Pope Innocent III and the Marks of a Great Papacy

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Because Innocent III was one of the three popes to define the doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church,” it would do well for all the friends of Saint Benedict Center to study the pontificate of this man whose papacy has been judged both by Church historians and secular scholars as one of the greatest in history. He reigned from AD 1198 until his death in 1216. His papacy ushered in the Thirteenth Century, which some Catholic scholars refer to as “the greatest of centuries.” In the face of many difficult obstacles, he successfully strengthened the Church, clarified its doctrines, suppressed heresies, corrected clerical abuses, and firmly established the Church, in the person of the Pope, as the final arbitrator of disputes between the secular powers.

Setting the Stage for Greatness

Two things are necessary when trying to understand the greatness of any one of our popes. First, we need to know the major principles that guided his decisions and actions. Second, we must have some sense of the events that preceded his ascent to the papal throne as well as the political and social forces that were prevalent during the time of his papacy.

The orthodoxy and clarity of Innocent’s vision is evident from the very beginning of his papacy. In his inaugural sermon, we see that Innocent clearly understood the position of the papacy in both human history and in God’s salvific will for man.

Who am I and of what lineage that I should take my place above kings? For to me it is said in the prophets, ‘I have this day set thee over nations and over the kingdoms, to root out and pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build and to plant.’ To me it is said in the apostles, ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ The successor of St. Peter is the Vicar of Christ; he has been established as mediator between God and man, below God but beyond man; less than God but more than man; who shall judge all and be judged by no one.

From his other writings it is clear that Innocent III understood the preeminence of the spiritual over the temporal, including the predominance of the Church over the State. For example, in his letter to King John Lackland of England he writes, “Jesus Christ wills that the kingdom should be priestly, and the priesthood kingly. Over all, he has set me as his vicar upon earth, so that, as before Jesus ‘every knee shall bow,’ in like manner to his vicar all shall be obedient, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd. Pondering this truth, thou, as a secular prince, has subjected thy realm to Him to whom all is spiritually subject.”

The young Lotario dei Conti di Segni was a brilliant student who began his education in Rome and continued it at the universities of Paris and Bologna. His writings show that he had a profound knowledge of scholastic philosophy as well as canon and civil law. According to all accounts, Lotario lived in conformity to his ideals and, throughout his life, his actions both private and public were pure and above reproach. To him, the most heinous crimes were those that opposed, denied or subverted the Catholic Faith, outside of which no one at all could be saved. Thus, it was imperative that worldly and grasping kings should be controlled, that the Holy Land should be freed from the diabolical yoke of Islam and that the immoral actions of secular leaders, the clergy, and even entire populations should be censured and punished.

Before we get too far into our subject, it is important for the reader to understand that, in the Middle Ages, it was universally accepted that to wield power, it was necessary to be a landowner1.

Due to his obvious brilliance and excellent qualities of character, Lotario was made canon of St. Peter’s. His uncle, Pope Clement III, appointed him cardinal-deacon of Santi Sergio e Baccho. From this position, he was able to observe the inner workings of the Church hierarchy; he obtained a practical knowledge of power and how to wield it in God’s service. He knew that theoretical knowledge and purity of life, as excellent as those qualities are, are inadequate when charged with carrying out the responsibilities and duties of the Vicar of Christ in a fallen world. He knew that, in part, the pope’s power lay in the universal acceptance of, and the Church’s insistence on, the dogma extra Ecclesiam nulla sullus.

The Conditions Prior to the Election of Innocent III

Innocent-IIIWhile it is true that what we call Western Civilization was Catholic in the Middle Ages, it is also true that, then as now, men sought wealth and power inordinately and that they chafed at anything or anyone that interfered with their disordered desires. In theory, everyone recognized the “Power of the Keys.” Depending on the degree to which their lives conformed to God’s salvific plan, secular rulers saw the papacy as an ally or as an enemy. Depending on the ability and holiness of the reigning Pope, rulers and populations grew in or strayed from the Faith in their personal lives and ambitions. Without firm guidance from the Church, leaders became tyrants and countries allowed heresies to flourish and disorder to prevail. Internal strife, heretical notions, and rivalries between various Christian sovereigns had allowed the Muslims to advance quickly to a degree that would imperil the whole of the West.

