Innocent III

Innocent III (1160-1216), an Italian aristocrat, theologian, and canon lawyer, reigned as pope from 1198 to 1216. His pontificate has customarily been taken to mark the most splendid moment of the medieval papacy.

Born Lothar of Segni, the future pope was the son of Count Thrasimund of Segni. He studied theology at Paris and law at Bologna, the leading medieval centers of these studies, and at about the age of 30 had already attained the rank of cardinal deacon. He owed his elevation to the Sacred College to his uncle, Pope Clement III, but this could not obscure the fact that he was a man of outstanding ability and energy. Not even the temporary eclipse of his fortunes during the pontificate of Celestine III prevented the cardinals from turning to him in January 1198, when that aged and unsuccessful pontiff died. The years of eclipse, indeed, had enhanced rather than diminished Lothar's stature, because they were for him years of literary activity; out of them came the two conventional works which nonetheless attained considerable fame: De contempt mundi and De sacro altaris mysterio.

Lothar was chosen pope by his fellow cardinals less, it would seem, because they were impressed by the quality of his spirituality than because they saw in him a man of proven strength who could be relied upon to combat the rise of heresy, now for the first time in the Middle Ages a serious threat to the unity of the Church, and to restore the badly damaged political fortunes of the papacy in Italy and elsewhere. As a result, Innocent III expended a great deal of his energy on matters diplomatic and political. The greatest and most enduring achievements of his pontificate lay, nevertheless, in the realm of ecclesiastical government—in his contribution to the development of canon law, his promotion of administrative centralization in the Church, his imaginative encouragement of the Franciscans and Dominicans, and, above all, his convocation and direction of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).


Conception of the Papacy

An unusually young man at the time of his election to the papacy, Innocent was small and dark and had a commanding presence, a driving dynamic personality, and notable rhetorical gifts which he exploited to the full in expounding and defending his conception of the papal office and responsibilities. It was a lofty conception, well exemplified by a text on which he chose to preach at his consecration: "See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (Jeremiah 1:10).

What this exalted conception meant for Innocent's dealings with the clerical hierarchy and the local churches of Christendom is clear enough. As pope, he was successor to Peter and vicar of Christ, with supreme authority in the Universal Church and the ultimate responsibility for the health of that Church. "Others," he said, "were called to a part of the care, but Peter alone assumed the plenitude of power." Hence his willingness to regard the jurisdictional powers of the bishops as deriving from his own fullness of power; hence, too, his vigorous and wide-ranging judicial activity, his extension of papal rights over episcopal appointments, and his frequent efforts to make the force of his authority felt in the national churches by means of cardinal legates endowed with the broadest of powers.

What Innocent's view of the papal office meant for his relations with temporal rulers is by no means as clear. The formulas in which he couched his claims were undoubtedly often extreme. To Peter was left "not only the Universal Church but the whole world to govern." The pope "set between God and man, lower than God but higher than man … judges all and is judged by no one." Innocent claimed, "Just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority."

On the basis of these and of similar theocratic utterances, some have concluded that Innocent was clearly laying direct claim to the supreme temporal as well as spiritual authority in Christendom, that it was his ambition, in fact, to be nothing less than "lord of the world." Others, however, have noted the disparity between the extremism of such theoretical claims and the caution and scrupulous attention to legality with which he proceeded when he actually did choose to intervene in matters pertaining to the jurisdiction of temporal rulers.

It is true that for Innocent the pope succeeded to the position of Christ, who, like Melchisedech, had been king as well as priest and, as a result, was in some sense possessed of a monarchical authority even in secular matters and over temporal rulers. However, he did not seek to absorb temporal structures of government into ecclesiastical, and he could often defend his intervention in temporal affairs as necessitated by his spiritual responsibilities. Furthermore, his policies in such matters were usually distinguished by a pragmatic rather than a doctrinaire quality.


Political Activity

Matrimonial affairs led to Innocent's intervention in the kingdoms of León, Argon, and France (although in the last case diplomatic considerations also played a role), and a disputed election to the archbishopric of Canterbury led him to intervene in English affairs. King John's refusal to accept Cardinal Stephen Langton, who had been elected to that see after Innocent had invalidated the earlier election, led in 1208 to the imposition of an interdict on England, in 1209 to the King's excommunication, and in 1212 to his deposition and a papal invitation to the French king to invade England. Under this last threat John finally capitulated, accepted Stephen Langton's election, and sought (successfully) to ensure papal support in the future by surrendering and receiving back the kingdoms of England and Ireland as papal fiefs.

In most of these cases Innocent could claim that the need to preserve ecclesiastical discipline dictated his policy, but he could hardly do so in the cases of Portugal, Aragon, and other kingdoms that also became his feudal fiefs. Here he was motivated presumably by the view that he had expressed at the start of his pontificate: "Ecclesiastical liberty is nowhere better cared for than where the Roman church has full power in both temporal and spiritual matters."

Certainly this belief influenced his vigorous efforts to reestablish papal hegemony at Rome and in the affiliated papal territories, where the German emperors Frederick I and Henry VI had done much to extend imperial control at the expense of the papacy. Thus he was able to transfer the feudal allegiance of the city perfect from the emperor to himself, to restore a considerable measure of papal control in the Romagna, and to establish some sort of papal administration for the first time in much of the territory bequeathed to the papacy a century earlier by Countess Matilda of Tuscany.

