INTRODUCTIONThis paper will provide an assessment of the most significant contributions of Innocent III which made the medieval Church, and especially the papacy, rise to the pinnacle of its power. Pope Innocent III did not just shape the Church in ecclesiastical matters, he dramatically enhanced the Church’s role and scope over the civil authorities as well.
Innocent III was born Lotario de' Conti in 1160 into an important family of Italian nobles, the counts of Segni, to which Gregory IX and Alexander IV also belonged. They lived in the city of Anagni, Italy. Lotario received his early education in Rome before entering into the University of Paris, where he studied theology and philosophy under the highly respected Peter of Corbeil. He gained a particularly vast knowledge of scholastic philosophy during his studies. He studied jurisprudence also at Bologna, where he acquired an equally vast knowledge of canon law. After his education was finished, Lotario returned home to Italy.
In 1181, shortly after the death of Alexander III, Lotario returned to Rome, where he held various ecclesiastical offices. Pope Gregory VIII ordained him subdeacon, and Clement III created him Cardinal-Deacon of St. George in Velabro in 1190. Later he became Cardinal-Priest of St. Pudentiana.
At a very young thirty-seven years old, Lotario di Segni took on the name of Innocent III at his induction into the pontificate which succeeded his uncle, Celestine III. The same day Celestine died, Lotario, was unanimously elected pope by the assembled cardinals, although, he was not a priest. However, on February 21st he was ordained priest, and the following day consecrated bishop. He was pope from 1198 until his death in 1216.
INNOCENT III IDEAL OF THE PAPACYInnocent III ideal of the papacy was already present before his pontificate, “The germs of these ideas were found in the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. They were formulated by Hildebrand and it now became the passionate purpose of Innocent III to realise them in their entirety.” His firm convictions about the papacy were foundational to his future successes in seeing the papacy rise to the height of its power. After he was elected pope, but before he was installed, he declared:
As God . . . hath set in . . . the heavens two great lights, the greater to rule the day, the lesser to rule the night, so also hath He set up in His Church . . . two great powers: the greater to rule the day, that is the souls; the lesser to rule the night, that is the bodies of men. These powers are the pontifical and royal: but the moon, as being the lesser body, borroweth all her light from the sun both in the quantity and quality of the light she sends forth, as also in her position and functions in the heavens. . . The royal power borrows all its dignity and splendour from the pontifical.
These are very bold claims. Innocent, without hesitation, used Scripture, specifically the book of Genesis, to exalt his papal throne above everything else – including the “royal powers”. Innocent’s allegorical interpretation of Genesis is extraordinary grandstanding and nothing but decoration he used as means to an end – the absolute subjection of all things, in heaven and on earth to the pope. His claims are bold and assertive, though outlandish, but calculating and purposeful. Innocent’s consecration sermon wherein he used Luke 12:42 for his text encapsulates his understanding of papal power and gives a glimpse of his upcoming policies:
Who is this steward? It is he to whom the Lord Omnipotent said, Thou are Peter, etc. This foundation cannot be shaken . . . for Christ himself is on board; . . . Christ is the rock upon which the Holy See is founded; . . . this chair is not established by man but by God alone. . . .Therefore I fear not, for I am that steward whom the Lord hath placed over His household to give them their meat in due season. . . . Therefore my desire is to serve, not to rule. . . . As the Lord's steward . . . I must be established in the faith. . . . But faith without works is dead. My works, therefore, must be wise as well as faithful. . . . The high-priest of the Old Testament was the type and pattern of the Pope. . . . I am he whom the Lord hath placed over His household; yet who am I that I should sit on high above kings and above all princes? For of me it is written in the prophets (Jer. 1: 10): This steward is the viceroy of God, the successor of Peter; he that standeth in the midst between God and man. He is the judge of all, but is judged by no one . . . Now His Household is the whole church and this household is one . . . out of which, if anyone remain, he and all his shall surely perish in the flood.
