Any treatment of the Reformation involves discussion of popes. In the first instance, Protestant reform, a movement built upon freedom of conscience and the sovereignty of the Bible would find it necessary to address and confront an office to which fifteen centuries of Christians had looked as a direct link to Christ and the binding organization of his message. In part this confrontation would be the work of Lutheran and Calvinist theologians who would need to explain Jesus’ words to St. Peter as the rock of his kingdom in a manner quite different from the Roman Catholic understanding of the pope as possessing ultimate spiritual authority.
Refurbishing (or entirely eliminating) the office of the papacy in the textbooks was one matter. Interpreting the impact of actual popes and their decisions through the medieval era was quite another. To use a contemporary example, it is one thing to talk about the office of the American presidency; it is another to assess the acts and motives of individual presidents, particularly the incumbent. Luther’s tipping point came with the authorization of the incumbent Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521), a member of the Medici family, for the sale of indulgences to build the present-day St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But Leo X did not invent indulgences nor their trafficking; his actions were the fruits of decisions made and precedents set by previous occupants of the Chair of Peter.
The medieval popes had exercised their offices with a variety of ways and claims; as we saw a few weeks ago, Pope Gregory VII had reformed the Church in the late 1000’s with a monastic model of growing independence from secular princes and powers and greater structural integrity, including the observance of clerical celibacy. Along with Gregory VII, I would cite a cluster of popes whose actions set a trajectory that would make 1517 the “perfect storm” of division that it proved to be. Specifically, I would cite Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), probably the most powerful pope to govern the Church in history; Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303), who made the critical error of claiming too much power in his encyclical Unam Sanctam; The Western Schism (1378-1417), a four-decade span in which three separate but concurrent papacies led to considerable scandal and the exercise of conciliar supervision of the Church; and Pope Martin V (r. 1417-1431) who squandered a well-considered plan to reform the Church in collaboration with bishops and cardinals.
Every survey of medieval history devotes considerable space to Innocent III. It is hard not to. Again, returning to previous posts, we saw that the medieval church believed itself heir to dominion and power dating back to Constantine himself through the Donation of Constantine, a declaration later proved fraudulent. Popes were expected to function as savvy statesmen and military leaders in protecting the lands, holdings, and privileges of the Church. Moreover, with the expansion of Canon Law in this era, Rome became the supreme court of all disputes. In Innocent’s time the city was a mecca for lawyers pleading disputes before the papal court. Innocent himself was nicknamed “Solomon III.”
Innocent III carried out these functions better than any other pope before the Reformation; after the Reformation and the “Religious Wars” there would be no possibility for a pope to reign in this fashion again. Kevin Madigan (see home page) reminds us that Innocent’s theological gifts are often overlooked (p. 287). He wrote On the Mysteries of the Mass, which became a standard theological text for centuries, and later defined the term transubstantiation as the official term for the change in the bread and the wine at Mass into the body and blood of Christ, at the Council Lateran IV in 1215.
The pope-as-stateman model, however, profoundly impacted papal elections at this time. Innocent III was elected at the age of 37, and the primary reason his youthfulness was overlooked according to Madigan is the cardinal-electors’ belief that Innocent’s Paris (French) education would dispose him to oppose German power, then seen as an encroachment upon the holdings of the Church. Innocent proceeded to play a skillful and heavy hand in German affairs, and when German princes elected Otto as king, Innocent took upon himself the right to judge this disputed election.
When Otto reneged on his promise to restore contested lands to the Church, Innocent excommunicated Otto and announced that he had stripped him of his imperial title, setting off a chain of events that led to Otto’s defeat and the elevation of Prince Frederick. Madigan observes: “In the eleventh century emperors had chosen popes without consulting any Roman prelate. Now the pope had chosen an emperor.” (p. 290) Innocent exercised similar power in England, France, and Denmark. An extant 1198 letter from Innocent opined that ecclesiastical liberty is best preserved “where the Roman Church has full power in both temporal and spiritual affairs.” Whereas Gregory VII had simply claimed independence from secular monarchs in matters of Church affairs, Innocent III was claiming full authority over secular affairs.
The difficulty with a “two swords” theory (that is, power over the spiritual and the material worlds) is that poor execution in the one sphere will create difficulties in the other. A pope who makes missteps in world affairs will bring discredit to his spiritual authority, or vice-versa in the case of Leo X and Luther. Madigan writes that no European prince accepted Innocent’s theoretical claim literally; politics then, as today, was pragmatic. The degree of obeisance of ruler to pope depended, not surprisingly, on the actual resources each brought to the table.
Innocent III did not get everything he wanted, but his Council IV Lateran in 1215 gives us a good picture of his scope of influence. [Wikipedia has a convenient listing of the Council’s outcomes.] As spiritual leader of Western Christendom, Innocent III’s concerns included the proliferation of mystical fraternities or charismatic groups outside the traditional discipline of religious orders—his approval of one such group, ultimately the Franciscans, is quite surprising. He aggressively addressed the issue of heresy and the prosecution of heretics, and called for discipline and renewal in both the clerical and lay states.
At IV Lateran Innocent called for a new Crusade. A new assault to reclaim the Holy Land was necessary because the previous Crusade, the Fourth, was the most notable misstep of Innocent’s reign; the Fourth Crusade is one of the most bizarre and byzantine (no pun intended) military escapade in history. Innocent wisely opposed it, but he could not stop it, which goes to show that claims to power do have limits. The Fourth Crusade—which has its own impact upon the Reformation to be discussed later—destroyed the crusading spirit of Europe, a fact which escaped Innocent.
Innocent’s model of a two-swords papacy introduced another critical influence upon the medieval Church: the need for money. Innocent III was the first pope to levy a” papal tax” upon his clergy in 1198; the practice grew and expanded to all members of the Western Roman Church, as far away as a now extinct settlement in Greenland. The quest for funds for an expansive church bureaucracy would grow until the day that a Dominican monk named Tetzel arrived in Martin Luther’s town for the solicitation of funds through the sale of indulgences.