Pope Innocent III

Pope Innocent III:

An Evaluation of the man who brought the Papacy to its Zenith.


by: Rev. Christopher C. Arch, M.A.


Introduction and Background:

Pope Innocent III was born “Lothar of Segni”, in 1160 or 1161. His was a wealthy family, being born to the Count of Segni, and was related to a distinguished Roman family, the Scotti, through his mother.

Lothar’s early education took place at the monastery of St. Andrew at Rome . “His advanced education took place at the universities of Bologna and Paris where his teachers included Huguccio and Peter of Corbeil, some of the greatest theologians of the time.” (1) It was at these schools, and under the tutelage of such talented men, that Lothar blossomed into a fine theologian as well as specialist in canon law.

Like many religious devotees of his era, Lothar made a pilgrimage to the shrine of a dead saint. The tomb of the murdered Archbishop, Thomas Becket, of Canterbury was his destination in 1187 AD. (2) The impact of this pilgrimage is unknown, but must have been significant to this twenty-six year old young man. In fact, in just two more years, in 1189 AD, Lothar was made cardinal by Gregory VIII. “Under Celestine III, with whose policies he seems to have had little sympathy, the cardinal was chiefly employed as an auditor, or judge, in the papal court.” (3) “On the day that Celestine III died, the College of Cardinals unanimously elected Lothar pope. Lothar, who was barely thirty-seven years old, presented a strong contrast to his nonagenarian predecessor: an aristocrat by birth as well as in mind, he was without exaggeration, one of the greatest popes of the Middle Ages.” (4)

Innocent III views on the Papacy and the Church:

The policies of Innocent III were a reflection of his theological opinions surrounding the papacy and the Church. Long before his time, the idea of world dominion had died with the emperors, but that policy would be brought to life again under this pope. “This is the pope under whose rule

the western Church was imposed on Constantinople, who placed both England and France under the interdict, who launched the “Inquisition” or Spanish Crusades, who extracted from the rulers of England, Aragon, Portugal, as well as several Italian states, the surrender of their sovereignty to become fiefs of the Holy See, excommunicated King John, and then later the supporters of the Magna Carta.” (5)

This ambitious foreign policy was a direct result of Innocent’s view of the papacy and the Church. His pontificate was the natural fulfillment of a papal theme that had been evolving. “To him, the pope was the true Vicar of Christ on earth, a designation current since his pontificate. He therefore brought into clearest possible relief the exclusively legal function of the pope as the successor of St. Peter, at the same time making precise the definition of Petrine powers as vicarious powers of Christ Himself.” (6) It has even been stated that Innocent III referred to himself in a sermon, describing the pope as: “lower than God, but higher than man, and that Peter had been given power over not only the universal Church, but the whole word to govern.” (7) In that sense, Innocent III saw himself as something of a Melchizedek, being both priest and king in one.

It is not suprising, therefore, that the dominant model of the Church during the reign, and subsequent generations following Innocent III, was that of the Church as institution. As an institution, in fact, as the institution specially ordained by Christ (Mt. 16:18-19), Innocent III brought organizational and administrative genius. This genius led to the reorganization of the administration of Rome that had all but evaporated under the Hohenstaufen policies. “It was the pope’s resoluteness and tenacity, as well as his skill in exploiting both the sudden collapse of German rule in Italy upon the death of Emperor Henry VI, and the hostility of the Italian people to German rule, that restored the papal state an independent entity and led to its expansion.” (8)

Three Critical Issues facing Innocent III’s Papacy:

Three urgent problems faced Innocent III upon his succession to the pontificate: “the succession of the Holy Roman Empire , the renewal of the crusade, and the increasing menace of heresy.” (9) The succession of an infant to the throne of the Empire was clearly out of question to the electors who met to vote on Henry VI’s successor. Ultimately, this group of men chose Henry’s brother, Philip, Duke of Swabia, who was also at that time under the sentence of excommunication. Three months later a rival claimant appeared in the person of Otto of Brunswick. Both men appealed to Innocent III to legitimize their claim. In January of 1201, Innocent III declared for Otto. (10) This decision ultimately led to civil war, and Otto was defeated on the battlefield. However, upon his victory, Philip of Swabia reconciled with the pope, and his offenses were absolved. Philip, however, was soon murdered, and Otto was elected to the throne. “Otto proved to be a disappointment to Innocent III, and at once began to attempt to lay claim to the Italian lands. Unwilling to be out-maneuvered, Innocent III excommunicated Otto and persuaded Frederick to make a bid for the throne. With the pope’s help, Frederick overcame Otto at the Bouvines in 1214, and promptly gave the Holy See his assurances not to renew claims on the Italian lands.