During the period of 1124 to 1152, nearly fifty years before Innocent’s papacy, the Church was involved in a series of terrible struggles. For nine tense and difficult years, the legitimate Pope, Innocent II, assisted by the great St. Bernard, fought against the forces of an anti-pope, Anacletus II. Anacletus, a member of the wealthy and corrupt Pierleone family of Italy, had, through bribery and simony, stirred up the Roman populace and paid enough cardinals to “steal the papacy” immediately after Innocent II’s legitimate election. It was only after St. Bernard preached a crusade against the anti-pope (during which Anacletus suddenly died) that the legitimate papacy was restored. Although the legitimate successor of Peter now reigned, the supporters of Anacletus still fomented discontent. Rome was torn apart by factions. The Third Lateran Council was summoned in 1139, which anathematized those who supported the schism and confirmed the laws relative to simony, clerical incontinence and luxury. After the council, revolutionary forces still remained very active in Rome. Thus, in 1140, the faithful cardinals were forced to elect Pope Eugene III in a secret location outside of Rome. Eugene was unable to return to Rome until 1145.

The problems in the Holy Land rivaled those in Rome. The Muslims now surrounded the Christian states of the East. The Crusader’s bulwark, Edessa, was overcome and its inhabitants massacred by the infidels. The Third Crusade was preached by St Bernard in 1146. Despite an enthusiastic response, the disunion of the Christian princes, the hostility of the Greek Emperor, and the ferocity of the Muslim forces resulted in defeat for the Crusaders. St. Bernard understood the lesson from the setback and declared that the success of Christian arms in the East was intimately connected with the moral and religious reform in the West.

The period preceding the election of Pope Innocent III saw the rise of the German Emperor Frederick I, called “Barbarossa,” (1123-1190) of the Hohenstaufen family. His ambitions knew no bounds as he wanted nothing less than absolute power, like that of the ancient Roman emperors. He was cruel and perfidious. He is credited with the start of what is called the “rise of nations.” His greatest opposition came from the popes such as Alexander II. Although Frederick installed his own anti-popes, he was finally forced to withdraw from Italy when the Lombards formed what is known as the “Lombard League” and revolted openly, successfully driving Frederick’s forces out of Italy in 1168. Finally, in 1183, by the Treaty of Venice, Frederick I recognized the legitimate authority of Alexander III and promised to place back into their sees all bishops who had been removed because of their loyalty to the legitimate pope.

Although, during that period, Frederick I was the most vigorous and problematic of the foes of the papacy, there were others such as Henry II of England (who was responsible for the murder of St.Thomas a’ Becket in 1170), Philip Augustus of France, and Alfonso IX of Leon, the last two of whom had caused public scandal by their irregular marriages.

Following Frederick’s death in 1190, his son, Henry VI, received the Imperial crown from Pope Celestine III. Almost immediately, Henry displayed his perfidy and attempted to realize the ambitions of his father — German control of the entire Western world. His means were even more barbarous. He had his enemies buried alive, sawed in half or crowned with a crown of hot iron. Only his untimely death at the age of thirty-two ended his reign of terror. His death preceded the election of Innocent III by only four months.

At the time of Pope Celestine III’s death in 1198, the Holy Roman German Empire was in a state of anarchy. Two powerful parties strove for power. One consisted of the partisans of Philip of Swabia, brother of Henry VI — a Hohenstaufen (the family of Frederick Barbarossa). The others were of the Guelph party (a party that usually favored the pope) who supported Otto of Brunswick.

History is always intricate. I included the aforementioned events and influences to help set the stage for Innocent’s papacy and to show the problems and opportunities that presented themselves to him. A long period of conflict between ambitious rulers and the moderating force of the papacy preceded his election. Internal strife between the imperial partisans, anti-popes, and the cities of Italy, the growth of the Albigensian heresy in France, along with new threats from the Muslims, meant that the choice of the new pope was critical for the Church and the Empire.