Such hubris! The astonishing audacity of a man who has read the Scriptures, to take on such power to himself as to make himself equal with God is utterly amazing. Yet, this hubris was not completely without its uses, as it assisted Innocent in attaining almost all of his ambitious goals. Innocent’s eisegesis in this sermon may be clearly seen, and the allegorizing of Scripture he employed is obviously self -serving. Not withstanding, it was this philosophy that Innocent had which helped propel the papacy to its peak. It is clear that Pope Innocent III, from the beginning of his reign, already had firmly held convictions about his power, and he was announcing to the world what would soon come.
INNOCENT III INCREASED THE PAPACY’S POWER OVER CIVIL AUTHORITIESInnocent wasted no time in implementing his policies after his installation as pope. His first task to see his ideals realized was to restore the papacy’s prestige in Rome and inItaly.
Pope Innocent III’s ability to persuade others, even kings and prices, was extraordinary. He made Peter, prefect of Rome, to recognize the pope’s supreme authority. He forced the senator, Scottus Paparoni, who was independent from the papacy, and being elected by the people, to resign. Then he positioned himself as liberator of Italy from foreign German rule. His influence quickly spread and then sought to capitalize on Emperor Henry VI’s widow, Constance, who was reigning in behalf of her young son, Frederick. It is with Innocent’s negotiations with Constance where the extent of his persuasive powers is shown. Constance was ready to take an oath of fealty to the pontiff but she died. She left a will naming Innocent regent of the empire and guardian of Frederick.
Innocent was gaining victory upon victory in subjecting the world’s kingdoms to the Holy See. These first few years of his pontifical career set the course for his remaining years in office. The future of the papacy, and the Church, was to be built on Innocent’s foundation.
The situation in Germany proved to be even more favorable for Innocent’s policies. The political turmoil throughout the region was ripe for Innocent to take advantage. Philip of Swabia, brother to Henry VI, and Otto IV of the House of Guelph, were embroiled in a dispute for the German royal and Roman imperial crown. Innocent III arbitrated between the two and in the process subjected Germany to the papacy. Otto IV immediately tried to entice the pope to his side by renouncing the most essential rights of the empire in Italy. Innocent wisely seized upon the opportunity and wrote Deliberatio papæ Innocentii super facto imperii to justify his support for Otto and the House of Guelph. Innocent brought the influence of his throne upon Philip of Swabia, who, initially, resisted his overture to subject Germany to the pontiff. However, he was made to enter into arbitration with the Holy See. Innocent masterfully negotiated with the two battling pretenders for the throne of Germany. This was a landmark moment for Innocent’s policies. The decision of who would be king is completely in the hands of one man – pope Innocent III.
On October 4, 1209, Otto IV was made King of Germany. Not only did Otto concede more than he promised the pope, he gave up much more. He recognized the boundaries of the States of the Church as Innocent III set forth. He promised to do what the pope asked of him to banish heresy, and publicly he disavowed any intrusions into Church elections. Again, Innocent III exhibited himself as a very shrewd and wise ruler. Popes of the past had failed miserably in subduing the civil realm, while Innocent’s successes in doing so seem effortless. By the end of his reign, the kingdoms of Sicily,England, and Portugal were fiefs of the papacy.
By the time Innocent was pope, the Investiture controversy had been going on for over four hundred years. Europe’s kings were battling with the popes about who has the authority to consecrate to office the bishops in the Romish Church. Does the Church or the king have this right? The popes of the past argued, since bishops were an ecclesiastical office, the Church had the right to consecrate them. The kings argued the bishops owed loyalty to the crown; therefore, kings had the right to consecrate them. It was not until the rise of Innocent III that a clear victor emerged. Since Innocent believed the whole world was subject to him, the answer was clear – the Pope in Rome had absolute right over all things including the right to consecrate bishops and archbishops. Yet again, Innocent’s efforts bore much fruit: all the kings of Europe, one at a time, were brought to subjugation until only England remained. The Pope put England under interdict: churches were closed, no sermons were preached, none were baptized, no masses were performed, no marriages took place, no deaths were followed by church burial, no consecrated burial grounds could be used. With the use of interdicts and other means at Innocent’s disposal, England, too, under the hated King John, buckled under Innocent’s pressure.