Apparently having placed the issue of succession to the German throne behind him, Innocent III focused his attention on the matter of renewing the Crusades. “The First Crusade began under Urban II in 1096 AD, in an attempt to remove the control of the Holy Land by the infidels.” (11) Although ultimately never effective, the idea of crusade continued through the reign of Innocent III and beyond. It was under Innocent III, in 1204 AD, that the Fourth Crusade was set forth. The goal of the crusade was Egypt , an attempt to crush Saladin’s chief strength. However, wealthy Venetian businessmen, with interests in Constantiople, funded the flotilla, and ultimately had the

army first attack Constantinople with the attempt of gaining an Eastern Emperor who would be compliant to their economic wishes. Innocent III either actively supported, or quietly complied with this attack, and the sacking of Constantinople took place. This event, at once, seemed to fulfill the Latin Church’s desire to restore Christendom under the unquestionable rule of the Bishop of Rome. (12) Ultimately, the conquest of Constantinople was a disastrous defeat for the cause of Christ in the East. The Byzantine Empire was dealt a crushing blow in this attack from which it never regained strength, and ultimately opened the door for the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD. The Greek Church continued to operate under its own Patriarch, and openly defied (when it could without the threat of Latin military retribution) Rome ‘s designs. The Greek masses loathed the Latins and the rift between the two wings of the Church widened instead of closed. In 1261 AD the Byzantine Empire retook Constantinople , and the imposed Latin state rule came to an end.

Having apparently secured his position in the East, Innocent III took up another form of crusade, a crusade against “heresy”. Again, it is important to remember the model by which Innocent III defined the Church. The Church was an “institution”, and as such, unquestionable leadership was secured in himself, and all doctrines contrary to the official teaching of the Church and her tradition were to be silenced for the benefit of apparent unanimity. According to Innocent III’s estimation, heresy was seen as “high treason committed against the divine majesty.” (13) In fairness to Innocent, it must be stated that although he demonstrated cruel retribution on some “heretics”, he also demonstrated farsightedness with others, stating that what really mattered was the “real faith” of those charged. (14) In doing so, he won back to the fold the Humiliati in Northern Italy and the “Poor Catholics” (Waldenses). In this reconciliation the pope was aided by the preaching and teaching ministry of St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi , two of only three orders (the other being the Trinitarians) that Innocent allowed during his pontificate. (15)

One group that apparently did not meet with such merciful foresight was the Albigenses. The Albigenses believed in a form of dualism believing in two opposing forces in the world, one being good and the other being evil. The evil spirit was credited with creating the world. Although their doctrine was heretical, they did place an emphasis on virtues such as bodily purity, the rejection of wealth, devotion to the gospel, and the condemnation of violence and power. In many ways, this sect was a reaction to the growing power of the Church as an institution whose primary concern was the making of money and materialism with an utter disregard for human needs. (16) A fanatical form of this sect condemned marriage, procreation, war, civil government, and the use of objects in worship. The result was Innocent’s use of the Inquisition, the establishment of mendicant orders, and a revival of crusades against the movement until it was ultimately crushed. Great ferocity and brutality was exhibited by Rome against the heretical sect with corresponding massacres.

Innocent III’s Legacy:

Responding to the problem of the heretics as well as a Catholic interpretation for Innocent’s zeal for souls, the pope summoned a general council to meet in Rome on November 1, 1216 AD. This council, attended by four hundred bishops, eight hundred abbots, representatives of the Kings of several European states, became known as the “Fourth Lateran Council”. (17) This council would influence the Church for centuries due to its important rulings in several areas. Theologically, the most important ruling to come out of the Fourth Lateran Council was the authoritative use of the term “transubstantiation” for the Eucharist. Certainly this ruling held monumental significance in the mind of the latter Protestant Reformers, being a doctrine seen as undefendable from their theological viewpoint. Besides this decree, there were sixty-nine others that would influence the life of the Church for centuries. Included in these seventy decrees was an official ban on the formation of any new religious orders, an approval of the suppression of heresy, and the official start of the Inquisition.

The Fourth Lateran Council was not without its influence on political as well as theological matters. During this council a fourth crusade was approved. Also, the Magna Carta of England was condemned in a dramatic turn-around from Innocent’s original view while the unrepentant King John was still excommunicated, and England was under the “Interdict” (1208 – 1214 AD).