The actions of this vigorous pope were complicated and involved. Thus, I will briefly touch upon one or two examples from each of the following general areas of concern: How he dealt with powerful worldly powers; when necessary, how he corrected their immorality; how he suppressed heresies; how he maintained internal Church discipline, affirmed and asserted Church teaching; and how he opposed the aggression of Islam.

Lotario Conti Di Segni Is Elected Pope Innocent III

Lotario di Segni was born in about 1161 and was from the important Conti family that also produced popes Clement III, Gregory IX and Alexander IV. Owing to his brilliance, learning and personal integrity, Pope Gregory VIII appointed him sub-deacon of Rome. In 1190, when he was twenty-nine years of age, his uncle, Clement III, appointed him cardinal-deacon. He immediately became one of Clement’s most trusted advisors and, in the various affairs entrusted to him, he demonstrated his firmness and tactical skill. In 1191, with the death of Clement, Pope Celestine III was raised to the papacy. Because Celestine’s family and that of the Conti’s were at odds, Lotario retired from his position and, during the interlude, wrote a series of scholarly theological treatises. In February of 1198, within one day of the death of Pope Celestine III, Lotario was elected by a unanimous vote and took the name of Innocent III. Because he had not received the fullness of Holy Orders, he had to be quickly ordained priest and bishop before he could be crowned as pope. He was thirty-seven years old at the time of his election.

As we observed from his inaugural sermon quoted above, the young pope clearly understood his responsibility and the greatness of the task ahead of him. He recognized that his most immediate concerns were to free Rome and the Papal States from rival factions, to emancipate Italy from German domination, to pursue the Crusade against the Muslim invaders, to cleanse the West of heresy, and to maintain the victories of his predecessors over the temporal powers.

Innocent’s Dealings with Secular Rulers

The three main factions of Rome at the time of Innocent III were: first, the prefect (a local magistrate), who was dependent on the Holy Roman Emperor and, thus, received orders from Germany; second, the Roman Senate, which represented the people; and, finally, the great nobles, who mostly labored for themselves. The new pope ensured his popularity by a largess (a large gift of money), which he gave to the people at the time of his coronation. Profiting from the friendliness of the populace he obtained from the senator who represented the people an oath of vassalage to the Holy See.2

Representatives of neighboring cities immediately made similar oaths to the Holy See. The prefect of Rome, not wanting to be outdone, readily took the oath of fealty since the office of Emperor was vacant at the time due to the recent death of Henry VI. Innocent’s continued charity towards the poor helped to strengthen his popularity and his power. He founded the first city hospitals, ordered collections for the assistance of the poor, set up institutions for the aged and children, as well as a refuge for fallen women. This did not bring an immediate end to the factions and he was forced to leave Rome on several occasions when they united against him or fought amongst themselves. Yet, Innocent’s handling of them eventually consolidated the papal authority over the city of Rome.

Innocent used the interlude caused by the sudden death of the ambitious and barbarous Emperor Henry VI to remove the influence of the Germanic imperial power from northern Italy. He made an alliance with the Lombard League and formed a league of the Tuscan cities that he placed under his protection. Innocent considered the removal of German influence from Italy as an essential condition for the independence of the Church.

Henry VI’s widow, Empress Constance, a Sicilian by birth, immediately sent an emissary to the new pope and renewed an oath of vassalage which bound that kingdom to the holy see. She further renounced privileges that had been obtained earlier and labored with some measure of success to remove Germanic influences from her kingdom. During the negotiations with Constance, the pope firmly refused to grant continuance of the assumed right of the king to appoint the bishoprics, to receive appeals and to grant or refuse, at the king’s pleasure, permission to bishops to attend councils. As evidence of the high regard of the Empress for Innocent, when she was dying, she induced him to accept guardianship over her young son, Frederick II. Innocent’s pains to give the young prince a proper education consonant with his position proved that her trust was not misplaced.