Innocent had done in a few short years what prior popes combined could not. Innocent’s brilliance matched with his determination to use all tools at his disposal brought him unprecedented power.
INNOCENT III AND HIS CRUSADESWhile Innocent’s successes with civil authorities are astounding, it was his indefatigable and unwavering attacks on heresy which are his greatest accomplishments. Unfortunately, much of his zeal was misapplied when he successfully called for three Crusades. In the first year of his pontificate (1198) heretics were given the choice of recantation or death. Innocent understood that the clergy were chiefly responsible for the spread of heresy. In his opening address to the great Lateran Council, the pope directly addressed the assembled fathers: “The corruption of the people has its chief source in the clergy. From this arise the evils of Christendom: faith perishes, religion is defaced, liberty is restricted, justice is trodden under foot, the heretics multiply, the schismatics are emboldened, the faithless grow strong, the Saracens are victorious. . ." The clergy were ordered to mend their ways in order to remove the cause of heresy.
During Innocent's eighteen year reign in Peter’s chair he called for three major crusades: the, Albigensian Crusade, Fourth Crusade, and the Fifth Crusade. All of these were spectacular failures in their own unique ways. The Albigensian Crusade (1209-1255) was a brutal bloodletting of Innocent’s enemies. Innocent’s (whose name is quite ironic) “enemies” were not just men, but women and children. One of their “crimes” was in believing the papacy to be the Antichrist. Innocent and his murder for hire gang of crusaders had a strange way of convincing the Albigenses (and other heretics such as the Cathars) they were wrong. A crusade was launched with a promise of indulgences for forty days of service. A horde of greedy and bloodthirsty crusaders of ten to twenty thousand amassed outside of Beziers:
The knights inquired of the Papal legate, the Abbot of Citeaux, how they might distinguish the Catholics from the heretics. Arnold at once cut the knot which time did not suffice to loose by the following reply, which has since become famous; "Kill all! kill all! The Lord will know His own...the multitude, when they saw that the city was taken, fled to the churches, and began to toll the bells by way of supplication. This only the sooner drew upon themselves the swords of the assassins. The wretched citizens were slaughtered in a trice. Their dead bodies covered the floor of the church; they were piled in heaps round the altar; their blood flowed in torrents at the door. "Seven thousand dead bodies," says Sismondi, "were counted in the Magdalen alone. When the crusaders had massacred the last living creature in Beziers, and had pillaged the houses of all that they thought worth carrying off, they set fire to the city in every part at once, and reduced it to a vast funeral pile. Not a house remained standing, not one human being alive. Historians differ as to the number of victims. The Abbot of Citoaux, feeling some shame for the butchery which he had ordered, in his letter to Innocent III reduces it to 15,000; others make it amount to 60,000."
These wicked opportunists “were ravaging, pillaging, and burning heretics magno cum gaudio (with huge delight).
The Fourth Crusade, perhaps, was the most embarrassing one for Innocent. This crusade, which Innocent blessed, never reached the Holy Land, but attacked fellow Christians on the island of Zara and in the Byzantine Empire. The marauding Crusaders besieged and took Constantinople overturning and destroying the altars of the orthodox, and they then celebrated the Latin rite. However, Innocent did not approve of the wayward Crusaders (he excommunicated them) but the damage was done. Of course, the Greek Church viewed this as an effort to spread the Latin rite and exacerbated the schism of East and West. This subjugation of Constantinople lasted nearly seventy years.
INNOCENT III INCREASES THE PAPACY’S POWER OVER THE CHURCHUnlike his failures with the Crusades, Innocent III’s affect on ecclesiastical development and doctrine of the Church are most noteworthy and, as time has passed, have had long – lasting effects for the Roman Catholic Church. It was his primary purpose to strengthen the spiritual health and vigor of the Church that has left such an indelible mark that can be seen until the present. Innocent devoted most of his energies to the administration of the Church.
