ORB Masthead with site navigation toolbar; see bottom 
of page for text version of toolbar

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME


Yuri Koszarycz

The Pontificate of INNOCENT III (1198 - 1216) and The TRAGEDY of the GREAT SCHISM

Here, I am going to develop two particular aspects of ecclesial history that are often neglected by Western historians: The reign of Innocent III as Pontiff in Western Christendom, and the tragedy of the great schism between Eastern and Western Christians as a lasting consequence of the Fourth Crusade.

The eleventh century is often called the century of Saxon Popes: Gregory VI (1045 - 1046), Clement II (1046 - 1047), Damasus II (1048), Leo IX (1049 - 1054), Victor II (1055 - 1057) and Steven X (1057 - 1058) all reflected, through their ascendancy to the Papacy, the strength and power of the Holy Roman Emperor. The struggle between the temporal power of the Kings and the spiritual pressure of the popes came to a head in the reigns of Pope Nicholas II (1059 - 1061) and Gregory VII (1073 - 1085) in their opposition to King Henry IV. Henry was ultimately driven by a revolt among the German nobles to make peace with the Pope and appeared before Gregory in January 1077 at Canossa. Dressed as a penitent, the emperor is said to have stood barefoot in the snow for three days and begged forgiveness until, in Gregory's words: "We loosed the chain of the anathema and at length received him into the favor of communion and into the lap of the Holy Mother Church" ( Robinson 1904: 283).

These tensions between emperors and pontiffs were to continue into the twelfth century and ultimately gave rise to the "distinctive separation of Church and State when the emperor signed the Concordat of Worms (1122) forfeiting any right to invest bishops with the ring and the staff symbolic of spiritual authority" (Ozment, 1980: 4). This demarcation of the secular from the ecclesiastical nevertheless did not hamper papal aspirations on the part of the emperors, nor the aspirations of the popes to exercise the power of emperors.

These power struggles had already led to a clericalization of the Western Church under Gregory VII (1073-1085). It must be noted that the authority of this pontiff and those that followed him demonstrated the secular and imperial nature of the pontifical office. With Gregory we find the creation of a Christian commonwealth under papal control. In the Dictatus Papae Gregory claimed:

  • That the Roman pontiff alone is rightly called universal.
  • That he alone has the power to depose and reinstate bishops.
  • That he alone may use the imperial insignia.
  • That all princes shall kiss the foot of the pope alone.
  • That he has the power to depose emperors.
  • That he can be judged by no one.
  • That no one can be regarded as catholic who does not agree with the Roman church.
  • That he has the power to absolve subjects from their oath of fealty to wicked rulers (Pope Gregory VII, quoted in: Baldwin, 1970: 182-183).

Lameygh lists the powers and privileges attached to the Papal office:

  • The Pope can be judged by no one.
  • The Roman Church has never erred and will never err till the end of time.
  • The Roman Church was founded by Christ alone.
  • The Pope alone can depose and restore bishops.
  • He alone can make new laws, set up new bishoprics, and divide old ones.
  • He alone can translate bishops to another see.
  • He alone can call general councils and authorise canon law.
  • He alone can revise his own judgements.
  • He alone can use the imperial insignia.
  • He can depose emperors.
  • He can absolve subjects from their allegiance.
  • All princes should kiss his feet.
  • His legates, even though in inferior orders, have precedence over all bishops.
  • An appeal to the papal courts inhibits judgement by all inferior courts.
  • A duly ordained Pope is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter (1986: 241).

The Papacy as an institution reached its zenith of power during the pontificate of Innocent III (1198 - 1216). Not surprisingly , the dominant model of Church in these centuries was that of Church as institution. It is interesting to note that a significant alternative model of Church, that of servant, began to develop at this time through the work of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis held up poverty, simplicity, chastity, humility and obedience as his ideals, often ministering to the poorest of the poor. The legends surrounding his charismatic personality attest to his simplicity of faith that was highly contemplative in nature and is expressed so wonderfully in the "Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon." In the final year of Innocent's pontificate, the Dominicans were established as an Order of Preachers whose main perpose was to win back the Albigensians and Waldensians by exhaustive preaching. Dominic attempted a radical departure from the use of force and believed that it was necessary to be better heralds of the Gospel.

