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  • Pope Innocent III and papal power in the church and politics

  • Relatively little known today, Pope Innocent III may rank among the most powerful men ever to have held the office.

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  • With modern popes being essentially moral teachers and exemplars, it is sometimes hard for us to realize that popes once exerted power over kingdoms and empires. An anti-Trump comment by the current Pope Francis II might have power to shift political opinion among some U.S. Catholics, but many medieval popes could overthrow empires and kings.

    Arguably the most powerful pope in history, Pope Innocent III's reign transformed many aspects of the medieval Catholic church and European history. Born Lotario Dei Conti di Segni in 1160, the future Innocent was educated at Paris and Bologna, and, as a young man, worked for the papal administration in Rome under several popes. His talents brought him wide respect among his peers, leading to his election as pope in 1198 at the young age of 37, after only two ballots.

    Pope Innocent III reigned as pope for almost 20 years (1198-1216), during a remarkably turbulent age. Jerusalem had fallen to Saladin's Muslim armies in 1187, and the Third Crusade (1189-1192), under the leadership of Richard Lionheart of England, though it saved the crusader kingdom, had failed to reconquer the holy city. Pope Innocent therefore spent much of his early years as pope mobilizing preachers and resources for another crusade to rescue Jerusalem.

    Unfortunately, through a series of disastrous decisions, Pope Innocent's Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) went drastically astray and ended up conquering Constantinople from the Greek Orthodox Byzantine empire. The city was brutally sacked, and a weak and short-lived “Latin Empire” was established at Constantinople. But the long-term impact of the Fourth Crusade was to weaken Christian military power in the east, thereby opening the path for the eventual Ottoman Turkish conquest of Constantinople, Greece and the Balkans.

    Pope Innocent, though initially appalled by the catastrophe of the Fourth Crusade, was eventually reconciled by the possibility of the reunification with Eastern Christendom through the rule of Latin Empire. But the schism between Catholic west and Orthodox east, which had slowly widened since the Great Schism in 1054, grew into a chasm due to the resentment of eastern Christians at the plundering of their cities, the tyranny of foreign Latin rulers, and the attempted imposition of Catholic priests, theology and liturgy on the Greek Orthodox church. This schism between eastern and western Christians has lasted until the present.

    After the failure of the Fourth Crusade to retake Jerusalem, Pope Innocent called for preparations for a Fifth Crusade in 1215, though he died in 1216 before it was launched.

    Pope Innocent's quest for the religious unity of all Christians under papal authority can also be seen in his efforts to suppress heresy, especially through the Albigensian Crusade (1209-1229). The Albigensians, or Cathars, were a Christian group in southern France that rejected both the Catholic priesthood and the pope as hopelessly corrupt. Rejecting Catholic sacraments, the Cathars, who could be seen as a type of proto-reformers, formed an independent Christian denomination.

    Pope Innocent launched his crusade in 1209 as an effort to root out their “heresy.” The Inquisition originated as an attempt to find and suppress Catharism. Thus, the search by Pope Innocent for Christian unity was ultimately transformed into the suppression of religious nonconformists through force of arms and inquisition.

    Pope Innocent was also a reforming pope who inaugurated the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) as a mechanism to reform many aspects of the Catholic Church; it remained foundational for Catholicism for the next four centuries until the Council of Trent (1545-1563).

    Through the Lateran Council, Pope Innocent attempted to reform canon law, simony (selling church offices), liturgy, clerical morality and heresy, among many other things. As part of these reforming efforts, Innocent accepted — after some initial reluctance — the request by Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) that his followers become a formally recognized religious order. The Franciscans have since become perhaps the most beloved monastic order in Catholicism, renowned for their charitable work.

    In addition to calling crusades, suppressing heresy and reforming the church, Pope Innocent played kingmaker in Germany and Italy. As an advocate of the “Imperial Papacy,” Pope Innocent asserted absolute authority over Christendom and wielded possible excommunication of recalcitrant rulers as a tool of policy. Otto IV and Frederick II were two Holy Roman emperors who were forced to play political chess with Pope Innocent II, with the ultimate prize the rule of both Germany and Italy.

    Whatever one may think of the ultimate significance and justification of his policies, Pope Innocent III transformed the nature of the Catholic church for centuries after his death.

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