The slow decline of the Papacy

Never again, as we have suggested, was the Papacy to be so potent in so many phases of the life of Europe. After Innocent III a decline set in which slightly less than two centuries later was to bring the See of Peter to a nadir that, while not as low as that of the tenth century, was in sad contrast with the purposes cherished for it by the great Popes of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

The decline was not sudden. The thirteenth century saw several strong and high-minded Pontiffs, and some of them continued to make their office a force in Christendom. Thus the successor of Innocent, Honorius III, who held the post from 1216 to 1227, took measures to improve the education of the clergy and through his legates had great weight in the affairs of England during the minority of John's son, Henry III.

Yet even some of the strong Popes met serious reverses. Honorius III was followed by Gregory IX, a nephew of Innocent III. Although he came to the Papal throne in his early eighties and held it for fourteen years (1227-1241), until his mid-nineties, Gregory IX acted with vigour in a prolonged contest with the Emperor Frederick II, fostered learning, canonized Francis of Assisi and Dominic, strengthened the Inquisition, and sought to bring about the reunion of the Western and Eastern wings of the Church. But his excommunication of the Emperor failed to bring the latter to terms. Although Innocent IV (Pope from 1243 to 1254) had a general council of the Church excommunicate and depose Frederick II, he was unable to unseat that Emperor. Alexander IV (Pope from 1254 to 1261), nephew of Gregory IX, failed to dislodge the illegitimate son of Frederick II from his rule in Sicily and Southern Italy or to unite Europe against the threatened invasion of the Mongols.

The growing weakness of the Papacy was vividly demonstrated in 1294 when, after a Papal interregnum of two years caused by the rivalry of two powerful families and dissensions among the cardinals which prevented an election, the latter placed on the Papal throne a Benedictine monk, the organizer of a monastic congregation, who had the title of Celestine V. Although he was acclaimed by idealists and the Roman populace, Celestine, inexperienced in ecclesiastical politics and nearly eighty years of age, proved quite unable to meet the administrative demands of the post and after a few months resigned. In spite of the fact that less than twenty years after his death he was canonized, Dante pilloried him as he who had made the great refusal.

The decline of the Papacy became even more marked during the reign of Celes-tine's successor, Boniface VIII (Benedict Gaetani), who held the See of Peter from 1294 to 1303. Related to several Popes, among them probably Innocent III, with long experience in the Papal curia and as Papal legate, he brought scholarship and undoubted ability to the post. He was a lover of learning and promoted the founding of universities. He made as great claims for Papal authority as were ever promulgated. In his bull Unam Sanctam, issued in 1299, he declared "that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff." He sought to make good this sweeping assertion. But, tactless, quick-tempered, lordly, and a lover of magnificence, he was far from being the equal of the greatest of his predecessors in ability or character and was defeated in his chief efforts to enforce his will. In spite of a Papal excommunication and interdict, a prince whom he opposed became ruler of Sicily. In the bull Clericis Laicos, promulgated in 1296, Boniface emphatically condemned the taxation of the clergy and Church property in France for royal purposes. A prolonged struggle followed between him and Philip IV of France, and at one point the Pope prepared to excommunicate and depose the king. A band of mercenaries instigated by the Pope's enemies seized the Pontiff at Anagni and held him prisoner. Although the burghers of Anagni rescued him and returned him in seeming triumph to Rome, within less than a month, an aged and broken man, he died of chagrin and melancholy.

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