In Rome, the pontiff exercised supreme authority and his pontificate must be understood in the context of the twelfth century Decretum of Gratian (c.1140) and the subsequent commentaries of the "Decretists", especially Rufinus of Bologna (c.1157). They believed that the interpretation of the Matthean verse, "I will give you the kingdom of heaven..." (Matt.16:19) suggested the existence of a "heavenly empire" and an "earthly empire" over which the Pope exercised supreme authority. At the same time, Alanus of England expounded an extreme theory of papal world monarchy (Barraclough, 1968; Dwyer, 1985; Ullman, 1972).

Innocent was a natural successor to these theorists. He had been a student of the Canonists Huguccio at Bologna and Peter of Corbeil at Paris, and was regarded by his contemporaries as a brilliant canon lawyer, though his book De Contemptu Mundi et De Sacro Altaris Mysterio, written shortly before his election, shows him to be a mediocre ansd safe orthodox theologian. He was elected to the pontificate at the age of 37. He was a

    man elected to the papacy who was destined to bring the office to the summit of its political power and, perhaps in virtue of that fact, to prepare for its decline as a spiritual and moral force. In doing this, he paved the way for rise of the Renaissance papacy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries... he intended to be both spiritual leader of Christendom, and its political master as well; and it was from his hand that the Emperor and the kings of the various Christian states were to accept office as his vassals (Dwyer, 1985: 173).

A few months before his election in 1198, the emperor Henry VI had died. Innocent began his reign at a time when a power vacuum existed within the Roman Empire and "at the outset of his reign had an exceptional opportunity to define for the future, the proper role of the papacy in the temporal affairs of Europe, both in practice and in theory" (Tierney, 1964: 127). Innocent's own perception of his role as pontiff and his view on Church-state relations are well documented, and demonstrate his theocratic and hierocratic world-view:

    The Lord Jesus Christ has set up one ruler over all things as His universal vicar, and as all things in heaven, earth and hell bow the knee to Christ, so should all obey Christ's vicar, that there be one flock and one shepherd (Quoted in Margaret Deanesly, 1972: 141).

He described himself as "lower than God but higher than man"...he claimed that Peter was given "not only the universal Church but the whole world to govern", and his attitude to temporal authority is well summed up in his communication with the nobles of Tuscany: "...just as the moon derives its light from the sun...so too the royal power derives the splendour of its dignity from the pontifical authority" (Quotations from Tierney, 1964: 132).

In the decretal Venerabilem Innocent expounds his beliefs that he has an obligation to intervene in certain temporal matters. While it is right for princes to elect their emperor, it is the duty of the pontiff to ensure that the chosen candidate was also spiritually worthy for coronation. In Novit (1204), written to justify his intervention in the dispute between King John of England and King Phillip Augustus of France over the fief of Normandy, Innocent claimed that he could certainly judge temporal matters (Ullman, 1972: 207). He furthermore intervened in the conflict between Philip of Swabia (brother of Henry IV) and Otto of Brunswick, where he dramatically proclaimed his basic papal principle relating to the government of Christian society. According to Innocent, the emperor was given "a plenitude of power" by the pope who enjoyed " a full plenitude of power" given to him by God. In this case, papal favour eventually fell upon Otto, whose concessions in Italy to the papacy suggest that Innocent was motivated by less noble aims than the need to examine imperial candidates.

These less noble aims undoubtedly included Innocent's desire to recover lost papal territories and to rid Italy of German officials and influence. The question of imperial candidacy was the most dramatic instance of Innocent's involvement in temporal matters, but it was far from an isolated case. He intervened in the Kingdom of France to persuade Philip II to restore his legitimate wife, yet at the same time, Innocent legitimised Philip's bastard children. He also intervened in succession disputes in the Kingdoms of Norway, Sweden and Bohemia. It was Innocent who excommunicated King John of England for refusing to accept Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, and released John's subjects from their oath of allegiance to their king. Finally, King John succumbed and became a papal vassal. In addition, Innocent III could count as vassals the Kings of Bulgaria, Aragon, Portugal and Castille. During Innocent's pontificate, "papal activity and influence was displayed throughout the length and breadth of Europe. The papal curia became the busiest governmental centre in the world as it then was" (Ullman, 1972: 215).

