Innocent III (1161-1216)

Isaac Padinjarekuttu

Pope from 1198 till his death in 1216, Innocent was one of the significant ecclesiastical personalities of the Middle Ages. A man born to rule, uniting exceptional gifts of intellect and character with determination, flexibility, rare skill in handling men and also humaneness. Innocent gave himself the title “Vicar of Christ” which he said set him midway between God and man, below God but above man, given “not only the universal church but also the whole world to govern.” “No king can reign unless he devoutly serves Christ’s vicar. Princes have power in earth, priests over the soul. As much as the soul is worthier than the body, so much worthier is the priesthood than the monarchy.” Armed with this power he at once established his authority in Rome, which was plagued by in-fighting of rival families. Then he set out to establish his authority in the papal states with so much vigour that he is often called the “second founder” of the papal states. Through his astute diplomacy he almost doubled its territory. Whenever he found it necessary he intervened in other countries, like Germany, England etc. even excommunicating the rulers when needed.

Though a master of politics, Innocent’s over-riding concerns were the internal matters of the church, the Crusades, reform of the church and combating heresy. As regards the first, during his pontificate, the fourth crusade was organized (1202-04), which was diverted to Constantinople, of course against the will of the Pope. The capture of the city by the crusaders, the setting up of a Latin patriarchate there and the brutal plunder of the city sealed the Eastern Schism. Still Innocent accepted this outcome in the mistaken belief that it would help the reunion of the churches! Undiscouraged, Innocent soon began to appeal for the next crusade and fixed it for 1217 but he died in 1216.  As a reformer he began with the curia, restoring the balance between episcopal and papal administration by limiting appeals to Rome and encouraging provincial and national councils, and insisting that bishops visit Rome every four years. He took steps to improve the quality and moral behaviour of the clergy and to restore observance of their rules by religious houses. Sympathetic to the evangelical poverty preached by several groups, he encouraged the realization of their ideals within the church, notably by approving the way of life of the Franciscans in the church. Perhaps his most important act of reform was the calling of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 which could be considered the culminating event of his reign and perhaps the most important council of the Middle Ages, dealing with wide range of reforms in the church, clarifying doctrine and establishing discipline. Its seventy decrees included a definition of the Eucharist in terms of transubstantiation, the condemnation of all heresies and a summons to the secular powers to assist in their repression, a ban on the founding of new religious orders and the requirements that Catholics should make a yearly confession, that Jews and Muslims should wear a distinctive dress and that Christian rulers should observe a four year truce so that the crusade could be launched. As far as fighting heresy was concerned. Innocent took energetic measures declaring it high treason against God. But first he wanted the bishops to look for its causes and remedies. So he encouraged the Spanish priest Dominic Guzman to deal with a group of heretics called the Albigensians, which he successfully did. Dominic later became the founder of the Dominican Order. Unfortunately, in 1208 a papal legate who was sent to convert them was murdered and Innocent ordered a crusade against the group in southern France which resulted in much bloodshed and devastation and it cast a lasting shadow on the reputation of Innocent’s pontificate. Innocent was a considerable writer, consisting of 6000 letters, sermons, and canonical rulings and an important ascetical treatise De Miseria Humanae Conditionis and a valuable writing on the liturgy of his time, De Sacro Altaris Mysterio. His pontificate marked the climax of the medieval papacy. By the end of the century, with Pope Boniface VIII, decline of papal authority set in leading to the Western Schism.

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