November 27, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Medieval Church: The golden age of papal power

John F. Fink(Sixteenth in a series of columns)

The first half of the 13th century was the golden age of papal power. It was the time when the papacy reached its medieval peak of authority, influence and prestige in the Church and in relations with civil rulers.

Pope Innocent III was pope from 1198 to 1216. He was only 37 when he was elected pope. He exalted the secular role of the pope higher than any previous pope, declaring that the pope was “set midway between God and man, below God and above man,” given “not only the universal Church, but the whole world to govern.”

Of course, he controlled the Papal States, virtually most of central Italy. He intervened in German politics, but so had previous popes. In England, he first excommunicated King John (the third of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s sons to become king of England) for refusing to recognize Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, but, after the king submitted, declared the Magna Carta void as improperly extorted from the king by barons without papal consent. Kingdoms such as Aragon, Portugal and Poland became fiefs of the Holy See.

It wasn’t all politics, though. He combatted heresy and promoted Church reform, beginning with the Roman Curia, simplifying living standards and demanding good moral behavior among the clergy.

Innocent proclaimed the Fourth Crusade in 1202, but it was a complete disaster for East-West relations. Its leaders, the Venetians, abandoned the crusade’s original purpose of trying to liberate the Holy Land and attacked Constantinople. The city fell on April 12, 1204, and was sacked by the crusaders, something that Greek Christendom has never forgotten or forgiven.

The crusaders established a Latin empire in Constantinople that lasted until 1261. Pope Innocent III accepted this fait accompli in the mistaken belief that a Latin patriarch in Constantinople would assist reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Of course, it did quite the opposite.

Innocent also called for a crusade within the Western Church itself, against the Albigensians in southern France. They believed that all matter was evil, the creation of the devil. Sexual intercourse was inherently evil, they believed, and they refused to eat meat and other products that resulted from sexual intercourse. They rejected the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ and the sacraments. Somehow, this sect became firmly established and powerful in southern France.

Innocent first sent a series of preaching missions to France. But when that failed to convert the Albigensians, he sent an army. In 1209, it captured Beziers and massacred its inhabitants. It was the start of a long war that lasted until 1229, long after Innocent’s death.

In 1215, Innocent called the Fourth Lateran Council that planned a new crusade, which didn’t start until after Innocent’s death. The council also summed up Innocent’s reforms, issuing 70 decrees including a definition of the Eucharist, for the first time using the term “transubstantiation” to explain the change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. It also ordered the annual reception of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.

More about Pope Innocent III next week. †

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