The climax of the Papacy is usually regarded as having been reached under Lo-tario de' Conti di Segni who under the title Innocent III reigned 1198 to 1216. Of aristocratic Lombard lineage on his father's side and of the Roman nobility on his mother's side, he was born not far from Rome in 1160 or 1161. Educated in Paris, the main centre for the study of philosophy and theology, and at Bologna, noted for its emphasis on law. Innocent III was one of the most learned men of his day and was equipped in both theology and canon law. Made a cardinal-deacon at the age of twenty-nine by Pope Clement III, who is said to have been his uncle, he was early in the central administrative machinery of the Holy See. Because the next Pope, Celestine III, was of a rival Roman family, the young cardinal was out of favour for seven years. On the very day of the death and funeral of Celestine III, although not yet forty years of age and only in deacon's orders, he was hurriedly but unanimously elected to the vacant see by his fellow-cardinals and was enthusiastically acclaimed by the clergy and people of Rome. After a decent interval he was ordained priest and consecrated bishop.
A man of singleness of purpose, iron will, and great executive and diplomatic ability, Innocent III brought the Papacy to the apex of its influence in the political life of Europe and markedly extended its administrative control of the Church. A prodigious worker, he drove his own body mercilessly. To curb a fever he is said to have subsisted for some time chiefly on lemons. It may be significant, however, that in contrast with such predecessors as Leo I, Gregory I, and Gregory VII, who were, like himself, distinguished for enlarging the power of the Papacy, he has never been canonized. Nor, unlike the first two, has the designation "Great" ever been associated with his name. Perhaps that was because he was too prone to use the worldly tools in his effort to make actual the City of God. Yet he clearly recognized the distinctive Christian virtues and could speak most feelingly of them and of the life of the spirit.
Innocent III had an exalted conception of the position and mission of the Papacy. There seems to have been in it little if anything that was really new or that had not been asserted by some among his predecessors. Yet in letters, sermons, and other pronouncements he gave it forcible expression. He dreamed of Christendom as a community in which the Christian ideal was to be attained under Papal guidance. As the successor of Peter, the Pope, so Innocent held, had authority over all the churches. On at least one oc casion, moreover, he declared that as Pope he was the vicar of him of whom it had been affirmed that he was king of kings and lord of lords. He wrote that Christ "left to Peter the governance not of the Church only but of the whole world." He also said that Peter was the vicar of Him whose is the earth and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein. How far he believed this to mean that the Pope should be a temporal ruler is in dispute. He certainly made his weight felt in affairs of state, especially but by no means exclusively in Italy. He conceded that kings were given certain functions by divine commission, but he held that God had ordained both the pontifical and the royal power, as he had the sun and the moon, and that as the latter draws its light from the former, so the royal power derives its dignity and splendour from the pontifical. Moreover, as a true successor of the great reforming Popes, Innocent insisted that the power of the secular ruler did not extend to the clergy, but that the clergy were to be independent of the law of the state and subject only to the Church.
Several features of the times combined to facilitate or to call forth by their challenge the exercise of the powers claimed by Innocent III for the Papacy. As we have earlier seen, his tenure of that office coincided with a swelling tide of religious life which displayed itself in the emergence of the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and other mendicant orders and in the prevalence of the Waldensees and the Cathari. The wealth of Europe was mounting. The Holy Roman Empire was declining. The Emperor Henry VI, the able son and successor of Frederick Barbarossa, had been a serious threat to the Papacy, for by his marriage with the heiress of the Norman kings who had ruled in Sicily and South Italy he controlled both the north and the south of that land and made it difficult for the Roman Pontiff to play off the one against the other as he had long been able to do. However, Henry VI died the year before Innocent III became Pope, leaving as his heir an infant son, Frederick II. The lad's mother died the year that Innocent ascended the throne of Peter and left the Pope as guardian of her son and regent of Sicily. A contested succession to the throne of Germany gave Innocent the opportunity to mix in the affairs of that distracted country. The kingdoms which were already in existence in Western Europe were assuming larger stature in comparison with the Empire but were not yet supported by a national sentiment which was strong enough successfully to defy Rome. Under these favouring and challenging circumstances Innocent III made good the claims of the Papacy to a greater degree than had any of his predecessors.