Although Frederick II was recognized as the emperor when he was still a child, it required a capable ruler to govern Germany until Frederick was of age. Two powerful parties, the Guelfs and Ghibellines3 supported different candidates. The Guelfs elected Otto IV. The Ghibellines favored Philip of Suabia, the uncle of Frederick II. Each wrote to Innocent asking him to confirm his election. He replied that German nobles should choose one candidate or he would take the matter in hand. He based his right of intervention on two principles. First, the Holy See had transferred the authority of the Roman Empire, in the year 800, from the Greeks to the Germans in the person of Charlemagne, King of the Germanic Franks. Second, The pope had the right to examine the person he was about to consecrate. Otto was crowned Emperor in 1198 by the archbishop of Cologne and declared emperor in 1201 by Innocent. However, Philip’s party increased rapidly until, in 1207, his authority was generally recognized throughout Germany. Innocent regarded the popular wish and was about to reverse his judgment when Philip was murdered as the result of a private dispute.

Otto IV, now without a rival, married the daughter of Philip and was crowned emperor at Rome in 1209. He promised to grant freedom of ecclesiastical elections, to recognize the right of appeal to Rome, and to secure the Roman Church in all her possessions. Unfortunately, no sooner did he receive the crown than he laid claim to a host of fictitious rights in Italy. He immediately seized various possessions of Italian nobles and attempted to seize Sicily. The Pope, knowing it was essential for the freedom of the Church to limit Germanic influence in Italy, threatened excommunication. When Otto obstinately refused to keep the promises made at his coronation, Innocent, in 1211, was obliged to carry the excommunication into effect. When Otto fell under the ban of the church, his former adherents soon fell away.

In 1212, at a diet (deliberative convention) of princes held in Nuremberg, Otto was declared to have forfeited the throne and Innocent declared in favor of 17 year-old Frederick II. From Frederick, the pope elicited the following promises — that, after he received the imperial crown he should give up the kingship of Sicily and give it to his son as a separate kingdom, and that he should organize a crusade within three years. Although it is a subject beyond the scope of this brief article, Frederick would eventually prove to be one of the most ambitious and perfidious of all the emperors of that era.

During his eighteen-year pontificate, Innocent would have to confront and correct the abuses of other rulers as well. The popes’ means of coercion have always been few. He can threaten to excommunicate or to place under interdict and, when necessary, carry these threats into action. He can send papal legates to negotiate with rulers or their representatives. He can call upon friendly secular rulers to intervene with arms when necessary. He can warn, cajole, and instruct rulers. He can instruct the faithful by his encyclical letters, papal bulls, and his teaching. He can, alone or in council, infallibly define a truth of the Faith when it is challenged or when it needs more precise theological clarification. Innocent’s powers were limited to these, yet, according to both secular and Church scholars, the prestige of the papacy reached an historical high point during his reign. Innocent was not afraid to use these powers. The Western world was Catholic, and everyone, from the humblest peasant to the most arrogant potentate, understood the pope’s spiritual authority over them all. Most importantly, everyone understood that, without the Church, the Mass and the sacraments, he was not able to save his soul. When these were withdrawn, there were serious and, very possibly, eternal consequences. In practice, Innocent always treated even the most obstinate of his foes with justice and fairness. When the errant ruler clearly indicated his submission, the interdict and excommunications were lifted and any hostile forces were ordered to withdraw.

Innocent would even side with his former enemies when those whom he had asked for help had gone too far or refused to withdraw after the Pope had accepted the foe’s acquiescence. This was the case with John Lackland of England — one of his most implacable foes. After many years during which John had abused his subjects and acted aggressively towards other countries, Innocent declared that his rule was no longer legitimate and he released John’s subjects from their obligations of fealty — his subjects thereupon were under no obligation to obey him. Eventually, this resulted in the subjects drawing up the famous Magna Carta, which they forced John to sign. The document was signed after John had placed himself under the Pope’s protection as his vassal. Because the Magna Carta was not only directed against the abuses by the king, but also the authority of the pope, Innocent declared it to be null and void. Eventually, after years of repeated deception and tyranny, through the tireless efforts of the pope, John’s influence was drastically reduced.

