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Poor Catholics

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( Pauperes Catholici )

A religious mendicant order, organized in 1208, to reunite the Waldenses with the Church and combat the current heresies, especially the Albigensian. The recruits were taken from the "Pauperos Lugdunenses" (original name of the Waldenses ); however, to distinguish them from the latter, Innocent III gave them the name of "Pauperes Catholici".

The heretical movement of the Albigenses had taken such enormous proportions in the beginning of the thirteenth century that they were justly called by Innocent III a greater peril to the Church than the Saracens. Their doctrine was dualistic. They believed and taught that the visible and invisible world emanated from two separate and distinct, coeternal principles, one essentially bad, which created the material world, and the other essentially good, author of the spiritual world. This doctrine led logically to the renunciation of all things material. Hence they rejected marriage, the use of animal food, hell, purgatory etc., and advocated a life of self-denial and renunciation of all material pleasures. The systematic teaching of these doctrines, as well as the abstemious life of the sectaries, rapidly influenced the richer classes, especially the nobility, of whom it is said that they preferred sending their children for education to the heretics rather than to Catholic schools. The Waldenses, on the other hand, formed a religious social movement among the common people, who had become dissatisfied with their economic and social conditions and estranged from religion on account of the scandalous neglect of the clergy. The latter, unfortunately, took more interest in the administration of their temporal affairs than in administering to the spiritual needs of the faithful. Innocent III complains bitterly, in a letter to the bishops, saying that the people are hungry for the Bread of Life, but that there is no one to break it for them. Public preaching, exclusively in the hands of the bishops, had become a rare event.

The result was that the common people, who needed spiritual help in a time of religious and social disturbance, looked for religious support elsewhere. They began to study the Sacred Scriptures and, not having the proper religious guidance, soon regarded them as their sole authority. They practised religion according to their conception of the Gospel and preached the same openly to their fellow-men, believing this to be in conformity with the teaching of Christ. Still, they tried to live up to the laws and regulations of the Church but, being told by the pope to stop preaching until they had conferred with the proper authorities, they disobeyed continuing to preach as usual, attacking the scandalous life of the clergy, and finally becoming antagonistic to the Church itself. Although at war with the Church, they vigorously fought its most dangerous enemy, the Albigenses, whom they regarded in the beginning as equally dangerous to themselves. The position of the Church was critical, yet not hopeless. Having thus far failed in its attempts to suppress the heresy, on account of the inadequate methods of its missionaries, it now adopted a new method, which consisted in meeting the enemy with its own weapons: fearlessly preaching the word of God and leading a life of resignation and evangelical poverty. Those who already practised this life were, of course, considered the fittest men for this work. The Church saw that the Waldenses, who constituted the masses, were gradually drifting away. Its plan was to bring these still harmless but zealous workers back to the fold in reorganizing them according to their former practice of studying the Sacred Scriptures , preaching the word of God and following the rule of absolute poverty and resignation. Once reunited, they would then form a phalanx of energetic soldiers fit to oppose the Albigenses.

Through the missionary activities of Bishop Diego of Osma and St. Dominic, a small group of Waldenses, under the leadership of Duran of Huesca (Spain), was won back to the Church during a religious discussion at a meeting held at Pamiers ( France ) towards the end of 1207. These new converts, desirous of continuing their religious activity, went the same year to Rome, where they were welcomed by Innocent III. Anxious to realize his plan, the pope gave the young band seven in number, a constitution by which they could retain their former rule of life, and which pointed out to them a definite plan they were to follow in preaching against the Albigenses. Aside from this they had to make a profession of faith which represented the doctrine of the Church relative to all current heresies, and which was intended, not only to free their minds from all heretical tendencies and subject them to the authority of the Church, but also to offer them a guide according to which they could enter upon their missionary activities with a series of formulated truths giving them a clear outline of their faith and absolute certainty in their work. After having promised allegiance to the pope and the doctrines of the Church, they entered upon their mission in the beginning of 1208. Innocent III recommended them to the bishops of Southern France and Spain. They seemed to be successful, for we soon find them busy, not only through Southern France, but even as far as Milan where they founded a school in 1209 to gather and educate recruits for their order. Three years later, 1212, a group of penitents placed themselves under their spiritual direction. Within four years of their foundation they extended their activities over the Dioceses of Béziers, Uzès, Nîmes, Carcassonne, Narbonne, Taragon, Marseilles, Barcelona, Huesca, and Milan.

However, in spite of their apparent success, the undertaking of the Poor Catholics was doomed from the beginning. They became a victim of the unfavourable conditions under which they originated. After 1212 they began to disintegrate. Innocent III stood by them for four years, making concession after concession, repeatedly urging the bishops to support them, recommending them to the King of Taragon; he even went so far as to exempt them from taking the oath of allegiance, as this was contrary to the teachings of the Waldenses, and finally placed them under the protectorate of St. Peter, but all in vain. They did not show any positive results and, for this reason, the pope abandoned them in 1212 and gave his attention to the Preaching Friars of St. Dominic and the Friars Minor of St. Francis whose labours promised better results. In 1237 Gregory IX requested the provincial of the Preaching Friars to visit the provinces of Narbonne and Taragon and compel the Poor Catholics to adopt one of the approved rules, which, if we consider the similarity of purpose, justifies the supposition that the Poor Catholics in these provinces were affiliated with the friars. In Milan we find them till 1256 when, by a Decree of Innocent IV, they were united with the Augustinian Hermits.