If Innocent's Italian policy met with a fair degree of success, it did so in part because of the confused conditions prevailing in the empire. Henry VI, already ruler of Germany and large parts of northern Italy, had acquired by marriage the old Norman kingdom of Sicily. His objective to make good his control of all these territories, including the Italian, threatened the papal freedom of action in the future. But Henry VI died 4 months before Innocent became pope, and his widow, Constance, died a few months after, leaving a 3-year-old son, Frederick of Hohenstaufen, under papal guardianship. Although Innocent took his duties as guardian with great seriousness and defended Frederick's rights as king of Sicily, it was clearly in the interest of the papacy permanently to sever the connection between Sicily and the empire. Accordingly, between the years 1198 and 1209, he sought to influence imperial politics by arbitrating between the rival claimants to the imperial succession: Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick, both of them adult relations of Henry VI.

Unable to enforce his claim to arbitrate and later disappointed in the attitude of his own candidate, Otto IV, whom he had crowned emperor after Philip's death, Innocent then compounded the woes of Germany by declaring Otto deposed and finally, in 1213, by throwing his support to the candidacy of Frederick of Hohenstaufen. In return, Frederick pledged not to reunite the German and Sicilian kingdoms, a pledge which he broke in the years after Innocent's death. At the battle of Bouvines in 1214 Frederick was able to make good his claim to be emperor.


Schism, Heresy, and the Crusade

Just as Innocent's imperial policy failed to achieve its ultimate goal, so did his attempts to recover the holy places in Palestine, to revivify the crusading movement, and to bring it once more under papal leadership. His efforts did indeed bring about the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), but the crusade escaped his control and was diverted into attacking the Christian city of Byzantium, culminating in its capture and the establishment for some decades of a Latin Eastern Empire. The resulting bitterness in the Eastern Orthodox Churches did much to perpetuate the schism between them and the Latin Church, which Innocent himself had longed to terminate.

Comparably questionable results attended Innocent's inauguration of a crusade against the Albigensian heretics in the south of France. Fought with great ferocity and benefiting primarily the northern French nobles and the French monarchy, it succeeded, indeed, in ending the aristocratic protection upon which the survival of the heresy had so largely depended, but it did so at the cost of degrading still further an already degraded crusading ideal.


Ecclesiastical Government

Innocent's sponsorship of the mendicant friars, who set an example of dedicated poverty and preached the Gospel to the poor and neglected, possibly did more to contain the growth of heresy than did his espousal of more violent methods. Here, as with his ecclesiastical government in general, a more positive judgment is appropriate.

He gave immense impetus to the development of canon law (his Compilation tertia, issued in 1210, was the first officially promulgated collection of papal laws) and displayed vigor and industry in supervising the administration of the local churches and the centralization of the Church in Rome. These things helped no doubt to spawn the excessive legalism and papal centralization of the later Middle Ages, but they also helped to retard the growth of royal and aristocratic control over the local and national clergy that also became a problem in the later Middle Ages.


Fourth Lateran Council

Regarded by Roman Catholics as an ecumenical council, preceded by 2 years of preparation, and assembled in November 1215 at the Lateran basilica, the Fourth Lateran Council was attended by over 400 bishops, twice as many abbots and priors, and representatives of many secular rulers. So constituted, it was perhaps the greatest of medieval assemblies. Its decrees began with a profession of faith, which, by defining the doctrine of transubstantiation, closed the long medieval dispute about the nature of Christ's presence in the Eucharist.

The Council then endeavored to establish the procedures to be followed in dealing with heresy, requiring all bishops in whose sees the presence of heresy was suspected to hold there an annual inquisition. Another decree, by requiring that all adults confess their sins at least once annually to their own parish priests, buttressed this attempt to establish the responsibility of the local clergy for the elimination of local heresy.

Of related importance were further decrees requiring bishops to ensure the adequate proclamation of the Gospel by appointing suitable priests as diocesan preachers and requiring that an adequately endowed position be set aside at all cathedral and metropolitan churches to support a master charged with the instruction of the diocesan clergy. This last provision was an important one at the time, given the absence of seminaries. Other decrees forbade the foundation of new religious orders; required episcopal supervision and visitation of existing monasteries; sought to eliminate practices by which ecclesiastical positions could become in fact if not in theory hereditary; tried to curtail the trade in relics and the spread of superstitions surrounding them; and attempted by a whole series of disciplinary and administrative regulations to eliminate existing corruptions, to prevent new ones, and to foster a general improvement in the quality of religious life. Of critical importance were those decrees which required the holding of annual provincial councils and which sought to withdraw the clergy from involvement in activities pertaining to secular government.

On July 16, 1216, not long after the close of the Council which was his greatest achievement and a fitting summation to a distinguished career, Innocent suddenly died. Had the reforming legislation of the Fourth Lateran Council been implemented in the years after Innocent's death, many of the corruptions which were to bring the later medieval clergy into disrepute would have been curtailed. Even so, the Council's decrees helped mold the life of the Church for centuries to come.

Further Reading on Innocent III

Some source materials on Innocent III are in Selected Letters of Pope Innocent III concerning England, 1198-1216, edited by C. R. Cheney and W. H. Semple (1953). For biographical studies see E. F. Jacob, "Innocent III," in J. B. Bury, ed., Cambridge Medieval History (8 vols., 1913-1936); L. Elliott-Binns, Innocent III (1931); and Charles Edward Smith, Innocent III: Church Defender (1951). For general background see Margaret Deanesly, A History of the Medieval Church, 590-1500 (1925; 3d ed. 1934); Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 (1964); and Geoffrey Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy (1968).