When Philip Augustus of France rejected his legitimate wife and refused to take her back, Innocent placed the entire country under interdict, suspending the administration of sacraments, except extreme unction, baptism of children and confession of those in danger of death. Eventually, the pressure of the interdict had the intended effect and Philip restored his wife to her proper dignity. Using similar methods, Innocent forced Alonso IX, King of Leon in Spain, to break off his illegitimate marriage with his niece. In like manner, the pope forced Sancho I, King of Portugal, to pay the annual tribute promised by his father. Innocent also negotiated settlements in the contested kingships of Poland and Hungary as well as other nations. Innocent had so greatly increased the prestige of the papacy that the pope was looked upon in Christendom as the final arbitrator of not only religious and moral infractions, but even of civil disputes.

Innocent Versus the Heretics and Infidels

Within several weeks of his election to the papacy, Innocent saw the urgent need to take action against the Albigensian heretics (also known as the “Cathari”) in Languedoc, France. They were Manicheans, believing in two gods. They taught that all flesh was evil, having been created by the “evil” god. They held that the other, the “good” god, created spiritual entities. Because they believed that to convey life was a great evil, their moral practices were sordid and perverse. The adherents had actively promoted their errors and, in some towns, it was the official religion. Unfortunately, they aggressively preached their errors while the average parish priest did not preach at all. As a result, many poorly instructed Catholics fell into the heresy. (In this way, the situation was very similar to that in which the Church has found itself in modern times.)

Innocent’s first response was to send two local Cistercians as his legates (agents with authority) to induce the prince to banish the heretics and confiscate their property. Disobedience was to be punished by ecclesiastical censures and, to encourage Catholics, liberal indulgences were to be granted. They were to work to reform the lives of the local clergy. When this was not successful, Innocent sent two more Cistersians, one of whom, Peter de Castelnau, was quite vigorous. The local archbishop was deposed when he refused to cooperate. Another bishop was deposed for simony and a third suspended. All bishops in Languedoc were deprived of their jurisdiction in heresy cases — only the papal legates had the authority henceforth. They also had been given the power to deprive all unworthy clergy of their benefices (revenues due from their ecclesiastical offices) and there was no right of appeal. Another Cistercian was appointed to the now vacant see of Toulouse and soon another Cistercian was made bishop in Auxerre. Even though the will of the pope to correct the clergy was perfectly clear and the local Catholic had no doubt about what was the true faith, the mission made very little overall progress. The count of Toulouse obstinately refused to cooperate with the pope’s mission.

Innocent next sent two Spaniards, the Bishop of Osma and Dominic Guzman (the great St. Dominic) into Languedoc. With their companions, they traveled in groups of three and fours, with no money or shoes on their feet. Through their austerity they attempted to balance the pomp and formality that was deemed necessary for the papal legates. They preached and held formal disputations with the chiefs of the heretics — sometimes for days on end.

Finally, after nearly ten years of these missions, the papal legates tried one more time to win the cooperation of the local princes, particularly the count of Toulouse, Raymond VI. He was the great grandson of Raymond IV of Toulouse who, in the victory of the first crusade, refused out of reverence to Christ the King to be crowned King of Jerusalem. His father, Raymond V, became an Albigensian heretic. When they failed to win Raymond VI, the legates excommunicated him and laid an interdict on his territories. Within three months, one of the count’s sergeants murdered De Castelnau, the papal legate. It marked the beginning of a regular war to punish Raymond and to root out the heresy once and for all. The murderer was excommunicated and Raymond’s excommunication was renewed. Raymond was outlawed and deprived of all his rights as a ruler; his vassals were freed from their allegiance to him and his allies were freed from their treaty obligations.

Pope Innocent called for a crusade against the heretics and a substantial force was gathered in Lyons. After winning the initial battles and, unfortunately, engaging in excesses and massacres, the large force dispersed. Only Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester in England, remained. For the next ten years he maintained the crusade against Raymond and his dependents. When it became apparent to Innocent that personal ambitions had gotten mixed up with the original purpose of the crusade, he intervened most strenuously. Innocent attempted to bring Raymond into the fold and ordered him to cooperate with the work of extirpating the heretics from his land. After repeated demonstrations of perfidy, Raymond of Toulouse was deprived of all lands with the exception of his capital, Toulouse.