Innocent III further extended the Papal control over the Church. It was under his Pontificate that the Crusaders captured Constantinople. Although the diversion of the Crusade from its supposed purpose, the retaking of Jerusalem, had been made against the wish of Innocent, the conquest of Constantinople had been followed by the setting up of a Latin hierarchy and a Patriarch for that city and the other Byzantine territories which were subservient to Rome. Latin rule in Constantinople enabled Innocent to extend the control of Rome over the churches in Illyria, Bulgaria, and Wallachia which had formerly been orientated towards the Byzantine wing of the Church. He also used the occasion to bring the Church in Armenia within the Roman orbit. The Maronites in the Lebanon, who had been monothelites, were won to conformity with Rome. No Pope had previously brought so much of the Church in the East under the administrative control of the See of Peter. While most of the gains proved to be only temporary, that they were achieved at all was noteworthy. Innocent III authorized a crusade against the pagans on the south and east shores of the Baltic, sent missionaries to the Prussians, and brought the newly converted in that region under Papal direction. He reformed the Church in Poland. He asserted the right of the Pope to give the decision in all disputed elections to the episcopacy. He insisted that the Pope alone could authorize the transfer of a bishop from one see to another. He declared that only the Holy See could create new dioceses or change the boundaries between existing dioceses. He was emphatic in seeking to further the high moral character of the episcopate and the priesthood and continued the struggle to enforce the celibacy of the clergy. To strengthen and purify the Church he ordered that tithes for the support of the Church be given precedence over all other taxes, he excluded all lay interference in ecclesiastical affairs, and he prohibited any one man from drawing the income from more than one church office. He affirmed the right of Rome to review important cases and thus added to the trend to take appeals to the Holy See. He gave the Papal chancery the best organization that it had thus far had.
In his effort to raise the level of Christian life in Europe, Innocent fought what he deemed heresy. To this end he employed various means. Among them was the Crusade against the Cathari.
It was Innocent III who called and dominated the most important of the assemblies of the Church of the Middle Ages, the Fourth Lateran Council, regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as the twelfth ecumenical council, This convened late in 1215 and addressed itself to a wide range of problems. It enacted a more comprehensive body of legislation than did any succeeding council until that of Trent, nearly three hundred and fifty years later. It sought not only the reform of the Church but also the improvement of the life of the general Christian community. It laid down rules for the better education of the clergy. It gave more precise definitions to several Christian doctrines. Among them were a formula on the Trinity, transubstantiation, and the condemnation of what were deemed the errors of some of the heresies of the day. It sought to further the union with the Greek wing of the Catholic Church, then seemingly facilitated by the Latin conquest of Constantinople. It endorsed the new crusade which was a dream of Innocent III. It sought to raise the level of marriage and family life. It condemned the taking of interest and to prevent Jews from exacting it of Christians it forbade the latter to have any commerce with the former.
An act of the Fourth Lateran Council which was of major importance in the effort to raise the level of the rank and file of the laity was that which enjoined upon all Christians the duty of making their confession to a priest at least once each year. The early practice of penance, as we have seen, was public penalty and public restoration. Gradually in the Western wing of the Catholic Church the custom had spread of private confession to a priest, the private prescription by the priest of discipline, and the reconciliation of the penitent by the priest, also private. We have pointed out that as far back as the previous period penitentials, or books of directions to priests for examining penitents, had gained circulation. The custom of private oral confession had grown. Now a council representing the entire Western Church declared it to be obligatory upon every Christian.
It was especially in political affairs and in his dealings with kings and other princes that Innocent III exercised more power than any of his predecessors or successors. Here especially he seemed to be rendering effective the purpose of making the Papacy the instrument for bringing all the life of Christendom into conformity with Christian stan dards. He brought Papal dominance in much of Italy. In Rome itself he required the civil officials to acknowledge him rather than the Emperor as their sovereign and substituted his own appointees for the imperial Judges. He won from the Tuscan cities acknowledgement of his suzerainty and obtained from the Emperor Otto IV the cession of lands claimed by the Papacy as grants from earlier rulers. In Germany he became the arbiter between two claimants to the throne and in return for his favour exacted from one of them, Otto IV, a promise to protect the possessions of the Church of Rome. Insisting that the Pope had the right to pass on the validity of elections to the imperial office, Innocent III crowned Otto IV Roman Emperor, but later, when Otto proved obdurate, excommunicated him and played a significant part in stirring up the opposition which cost him his throne. When he turned against Otto, Innocent gave his support to Frederick II, obtained his election as King of the Romans and King of the Germans, and wrung from him the freedom of the Church in Germany to elect its bishops and the concession of the right of appeal to Rome, So long as Innocent III lived, Frederick, able and ruthless though he was and quite sceptical religiously, was largely dominated by him. Innocent insisted upon the Papal overlordship of Sicily.
In France Innocent compelled Philip Augustus, as strong a monarch as Western Europe of that day knew, to take back the wife whom he had divorced and to restore to the Church lands which he had confiscated. Innocent was active in Spanish affairs. He crowned the King of Aragon at Rome as his vassal. He compelled the King of Leon to put away the wife whom he had married despite prohibitory canon law. He induced the Kings of Navarre and Castile to make peace and unite to fight the Moors. Portugal, Poland, Hungary, and Serbia became Papal vassals. In Norway he intervened to bring to time a priest who, having slain the king, had compelled the bishops to crown him.
Especially notable was the triumph in England. Here Innocent came into conflict with the notorious King John by insisting that the latter accept as Archbishop of Canterbury the able Stephen Langton in place of one whose election John had sponsored. John, furious, seized church property and drove many of the bishops into exile. Innocent excommunicated John, deposed him, and transferred the crown to Philip Augustus. To save his throne, John abjectly submitted, surrendered his kingdom to the Pope, and received it back as a Papal vassal. For many years thereafter, and under several Popes, Papal legates were prominent in the government of England.
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