Pope Innocent III and Papal Power in the Church and Politics

By Hamblin, William; Peterson, Daniel C. | Deseret News (Salt Lake City), August 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Pope Innocent III and Papal Power in the Church and Politics


Hamblin, William, Peterson, Daniel C., Deseret News (Salt Lake City)


With modern popes being essentially moral teachers and exemplars, it is sometimes hard for us to realize that popes once exerted power over kingdoms and empires. An anti-Trump comment by the current Pope Francis II might have power to shift political opinion among some U.S. Catholics, but many medieval popes could overthrow empires and kings.

Arguably the most powerful pope in history, Pope Innocent III’s reign transformed many aspects of the medieval Catholic church and European history. Born Lotario Dei Conti di Segni in 1160, the future Innocent was educated at Paris and Bologna, and, as a young man, worked for the papal administration in Rome under several popes. His talents brought him wide respect among his peers, leading to his election as pope in 1198 at the young age of 37, after only two ballots.

Pope Innocent III reigned as pope for almost 20 years (1198-1216), during a remarkably turbulent age. Jerusalem had fallen to Saladin’s Muslim armies in 1187, and the Third Crusade (1189-1192), under the leadership of Richard Lionheart of England, though it saved the crusader kingdom, had failed to reconquer the holy city. Pope Innocent therefore spent much of his early years as pope mobilizing preachers and resources for another crusade to rescue Jerusalem.

Unfortunately, through a series of disastrous decisions, Pope Innocent’s Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) went drastically astray and ended up conquering Constantinople from the Greek Orthodox Byzantine empire. The city was brutally sacked, and a weak and short-lived “Latin Empire” was established at Constantinople. But the long-term impact of the Fourth Crusade was to weaken Christian military power in the east, thereby opening the path for the eventual Ottoman Turkish conquest of Constantinople, Greece and the Balkans.

Pope Innocent, though initially appalled by the catastrophe of the Fourth Crusade, was eventually reconciled by the possibility of the reunification with Eastern Christendom through the rule of Latin Empire. But the schism between Catholic west and Orthodox east, which had slowly widened since the Great Schism in 1054, grew into a chasm due to the resentment of eastern Christians at the plundering of their cities, the tyranny of foreign Latin rulers, and the attempted imposition of Catholic priests, theology and liturgy on the Greek Orthodox church. This schism between eastern and western Christians has lasted until the present.

After the failure of the Fourth Crusade to retake Jerusalem, Pope Innocent called for preparations for a Fifth Crusade in 1215, though he died in 1216 before it was launched. …

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