Peter II of Aragon, a good Catholic, had recently returned from a successful campaign against the Muslims. Unfortunately, he decided to intervene in defense of Raymond, who was his brother-in-law. Despite warnings of the Pope, he massed a huge army against Simon de Montfort with the intention of wiping out his forces for good. On September 11, 1213, the campaign ended in the battle of Muret. Simon de Montfort, with a force of only 700 – 800 cavalry (all seasoned knights) completely decimated Peter’s army, which was forty thousand strong. Peter himself was slain. Having removed his armor before the battle, he took the thrust of a sword and lay on the ground mortally wounded. His cry of “I am the king,” was to no avail. Seeing Peter of Aragon dead, his troops fled the field. De Montfort’s forces suffered the loss of only nine men. The matter was not entirely settled until the Lateran Council in 1215.

Innocent’s method of dealing with the heretics was to send preachers, to depose complicent or openly heretical bishops, to install new bishops and send papal legates to administer the mission. He excommunicated the rulers who cooperated with or protected the heretics and placed their subjects under interdict. It was only after these efforts proved unsuccessful and his personal legate was murdered did he finally order a military crusade against them. Even then, he worked tirelessly to protect their legitimate rights and protect them from unjust harm. After seven years of military action the first great obstacle to the extirpation of the Albigensians had been accomplished — they were no longer protected by the State. The next phase of the operation was then begun — the cooperation of the State with the Pope against the heretics. It was at this point that St. Dominic and his order were sent back in to preach to and bring the heretics back into the Catholic fold.

One of Innocent’s chief concerns was to free the Christian lands of the East from the Muslim yoke and to bring the Eastern schismatics back into communion with the Church. In 1203 the Fourth Crusade was launched. Unfortunately, the crusaders, instead of directing their efforts against the Muslims, spent their time and energy dethroning the Christian princes. Despite Innocent’s threats of excommunication, orders and countless letters, the Crusade was terribly mishandled by the ambitious rulers who were in charge of the campaign. Although Innocent capitalized on the successes, the result was that Innocent’s hopes for reconciliation with the Eastern Christians were dashed. Unfortunately, the growing tendency for the nations to act of their own accord and to replace the interests of religion with their own desire for commerce or territorial expansion resulted in the Fourth Crusade’s failure to fulfill its purpose.

The Fourth Lateran Council

In 1215, Innocent summoned the Twelfth Ecumenical Council of the Church known as the Fourth Lateran. The objective was to reaffirm contested truths of the Faith, condemn the heresies, especially the Albigensians, establish procedures for dealing with the Jews, define and establish the degrees of hierarchical authority, and establish an inquiry procedure (that would eventually become “The Inquisition”). It laid down new rules for the reform and education of the clergy, and called for a new crusade to win back the Holy Land. Finally, the Fourth Lateran Council gave us the first of three infallible definitions that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Never again could anyone doubt that it is absolutely necessary to be member of the Catholic Church in order to save one’s soul. In the definition directed against the Albigensians and other heretics, the council declared, “There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside of which no one at all can be saved.”

The Papacy of Innocent III — Great by All Standards

As stated above, the papacy of Innocent III dealt with an amazing number of matters from the momentous to the routine — far more than can be enumerated in this article.

