1. Innocent III was perhaps the best qualified man to have held the papacy in medieval times. Not only was he intelligent and learned but he was energetic and intent of initiating reforms that would renew the respect with which the Church has once been held in medieval society. Nevertheless, historians have found him and his actions difficult to evaluate. Although most would agree that he was the greatest medieval pope (some would hold out for Gregory the Great), they would argue as to whether he had saved the Church or set the stage for its later decline.
2. The Church faced many challenges at the close of the twelfth century, challenges that threatened its dissolution. Innocent assumed the papacy and set to work meeting those challenges. He managed to meet them all but, many would hold, did so by means that cost the Church dearly in the long run.
1. THE PROBLEM
The Church was unable to solve the social and economic problems caused by the growth of commerce and manufacture. It had evolved over many centuries to meet the special conditions of a rural society and it was ill-prepared to operate effectively in the urban environment of the towns and to communicate meaningfully with the members of the new, better-educated and more critical, middle classes. In the first place, it lacked the dedicated and educated personnel to meet the challenge of ministering to the needs of the urban classes. For centuries the Church had supported an ideal of spirituality that led the best and brightest of the men and women of the Church to enter monasteries and convents and so isolate themselves from society. As the members of the middle class looked at ecclesiastical practices, they perceived a great difference between what the Church preached and what it in fact practiced. This led to a questioning of the moral and ethical standards of the Church that often developed into anti-clericalism, sometimes quite violent. But not all attacks upon the Church were the fault of the clergy. Changing economic and social conditions caused a great deal of discontent, and this content was often expressed in popular heresies such as the Albigensian and Waldensian movements. One must remember how dangerous heretics were considered to be to fully appreciate concern caused by the rise of these movements.
2. INNOCENT'S SOLUTION
Innocent first tried to meet the challenge by sending missionaries to confront the leaders of the dissident movements, confound them in debate, and so win back those who had strayed from the fold. The policy collapsed when the dissidents confounded Innocent's missionaries in debate and so attracted increased numbers to their movements. Innocent lost any sense of moderation when a papal emissary to the South of France was murdered. He dealt out excommunications and interdicts liberally, and called upon the nobles of northern France to mount a crusade against the heretics of southern France. By this act, he gave papal blessings to what was essential a war of aggression in which the nobles of the North gained rich estates in the South, and in which the brilliant culture that had evolved in the South of France during the twelfth century was virtually destroyed.
When moral suasion and rational discourse failed to achieve his goals, Innocent was quick to turn to naked force.
The popes had always feared that, if a single power controlled both Germany and southern Italy, they would threaten the Papal States so effectively that the popes would be under their control. Emperor Henry VI (+1197) had accomplished this feat for the Hohenstaufen family of German rulers.
2. INNOCENT'S SOLUTION
Since two people were claiming the right to succeed Henry VI, Innocent quickly used his influence on behalf of one of the contenders, thus almost ensuring a civil war. He struck a political alliance with King John of England to provide English support for his favorite, Otto of Brunswick. Otto won the civil war but when he decided to take control not only of Germany but also southern Italy and the Papal States as well, Innocent quickly forged a new alliance with King Philip of France and the new allies defeated Otto and the English in the Battle of Bouvines.
In order to achieve his ends, Innocent deeply involved the Church in secular politics and used warfare to reach the his political goals.
Innocent very much wanted a crusade to restore in the European nobility a sense of the moral leadership of the Church, but he found it very difficult to get a crusading movement started. Such expeditions had become much too expensive for any but the kings and great nobles, and these people were generally too involved in their own affairs to risk their lives and fortunes in altruistic demonstrations in a foreign land where they might lose their lives and would surely sacrifice much of their fortune. The secular leaders were aware of a fact that Innocent seemed willing to ignore: the Muslims had become far too strong to expect easy victories such as the first crusaders had gained.
2. INNOCENT'S SOLUTION
Unable to mount an effective crusade against the Muslims of the Levant, Innocent showed himself willing to use the idea of the crusade to achieve other ends. He called the Albigensian Crusade to combat heresy, tolerated the Children's Crusade for its propaganda value, sent Walter of Brienne into southern Italy to establish papal political influence in the region, blessed the efforts of the Teutonic Knights in eastern Germany as an example to promote the military orders generally, and finally accepted the under-financed Fourth Crusade's conquest of Christian Constantinople as a step toward reestablishing the unity of the Eastern and Western Churches. Innocent used to crusades to gain his ends, but cheapened the crusading ideal by making the crusade a tool to be used for political purposes and to enhance public relations.
The Church had not been able during the twelfth Century to meet the rising costs of caring for the poor and ill. Even while it was failing in that regard, it was using Church revenues for political purposes. As we have noted, the best clergy usually entered a cloistered life; the rest were under-paid, under-educated, lacking in zeal, and not very effective. The Church was unable to meet the expectations of a new middle class who were not satisfied with words and ceremony, but expected performance.
2. INNOCENT'S SOLUTION
THE FOURTH LATERAN COUNCIL.
The Fourth Lateran Council took a number of dramatic steps to attack the bases of the sad situation in which the Church found itself.
A. It called for Jews to wear distinctive clothing and badges. This might seem a bit like the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe in the Second World War, but the participants at the Council seemed to feel that 1) Jews were a special people recognized as such by Scripture; 2) as such, only the Church had authority to regulate their activities; and 3) it could not exercise this authority unless Jews were easily identifiable and their special status protected. Although individual churchmen from the middle ages to the present have given their lives to protect Jews, the regulation that made the Jews instantly identifiable was not an advantage to them.
B. The Council moved to raise the moral level of the clergy by condemning simony and requiring that priests be celibate - rules that, unfortunately were too often given only lip-service.
C. The Council established the Inquisition to establish the principle of the supremacy of the religious doctrine embodied in the Church and to make this principle a reality by suasion, teaching and, if these failed, by force applied (at the order of the Church) by secular authorities. The twelfth century had seen a great deal of flexibility in the presentation and discussion of theological matters. The Forth Lateran Council clearly intended that this flexibility and toleration should be ended.
D. The Council also, at Innocent's recommendation, gave official recognition to the Dominicans and Franciscans and so began the movements we discuss in The Rise of the Mendicant Orders.
The actions of the Fourth Lateran Council were Innocent's most successful attempts to solve the Church's problems. Even here, however, the long-term effect of his actions was less than one might have expected. His reforms of the clergy were directed at symptoms and not at causes, and the Inquisition came to be used by secular leaders as a kind of thought police to eliminate dissidents of all sorts.
At least on the surface, though, Innocent was successful. He managed to guide the Church successfully through a series of crisis but his management carried a high price. The Church had now become relatively rigid in its though and policies. It was no longer able to accommodate differences of opinion or to accept honest criticism. It could no longer aspire to be "The Moral Arbiter of European Affairs," because its moral stature had been greatly diminished by its deep involvement in secular politics.
It did not seem so at the time, however. The Dominicans formed a new and educated force within the Church and the Franciscans provided society with an example of a wild and joyous spirituality that corresponded remarkably well with the needs of the time. Although the Church was now characterized by a new degree of conformity, there was a clear resurgence of religious sentiment. The "Gothic Age" had begun.
Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
The University of Kansas