Also politically significant was the confirmation of the election of Frederick II as the emperor-elect, as well as the transfer of county of Toulouse to Simon de Montfort. (18)

Thus, it is in this duel realm of the Church’s influence over spiritual as well as secular (political) matters that the legacy of Innocent III’s pontificate must be analyzed. Certainly Innocent attempted to fulfill the vision and interpretation he had for the Church as well as the papacy. Just as he was quoted by Margaret Deanesly as saying: “The Lord Jesus has set up one ruler over all things as His universal vicar, and as all things in heaven and on earth shall bow the knee to Christ, so should all obey Christ’s vicar…” (19), Innocent’s reign was an attempt to fulfill what he believed. Due to the political power vacuum of his era, he was able to accomplish much of what he believed for the Church and the papacy. Innocent III successfully hand-picked the succession of Frederick, he placed England and her king, John, under the Interdict as a result over the squabble surrounding Stephen Langton, and he secured several nation states as fiefs for the Holy See.

From a religious standpoint Innocent’s rule was transformed and revitalized the papacy. His organizational genius, as well as his exceptional abilities in canon law must still place him as one of the greatest popes of all time. Innocent’s farsightedness in dealing with the Waldenses, and his employment of St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi was a stroke of genius for a Church that had rarely ever sought to debate what was in its opinion “orthodox”.

However, upon evaluation of many of Innocent’s successes, the roots that would bear future failures of the Church of Rome were also present. The emphasis on the Crusades split the East and West wings of Christianity to the point that there has never been a return to a common, unified leadership. This distrust, although arguably not the direct fault of Innocent’s, still finds its proper placement on the Roman Pontiff due to the fact that his influence could have averted the crisis of the sacking of Constantinople. Second, the Crusades were an illegitimate action to be taken by a spiritual entity such as the Church. The murder and pillage of such carnage has more in common with the Jihad of the Islamic faith than the “Law of Love” of the Christian faith. It is understandable why to this day Muslims still bear a resentment and distrust of Christians. The Crusades depleted valuable resources of a yet underdeveloped Europe . This was not only in monies, but also in manpower, and yes, ultimately, under the little known “Children’s Crusade” (1212 AD), the lives of as many as three-hundred thousand of Western Europe ‘s youth. (20) Even within the Crusades, the seeds were sown that would eventually help to inspire the Reformation. Prior to this time Europe ‘s population was relatively closed, yet with the years of Crusades, and the hundreds of thousands of men who traveled, an education was opened to these minds for the first time that helped to lay a foundation that questioned papal authority. Finally, the loss of revenues incurred by the Crusades and the desire to fill the Vatican ‘s coffers helped in time to begin the unbiblical practice of the sale of indulgences, arguably the greatest impetus for Luther’s revolt against Rome.

Eventually, Innocent’s involvement in the political events of nation states built resentment that helped to foment dissent against the Roman Church. Innocent’s humiliation of England and King John, and then his later rejection of the Magna Carta and the supporting barons, did little good in raising the estimation of the Church in England . Second, Innocent’s imposed taxation of England in the thirteenth century caused a bitter hatred of the papacy by the English. This involvement of the papacy was also evident in Germany and the Holy Roman Empire as previously discussed herein. When the flames of reformation came to the Church three centuries later, no more fertile fields than Germany and England were found to foster rebellion against Rome .

Finally, the Church of Innocent III ‘s pontificate represents an internal contradiction. The Roman Church was “so structured that all power and authority came from one person; a Church which was brutal and violent through the Crusades and the Inquisition; a Church which showed service to the poor and needy through the Franciscans and Dominicans; a Church that stood for no opposition in its theological authority; a Church which patronized centers of higher learning where men such as Aquinas would develop new ways of theological reflection.” (21) Thus, Innocent’s Church was a behemoth institution filled with contradiction.

While traveling to northern Italy on July 16, 1216, to preach the crusade, Innocent III died suddenly. Under Innocent III, the Church had reached its position of zenith in its history. Yet this zenith would be the very precipice from which the Roman institution would begin its descent and demise.


1. Elwell, Walter, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Hants, England: Baker Books, 1985).

2. Fisher, H.A.L., A History of Europe , (London: Edward Arnold, 1955).

3. John, Eric, The Popes, (New York: Hawthorn Cooks, 1964).

4. Koszarycz, Yuri, Innocent III and the Great Schism, (article downloaded from World Wide Web, Catholic University of Australia , 1997).

5. Latourette, Kenneth S., A History of Christianity, vol. I (San Francisco: Harper’s Press, 1975).

6. no author listed, New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.VII (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967).

End Notes

1. New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 521

2. John, p. 223

3. ibid.

4. New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 521

5. Fisher, p. 259

6. New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 521

7. Koszarycz, p. 4

8. New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 522

9. John, p. 223

10. ibid.

11. Latourette, p. 410

12. Latourette, pp. 411-412

13. New Catholic Encyclopedia, p. 522

14. ibid.

15. ibid.

16. Elwell, p. 26

17. John, p.225

18. ibid.

19. Koszarycz, p. 4

20. Latourette, p. 412

21. Koszarycz, p. 13

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