Catholic and secular historians alike hail Innocent III as one of the greatest figures in history. What were the qualities that made him and his papacy great? All agree that his personal life was above reproach. He clearly knew his place in history. He thought of everything in religious terms. The salvation of souls and the welfare of the Church and Christian civilization were his primary concerns. He knew what powers and tools were available to him and he used them to their fullest to protect the rights of the Church, to rein in corrupt and ambitious secular rulers, to combat heresy, and to oppose the Muslim onslaught. He fought heresy and corruption by cleansing his own house first — depriving any Roman clerics of their property if they did not amend their lives or disavow any heretical opinions. Although he was implacable towards the mighty when they were intractable, he was just and moderate when dealing with his enemies who indicated their submission. Towards the poor and humble he was sympathetic and generous. By his vigorous and courageous mode of action, he increased the prestige of the papacy so that individuals, rulers and countries appealed to the pope to settle disputes and render judgments. He summoned the Lateran Council to clarify the truths of the Faith, to condemn the heresies, to reform the clergy, and to reaffirm the Church’s call for a Crusade against the Muslim infidels. At Innocent’s death in 1216, the Church had reached a pinnacle of power and prestige; the conditions were in place for that great flowering of Christian civilization — the Thirteenth Century — the “Greatest of Centuries.”

One secular historian admitted that Innocent provided the world with a fair and moral final arbitrator — something that the United Nations claims to provide but will never accomplish. “Indeed the modern student will be amazed to discover how nearly Innocent III succeeded in realizing the utopian ideal of a world-organization based upon peace and justice and backed by adequate force whether spiritual or physical.” Innocent knew that the basis of the power and prestige of the papacy lay in the universal acceptance of the Church as the only means of salvation. He affirmed it with his infallible definition at the Fourth Lateran Council. Catholic and secular scholars concede that the faith of the people is what gives the pope his ability to operate with the greatest authority in world affairs. As one secular scholar put it, “The church was the sole means to salvation…the coercive measures of the Church were potent ones. He who did not confess his sins could not participate in the sacraments of the Church nor could his body find burial in consecrated ground. Such a person found the only avenue for his soul’s salvation permanently and effectively blocked.”

May Our Lady, Mother of God and St. Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church, have mercy on our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and on the Catholic Church. And, we entreat you, dear reader, to pray for the pope!


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Two Side Bars:

Famous Contemporaries of Innocent III

It is an understatement to say that the events of Innocent’s pontificate are complicated. For that reason and because it is difficult for those of us living in the twenty-first century to grasp a sense of this pope’s place in history, it may be helpful to include a quick mention of a few famous persons and events from his time.

*In 1153, just seven years before Lotario’s birth, the great St. Bernard passed away.

*Two of Innocent’s contemporaries were St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic Guzman.

*St. Anthony of Padua was a already a young man at the time of Innocent’s death and Sts. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and Bonaventure were born shortly after the end of his pontificate.

*In 1291, within seventy-six years of Innocent’s death, the Crusades came to an end.

*Innocent was forced to confront King John Lackland of England, whose barbarism and repression caused the Magna Carta (often considered to be the source of civil rights in England) to be drawn up. For those familiar with the popular legend, Robin Hood, John is the “evil king” described in the story.

*King Richard the Lion-hearted (described as the “good king” in the Robin Hood legend), was a famous crusader and brother of John Lackland.

Lords, Vassals and Fiefs — Fuedalism in a Nutshell

Feudalism characterized Western society at the time of Innocent III. It consisted of the relationship between a lord (a person who owned land) and a vassal (a person who borrowed land from the lord). The fief was the name for the land itself. A person was made a vassal before the lord would grant land. Becoming a vassal consisted of both an act of homage (he would fight for the lord) and an oath of fealty (he would remain faithful to the lord). The lord was obligated to grant a fief or its revenues to the vassal and was to protect the land and the vassal from harm. The land was on loan, therefore the lord was still responsible for maintaining the land, while the vassal had the right to collect revenues generated from it. Other obligations could also be part of the contract between the lord and the vassal. Under feudalism, without land, there was no basis for the lord’s authority. Thus, in Innocent’s time, everyone accepted that, in order to exercise his authority, the pope would have large landholdings.


1 See the sidebar “Feudalism in a Nutshell.”

2 See the sidebar “Feudalism in a Nutshell.”

3 The Guelf and Ghibelline names were used for the first time in 1140 at the battle of Weinsberg, in Suabia. With some notable exceptions, the Guelfs were the party that represented the Pope and the free cities while the Ghibellines represented the Emperor.

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