Pope Innocent III: Article

Innocent III came from a line of popes. Himself a "nephew" of Pope Clement III, Innocent III had a "nephew" who would one day become pope as Gregory IX. (Gregory's own "nephew" would one day become Pope Alexander IV).
Innocent is regarded by Roman Catholics as one of the greatest popes of the Middle Ages, and by others as one of the most harmful men ever to have lived. Both claims have merit, and both may well be true.
Innocent did much to bolster the position of the papacy. He claimed to have been given the whole world to rule over by God. He thus considered himself qualified to offer the imperial throne to Otto IV, and declared him to be King of the Romans, elected by the grace of God and of the Pope. Innocent succeeded in extending the papacy's feudal power, acquiring as fiefs Portugal, Aragon, Hungary and England. When King John of England refused to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury, Innocent III, excommunicated him, declared him deposed, and invited the King of France, Philip Augustus, to invade England. John backed down, ceded his kingdom, and received it back as a papal fief.
It was Innocent's desire to sit at the apex of the feudal system that led him to pretend to reassign important feudal properties. The victim of this innovation who suffered most was undoubtedly Raimon VI of Toulouse, whose suzerain was the King of Aragon. The appropriation of the King of Aragon's feudal rights set a precedent that was resented even by the pope's most loyal allies.
Innocent saw himself not merely as the Vicar of St Peter, as his recent predecessors had done, but as the Vicar of Christ. He stated that every cleric must obey the Pope, even if he commands what is evil, for no one may judge the pope. His views on human rights were also conventional. He set the pace by declaring Magna Carta, the great charter of English rights and liberties drawn up in 1215, to be void. He declared it to be contrary to the moral law and excommunicated anyone who maintained its pretensions. Virtually all English speaking peoples have thus been automatically excommunicated for the last 8 centuries.
In other respects he was perfectly orthodox. Since 1184, when Pope Lucius III published Ad abolendum, the refusal to take an oath has been automatic confirmation of heresy in the Roman Church. Pope Innocent III confirmed that those who took Jesus' teaching on this matter literally were heretics, and that they deserved to die. In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared heresy to be high treason against God, and of course the penalty for that was death.
He held orthodox views on sex and original sin: "Who can be unaware that marital intercourse can never take place without lascivious ardour, without the filth of lust whereby the seed conceived is sullied and corrupted". He also held orthodox views on abortion, though these views would now be regarded with horror. Innocent stated that a monk who had persuaded his mistress to have an abortion was not guilty of murder as long as the foetus had not yet been animated. (Animation took place 40 days after conception for a boy, 80 for a girl). Roman Canon law maintained the distinction between a fetus animatus and a fetus inanimatus until 1869 when it was suddenly abandoned. We do not hear much about it nowadays.
Innocent also held orthodox views on the Jews. His conventional anti-Semitic ideas would influence Europe into the twentieth century and beyond. There was for example nothing at all new in Nazi anti-Semitism. It was simply repackaged traditional Christian anti-Semitism promoted by men like Innocent III. The whole panoply of Nazi persecution was founded on Christian precedents espoused by Innocent. Hitler's Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were modelled in part on the decrees of Innocent III and Paul IV. Jews were once again deprived of civil rights, and marriage between German Christians and Jews was once again forbidden. When Nazis confined Jews to specified districts they consciously called those districts ghettos, maintaining respectability by emphasising that what they were doing was exactly what the Roman Church had done for centuries. The link was explicit. Before the war Hitler had boasted to Bishop Berning of Osnabrüch that he was doing what the Church had done for fifteen hundred years, only more effectively.
Innocent was unusually keen on Crusades, not only in the Holy Land but in Europe as well - pagans in the East, Moslems in the South, and Cathars in the Languedoc. He also had what were then conventional Christian ideas about the importance of family life. It was Innocent III who made explicit the right of husbands to go off without their wives' permission. Crusaders could abandon their families without a word of explanation - without even saying goodbye - emulating Jesus's early disciples.
Crusades had already become squalid afairs, and none was ever as squalid as the Fourth Crusade. It was preached by Pope Innocent III and lasted from 1202 to 1204, just four years before the Crusade against the Cathars. Although intended to regain the Holy Land from the Moslems by way of Egypt, the Fourth Crusade was hijacked by the Venetians and directed against the Christian cities of Zara and then Constantinople, which offered a softer target and richer pickings. Constantinople was taken, the Christian Emperor deposed, and Baldwin of Flanders was set up in his place. The victorious crusaders amused themselves in the usual way, even though this was the capital of Christendom. As well as the standard bout of murder and destruction, the men of the cross desecrated imperial tombs, plundered churches, stole holy relics, wrecked houses, vandalised libraries, destroyed whatever loot they could not carry, raped nuns, and set a prostitute on the Patriarch's throne in Sancta Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the greatest Church in Christendom.
Later, a Latin Patriarch was installed, and the Venetians shipped off the remaining treasures to their own city, where many of them remain to this day. The Eastern Churches still harbour bitter resentment about the behaviour of Western Christians during this time. Here is a modern Orthodox bishop on the subject:
    Eastern Christendom has never forgotten those three appalling days of pillage. 'Even the Saracens are merciful and kind,' protested Nicetas Choniates [a contemporary historian], 'compared with these men who bear the Cross of Christ on their shoulders.' What shocked the Greeks more than anything was the wanton and systematic sacrilege of the Crusaders. How could men who had specially dedicated themselves to God's service treat the things of God in such a way? As the Byzantines watched the Crusaders tear to pieces the alter and icon screen in the Church of the Holy Wisdom, and set prostitutes on the Patriarch's throne, they must have felt that those who did such things were not Christians in the same sense as themselves.
The western Church saw nothing wrong with its conduct. Innocent was initially irritated by the crusade having been diverted to attack Zara, but His Holiness was soon reconciled by a victory in his name over the Byzantine Emperor, and any pretence that the crusade was ever to go to fight the infidel was abandoned. A papal legate, Peter of Saint-Marcel, issued a decree absolving the Crusaders from having to proceed further to fight the Moslems The new Latin Emperor, Baldwin, wrote to the Pope about the sack of the city as 'a miracle that God had wrought'. The Pope rejoiced in the Lord and gave his approval without reserve.
Modern historians tend to sympathise with the Greek rather than the Latin view. As Sir Steven Runciman put it "There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade", though Innocent's many other crimes, including the Crusade against the Cathars, are surely contenders for this shameful title.
JdeSt-F © 2004,2005.
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