The Poor Catholics (Pauperes Catholici) were an early Catholic mendicant order, organized in 1208 and of short duration. Recruits were taken from the Pauperes Lugdunenses (the original name of the Waldensians); the distinguishing name was given by Pope Innocent III.
The background was the growth of the Albigensians in Provence. 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. Having thus far failed in its attempts to suppress the heresy, on account of the inadequate methods of its missionaries, the Catholic Church now adopted a new method, preaching the word of God and leading a life of resignation and evangelical poverty. 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 Catholic Church during a religious discussion at a meeting held at Pamiers (France) towards the end of 1207.
Innocent III gave them, initially seven in number, a constitution by which they could retain their former rule of life. Aside from this they had to make a profession of faith. It represented the doctrine of the Church relative to all current heresies, and 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 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. They were active, not only through Southern France, but 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.
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 exempted 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. They did not show 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 of Assisi.
In 1237 Pope 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. In Milan we find them until 1256 when, by a Decree of Pope Innocent IV, they were united with the Augustinian Hermits.
The whole enterprise was looked upon as an innovation contrary to established rights and privileges of the clergy. Laymen, although they had received the tonsure and were regarded as clerics, publicly preached the doctrine of the Church, under the protection of the supreme pontiff himself.
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.
Their chief occupation remained, as it was before their reconciliation, the preaching of the word of God directed against the heretics. 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.
Peter Waldes had not confined his teaching to Lyons. 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 a religious body known by the name of Humiliates (humiliati). Some of them appeared in Rome with him the following year, 1179, and asked Pope 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.
Continuing their former life, they were excommunicated by Pope 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. 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.
The Lombards and the Humiliates 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.
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- Castro, Biblioteca española, II (Madrid, 1786)
- Devic and Vaissète, Hist. gén. de Languedoc, VI (Toulouse, 1879)
- Guirard, Questions d'hist. et d'archéol. chrét. (Paris, 1899)
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- Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition, I (New York, s. d.)
- Mandonnet, Les origines de l'Ordo de poenitentia (Fribourg, 1898)
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- J. B. Pierron, Die katholischen Armen (Fribourg, 1911).
- Innocent III in Patrologia Latina, CCXV, CCXVI
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- William of Puylaurant in Recueil des hist. des Gaules et de la France, XIX, 200
- Peter of Vaux-Cernay, ibid., XIX, 10
- Chronicon Urspergense in Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script., XXIII, 367, ad an. 1212.