This power was not only exerted against princes and emperors. Innocent's handling of the Albigensian heresy reinforced the contemporary concept of Church as institution. Heretics were seen as deliberately defying the authority of the Roman Church and as committing a crime against divine majesty. War was declared on the Albigensians, and, aided by the Cistercians, Innocent fought a bloody crusade against them in 1209. Papal legates, however, were keener on gaining bishoprics than on routing the heresy. "Innocent's objectives were on the one hand to combat heresy and paganism, and on the other hand, to eradicate the abuses through which, if they were not remedied, heresy was bound to flourish; and the method used was centralisation and central control" (Barraclough, 1968: 135). In southern France the Catharist heresy was particularly strong. Francis of Assisi and his followers "wanted to bring people to abandon it, not by violence, but by instructing them and preaching the love of Christ. Unfortunately his solution was not adopted, and Church leaders of the time dealt with the Cathari with appalling brutality" (Dwyer, 1985: 164).

The Church had, by the time of Innocent III, taken on the organisational role of the Crusades with all its political and economic ramifications. Crusades were to be launched against heretics at the discretion and direction of the presiding Pontiff and were used as a means of imposing the rule and will of the Church on the unbeliever. Augustinian teaching that justified the use of torture and death as legal instruments to be used by the Church to convert the heretic became widely accepted. This acted as a prelude to the legitimisation of the Inquisition, which was to receive papal approval under Gregory IX in 1233. Heresy was to be punished for the spiritual "good" of the individual as well as for the preservation and enhancement of the status of the Church and State - an attitude and mentality equally accepted by future Western reformers such as Calvin and Luther. Such was to be the patrimony and inheritance of the Crusades.

An even darker shadow was cast over Innocent's pontificate by his involvement in the Fourth Crusade, which led to schism between Eastern and Western Christendom in the eleventh century, an event which is one of the greatest calamities in the history of the Church.The main aim of the Crusades was to try to free the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks who had conquered Jerusalem in 1071. This was not accomplished, but rather in its consequences it seriously undermined the powers of resistance of the Christian East to the advance of Islam. It also encouraged the excessive growth of papal power in the West, and this over-centralisation of Church government resulted in many abuses and provoked widespread discontent. Thus the Reformation itself, which split the West into two hostile camps, was one of its results flowing from the split between East and West. This means that both East and West have paid dearly for their loss on unity, and although they have suffered in different ways, the ultimate results have been the same: their spiritual life has become impoverished and the growth of their culture one-sided, whilst extremist tendencies have been granted a freedom which has encouraged further splits and dissensions.

The present divided state of the Christian Church, which so obviously hinders her work, is therefore the direct result of the old schism between the East and West. The re-integration of Christendom is impossible unless the members of the two streams of Christian tradition can overcome their animosity and join together in the work of evangelising the world. It has been the custom for both Eastern and Western Christians to place the blame for the loss of unity entirely on the other side. Roman Catholics have accused the East of an obstinate refusal to accept the leadership of the Pope, and of undue submissiveness towards the secular power. The Orthodox, in return, have hurled against Western Christians charges of arrogance and pride, and have insisted that both Latins and Protestants have wilfully departed from the sound tradition of the early Church and perverted their religion by arbitrary and harmful innovations.

Many controversial books have been written on this subject; but if the simple question is asked, "What was the cause of the Schism between Rome and Constantinople, and when exactly did it occur?", too often no clear answer is forthcoming. The absence of an agreed statement on such a vital issue, one which has so profoundly and so disastrously affected the life of all Christians, is puzzling indeed. Yet an explanation of it is to be found in the study of the political and ecclesiastical events which led to the break of communion between East and West.

Though conflict, disagreement and tensions in politics and theological interpretation existed from the fifth century onwards, this gradual process of open hostility and bitter hate reached its climax between the ninth and thirteenth century. It is often thought that the lasting split in the Church must have been caused by some major doctrinal disagreement. The history of the schism does not confirm this opinion. The growing alienation between the Christian East and West was provoked by political competition, petty quarrels and personal rivalries. It was a slow movement; for the Church organism vigorously resited these attacks of destructive forces. The final blow to the unity of the Church was inflicted by no heresy, but by the drunken and undisciplined mob of Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204 and massacred its Christian population.

Next | Index |

Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME

Copyright ©1999, Yuri Koszarycz. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.