

But they went a step further: not only did they seek an intimate union with the divine by separating themselves from the world, as Gnostics and Manichaeans did at the beginning of our era, but they maintained the social bond with humanity as a genuine expression of ‘love thy neighbours’.

It was these dissident communities that finally constituted what came to be called the Cathar heresy. And Occitania was the land where they could best deploy their model of human society. For two centuries, they reflected a Christian ideal which, however, could not endure because of the virulent reaction of the Church and the material power which they manifested in the crusade against the Albigensians and by the inquisitorial repression that followed it.

Established power has always used fear as a counterweight to the progress of individual freedom. Fear of prison or loss of property, fear of pain or death and, beyond that, fear of divine retribution in an eternal hell. However, among the Cathars, the Roman Church met with a great resistance to this fear. They achieved great interior freedom through asceticism and detachment from material reality.

As Evervin de Steinfeld told Bernard de Clairvaux: ‘They do not seek the world and do not possess a house, a field, or money.’ They lead a ‘very strict practice of living, of fasting and abstinence, of prayer and of working.’ And they can endure this life because they know that their true being does not belong to this world, that the true Kingdom of Heaven is in another reality of existence, to which they aspire. This is how an anonymous Cathar Treaty expresses it: ‘We state, that there exists another world and that there are other incorruptible and eternal creatures, on which rest our joy and our hope.

Awareness of this ‘other’ reality opened the doors to their minds, trapped in the prison of flesh and blood, and strengthened them in the conviction that mankind survived in an illusory world in which it was held captive. Their minds thus freed themselves from established mental frameworks and were able to observe the reality around them with a deeper understanding of things. However, the acquisition of this knowledge was not used to dominate others or to rise above them. No! Christ’s message was clear: all humanity is called to travel this path to find true inner freedom, freedom of conscience.

Thus, they took on preaching again the true Christian gospel, bringing to all la entendensa del bè, the understanding of the Good, and showing by their lives what was the path of truth and justice that should be covered by those who were initiated into the Cathar mysteries.

Thanks to them, the individual human being was able to acquire a certain autonomy in the face of a unifying social model. Often, dogma was questioned and challenged by reason. The institution of the sacraments, for example, was looked down upon or even ridiculed by Cathar teaching. Bélibaste said:

‘Those of the Roman Church lie when they say that their blessed bread is the body of God […] Don’t you see that they eat it? If it were God, they would not be able to eat it, and it is not correct for God to go through such shameful parts as the body of men […] And if it were as mighty as a great mountain, like the mountain of Morella, the priests would already know it. They would have eaten long ago.’

The sacred texts were translated so that everyone could read them directly and think about them, without an intermediary. It is important to remember here that one of the first decisions of the Church at the time was to prohibit these translations into the vernacular and even, at the time of the Toulouse Council of 1229, it was possible to prohibit lay people from possessing the Bible in Latin.

Faced with the resurrection of the body on the Day of Judgment, they reinstated the idea of reincarnation, which was already believed by early Christians and church fathers like Origen. The rhythms of natural life were once again valued, re-establishing cyclical rather than linear time.

They also fought superstitions and false beliefs decreed by the official Church. They laughed at the worship of saints, calling their statues pieces of wood and idols, saying, ‘How come you believe that pieces of wood can work miracles?’; they showed no respect for the thousands of relics kept in churches; they considered scandalous the trade in indulgences granted after payment; they hated the symbol of the cross, which they regarded as the object of the Saviour’s torment, for they said: ‘If your father had been hanged from a tree, would you love this tree? Certainly not! But you would hate it and you would hate to see it, and if you could, you would cut it down.

Communities of ‘perfect heretics’, as the Inquisition called them, coexisted in perfect symbiosis with lords, merchants, artisans and peasants. Their ostals, or Cathar houses, were open places where men and women in need always found a bowl of hot soup, where the young were educated and learned a trade, and where the old and sick received care, support and medical attention. Their renunciation of the world did not prevent them from establishing a helpful love towards others and from sharing with everyone their teachings and their possessions, without any distinction of class or gender, since they practiced an absolute community of goods. But above all, they upheld that everyone would face the results of his own actions. And, at the centre of all their teaching, they stated that ‘love thy neighbour’ was the highest expression of Christian faith.

This is what the Occitan Consolament ritual declares:

E si aquest poder e aquesta potestat voletz recebre,
cove vos tenir totz los comandamentz de Christ
e del novel testament a vostre poder.
E sapiatz que el a comandat
que hom no avoutre, ni ausisa, ni menta,
ni jure negu sagrament, ni pane, ni raube,
ni faza az autre so que no vol que sia fait assi,
e que om perdone qui li fa mal, e que hom ame seu enemic,
e que hom ore e benezisca als encausadors et als acusadors de si, e quil ferra e la una gauta que li pare l’autra,
e qui li tolra la gonela que li laisse lo mantel,
e que hom no juge, ni comdampne.

It is no wonder that the people knew them as bons homes or bones domnes. And it is obvious that the Church would only be able to overcome them with violence. The fierceness with which they were persecuted, first by the Crusade, then by the Inquisition, succeeded in exterminating their movement, but the traces of their thought remained indelible in the hearts of the people and sprouted with force in later societies.

And thus we note that, already in the 14th century, 70 years after the fall of Montségur, a humble shepherd of the Pyrenean Ariège, born in the bosom of a Cathar family, still clearly represented this free spirit embodied by Catharism. When the not very exemplary Bélibaste reproached him for his good relations with people who are not of his faith, he replied: ‘We must do good to everyone, because we do not know who is good and who is bad.’

Thus, the conquest of inner freedom in each human being could not be repressed. This inner freedom had a lot to do with what we know today as ‘freedom of conscience’, with free thought. Today, Western man has achieved much of this freedom of thought and consolidated it as an inalienable human right. However, all along his path in search of the truth, he has ceased to look within himself, he has ceased to contemplate his soul, and he has not only set himself up as the master and lord of the world, seeing nature as a mere instrument in its service, but he has created a massive system of human exploitation for the benefit of a few. The moral and ethical failure of religious and political institutions, as well as the exacerbated materialism as the only mental paradigm in which the world population fits, have placed humanity at a difficult crossroads.

What is the path we must take?
Everyone must find the answer to this question within themselves.

However, I would like to end my contribution to this symposium dedicated to Antonin Gadal with a few words concerning his person, words which can be found in the book Places where the Spirit breathes. They may shed some light on your thoughts:

You know, dear friends, that I remain completely faithful to Mr Gadal. And in the name of that fidelity, I have chosen as motto the same as his: Freedom of thought is the supreme good. And, in the name of that freedom, to never constrain the freedom of others. In addition, Mr Gadal listened to everyone, truly everyone. Even those who were not in direct spiritual kinship with him, because he said that everyone should follow their own path, and that it is not necessary for everyone to be in the same group. Each in his own group works in service of the Universal Brotherhood. And this is the real spirit of Catharism. And in the name of this spirit, I will endeavour to show the same openness of mind to all.

Eduard Berga Salomó, author of Le Catharisme et la tradition spirituelle de l’Occident (Catharism and the spiritual tradition of the West), 2012 and Sabiduría del Silencio (Wisdom of silence), 2017



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