The crowning jewel of Pope Innocent’s reign and legacy was the Fourth Lateran council known as the “great” council. On April 19, 1213, he summoned a council to meet in November 1215. This body consisted of all the bishops and abbots of the church, as well as many priors, and even chapters of churches and religious orders. Kings and civil authorities throughout Europe were also invited.
The council convened in the Lateran basilica on November 11, 1215. Innocent set forth the purpose clearly: "to eradicate vices and to plant virtues, to correct faults and to reform morals, to remove heresies and to strengthen faith, to settle discords and to establish peace, to get rid of oppression and to foster liberty, to induce princes and Christian people to come to the aid and succour of the holy Land."
Innocent III contribution to the council in regard to the transubstantiation of the eucharist has had an immense affect on the Church’s central sacrament for hundreds of years to the present. In fact, the word “transubstantiation” received authoritative sanction at the council because of Innocent. Today, the Roman Catholic Church doctrine of transubstantiation is indispensable to its worship. If the bread and wine used in the sacrament were not defined at the great council all of its worship would be dramatically different. The Eucharist is central to Rome’s worship and, it would be no worship at all, if Christ were not present in a “true, real, and substantial manner: His Body and His Blood, with His soul and His divinity.” There would be no idolatrous adoration of the host, or kneeling before it, and veneration of it, or any of the other genuflecting that accompanies the ritual.
The council completed its work and produced seventy constitutions or canons addressing matters ranging from the treatment of heretics, to appointing schoolmasters for the poor, to taxes levied. Innocent’s work is threaded throughout the canons even though they were probably not directly produced by him. Although canon one is known as a new profession of faith, Innocent regarded all of them as universal laws and as a summary of the jurisdiction of his pontificate. The Fourth, and great, Lateran Council’s successes should be directly credited to pope Innocent III.
CONCLUSIONWe have seen the papacy under Innocent III rule greatly grow as the civil authorities and the institution of the Church became subject to the pope. Innocent III’s influence practically extended over the entire civilized world as he set out to do:
Although he occupied the Papal throne only eighteen years, we have more than five thousand letters, or parts of letters, dispatched by him to all parts of Christendom: more than five hundred of them were written in the first year of his Pontificate. Their range stretches from Ireland and Scandinavia to Cairo and Armenia. In that vast territory nothing of importance happened in which he did not intervene; and there was hardly a prince or baron whom he did not excommunicate or any leading country which he did not place under interdict.
Innocent III reigned from 1198 to 1216 and was the most powerful and influential pope past or present. There has not been a time before or since that one pope held so much power among both the Church and secular realms. As a result, he had an unprecedented and incalculable affect on the development of the Roman Catholic Church. Innocent III’s reign is the model of the papacy that the modern day Roman Catholic Church seeks to emulate. While Innocent was not without his failures (Albigensian, fourth, and fifth crusades) it can rightly be said that no other pope accomplished more in such a short span of time, and to have affected the Church to such a degree, that even more than 800 years later remains unsurpassed.
 Michael T. Ott, “Innocent III,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910).
 Alexander Clarence Flick, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church and Its Influence on the Civilisation of Western Europe: From the First to the Thirteenth Century (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1909) 548.
 Ibid., 547.
 Henry Albert Newman, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge Volume: 5, ed. by Samuel Macauley Jackson (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1909) 498.
 H. J. Schroeder, Disciplinary Decrees of the General Councils: Text, Translation and Commentary (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1937) 236-296.
 James A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism vol. I, book I (Rapidan, VA: Hartland Publications, 2002) 44.
 Ronald H. Bainton, The Medieval Church, 1983; reprint (Malabar, FL: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1962) 52.
 Gillian Evans, A History of Pastoral Care (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000) 113.
 George Park Fisher, History of Christian Doctrine (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1896) 257.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1995) 395.
 Joseph McCabe, Crises in the History of the Papacy: A Study of Twenty Famous Popes Whose Careers and Whose Influence Were Important in the Development of the Church and in the History of the World (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1916) 175.