Pope Innocent III

Pope Innocent III
Pope Innocent III

Innocent III was born into the noble family of Scotti and named Lothar. Aided by his familial ties to Pope Clement III, Innocent rose rapidly through the curia. The popular debate regarding the pontificate of Innocent III can best be summed up in the title of a series of essays edited by James M. Powell regarding the life and pontificate of Innocent III entitled Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World.

While the reign of Innocent is viewed as the high point of medieval papal power, both religious and secular, the debate continues as to whether Innocent’s involvement in the secular world was for his own benefit, or because of his own view of papal authority.

The young Lothar received the scholastic education expected of young nobles of his day, studying in Rome, Paris, and Bologna before being elevated to the rank of cardinal-deacon at the age of 29. Innocent was elected pope on the very day, January 8, 1198, that Pope Celestine III died. The Orsini Celestine III, in a display of family politics that dominated medieval Rome, campaigned from his deathbed against the potential candidacy of Innocent.

Political uncertainty because of the recent passing of Emperor Henry VI led many cardinals, who were concerned for their own personal safety, to abandon the dying Celestine III in the Lateran for the more secure Septizonium of Septimius Severus, the site of the papal election.

Legend has it that cardinals concerned that Innocent III was too young were reassured when a white dove landed on his shoulder during the voting. Innocent’s consecration ceremony was delayed seven weeks until the deacon could be ordained into the priesthood and then installed as a bishop.

Innocent provided the 13th century with a model of an active, reforming pope. Innocent turned his reforming intention first to the curia, where he reduced the size of the bureaucracy and the luxurious lifestyle of its members. In response to concerns over the quality of men appointed to the episcopate, Innocent excluded candidates for being too young or for lacking an adequate education.

He also enforced the strict observance of celibacy and, in order to bring an end to the accumulation of multiple benefices by priests, enforced residency requirements. Innocent may be best remembered for recognizing new religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans during his reign.

Innocent did not reserve his reforming zeal simply for the religious. In an age where rulers routinely requested the dissolution of marriage vows to rid themselves of an inconvenient spouse, Innocent refused to dissolve marriage vows for the rulers of France, Castile, Bohemia, and Aragon. Innocent was the author of several treatises both before and after his election to the papacy.

As a scholar his interest in the Eucharist resulted in the treatise De sacro altaris mysterio (On the Sacred Mystery of the Altar) and in the adoption of the doctrine of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council. Innocent also decreed that a Catholic must perform the sacraments of Holy Communion and confession at least once a year.

The largest area of controversy surrounding the reign of Innocent III lay with his views of the papacy regarding secular affairs. A few months prior to his election, the seat of the emperor was left vacant by the death of Henry VI. Early in his papacy Innocent asserted the right of the pope to evaluate the merits of the two leading candidates for emperor: Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick. Innocent’s involvement in election politics would continue for most of his papal reign.

As the guardian to Frederick, son of Henry VI, Innocent aligned himself with King Philip II Augustus of France against Emperor Otto III in support of Frederick’s claim to the throne. Innocent’s strong assertion of papal supremacy in secular affairs continued the policy of pope Nicholas I and Gregory VII.

Innocent based his view of the papal role in secular affairs on the belief that bishops were in part responsible for the souls of their kings and that the pope was successor of Peter and vicar of Christ.

Innocent asserted papal temporal authority in several fields including the appointing and deposing of kings, the right to intervene in kingly conflicts that potentially involved the commission of a sin, to protect the interests of widows andssion orphans, to protect crusaders, to confirm agreements between rulers, and to hear appeals from persons in the absence of appropriate temporal courts. The notion of the pope’s hearing appeals led Innocent to hold public hearings three times a week.

The continued existence of heresy in southern France combined with the unwillingness of local rulers to deal with the issue led Innocent to call for the Albigensian Crusade in 1208. Innocent would die in 1216 before he had the opportunity to fully implement his reforms, and while remembered as the most powerful pope of his era, he would not be granted the title of “great” by the church.

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