The principal causes of their failure were the organization adopted from the Waldenses and the object of their foundation. The whole enterprise was looked upon as an innovation contrary to all established rights and privileges of the clergy, and naturally called forth a severe opposition by these. Their chief occupation remained, as it was before their reconciliation, the preaching of the word of God directed against the heretics. To be successful in realizing his plan Innocent III placed himself as sole director at the head of the organization, thus replacing the majoralis , leader of the Waldenses. He gave them the name of "Pauperes Catholici", to show that they practised poverty in common with the "Pauperes Lugdunenses" but were separated from them in enjoying the benefits and sympathy of the Church. The division into "perfecti" and "credentes" remained the same, only the names were changed into "fratres" and "amici". In their activity the Waldenses were divided into three classes: the "sandaliati", who had received sacred orders and the especial office to confute the heresiarchs; the "doctores", who had charge of the instructing and training of the missionaries; and the "novellani"", whose chief work consisted in preaching to the common people. The work of the Poor Catholics had the same division; however, the names "sandaliati", "doctores", and "novellani" were changed into "doctiores", "honestiores", and "idonei". The habit, a light gray, remained unchanged except the buckles on the sandals, by which the Waldenses were known as heretics. Manual labour was forbidden as before. The only means of support were the daily offerings of the faithful. It was thought that, by giving the Poor Catholics this organization, the Waldenses could be won back easily to the Church. However, the danger existed that, with their former customs and habits they would also retain their heretical tendencies, this proved only too true and gave rise to frequent complaints by the bishops. The fact, however, that simple laymen, although they had received the tonsure and were regarded as clerics publicly preached the doctrine of the Church, and this under the protection of the supreme pontiff himself, was unheard of and looked upon as a usurpation of episcopal powers and rights and, naturally, occasioned severe opposition on the part of the higher clergy. The latter even went so far it seems as to curtail the offerings of the faithful, the only support of the Poor Catholics. Under these conditions it was impossible for them to prosper. Still, the great work of reformation was begun and, although they were sacrificed by introducing it, it was continued and successfulLy carried out by the Preaching Friars and the Friars Minor.


An article on Poor Catholics would be incomplete without some account of the Reconciled Lombards. Peter Waldes had not confined his teaching to Lyons alone, where he set the Waldensian movement on foot. When he was expelled from that city, he decided to go to Rome and make a personal plea for his cause to the pope. Going through Lombardy, he propagated his ideas. The lay people readily accepted his views on religion and formed an economic, religious body known by the name of Humiliates ( humiliati ). Some of them appeared in Rome with him the following year, 1179, and asked Alexander III to sanction their rule or form of life, which consisted in leading a religious life in their separate homes, abstaining from the oath, and defending the Catholic doctrine by public preaching. The pope granted them permission to lead a religious life in their homes, but forbade them to preach. Unmindful of the pontiff's answer and continuing their former life, they were excommunicated by Lucius III about the year 1184. In this state they remained until 1201, when, upon presentation of their constitution, Innocent III reconciled them with the Church, and reorganized them in conformity with their economic and religious customs, also approving of the name "Humiliati". This brought most of them back to the Church ; but a number persevered in the heresy and continued their former life under the direction of the Poor of Lyons, with whom they were naturally affiliated. Economic and religious difficulties, however, aggravated long-felt dissensions between the two groups and, in 1205, these non-reconciled Humiliates separated from the Lyonese and formed a distinct group, adopting the name of Poor Lombards, "Pauperes Lombardi".

In order to bring the Poor Lombards back to the Church, Innocent III founded and organized in 1210 the order of the Reconciled Lombards, under the immediate supervision of the supreme pontiff. The recruits were taken from the ranks of the Poor Lombards. Their first superior was Bernard Primus, a former Lombard leader, who, with a few followers, had given the impetus for the foundation of the order by presenting a rule of life to the pope. Innocent III did not entrust the reconciliation of the Poor Lombards to the Poor Catholics on account of their divergent views on the subject of labour. The latter had abolished all manual labour for the missionaries. The Lombards and the Humiliates on the contrary, gave manual labour the first place. Every member, irrespective of position or talent, had to learn a trade in order to make his living. This predominance of manual labour we also find a deciding factor in the reorganization of the Reconciled Lombards. Two years later, however, Innocent III gave them a new constitution, in which he retained manual labour for all the members of the order, but declared it only of secondary value for the missionaries or friars to whom he assigned the study of Holy Scripture and preaching as main occupation. He also makes a more definite division of the members into three classes, or orders, comprising respectively the missionaries or friars, the women who took the vows, and the married people. The object of this second constitution was to bring order into the chaos of social and religious agitation among the different classes of members and, at the same time, to bring the better elements to the front to train them for missionary work against the Cathari. The Reconciled Lombards, like the Poor Catholics, did not meet with the expectations of the Roman Curia ; both failed for the same reasons. They succumbed in preparing and initiating the great work of reform so successfully carried out by the Dominicans and Franciscans.

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