The Medieval Church may be the least understood of those in church history. In today’s world, it seems to carry little significance or value. It was a world in tremendous flux and upheaval as Christianity sought to find itself. The Medieval Church is precariously situated between the Early Church and the Protestant Reformation. Even in the turmoil of the time and an uncertain future, the Sovereign Hand of God was at work.
Roman Catholicism had a stranglehold on Christianity, but more specifically on the people of Christianity. The abuses were abundant, and the characters animated. Among them comes a man that would work toward addressing the abuses and begin his version of a reformation. Innocent III was this man.
This paper seeks to address Innocent III’s practical and doctrinal advance of the Papacy and to gain a deeper understanding of how Innocent III has shaped modern-day Catholicism for the better or, the worse, depending on one’s view. No matter the view, without a doubt, this man impacted the Medieval world and those that would follow in his footsteps.
Tumultuous times often bring forth visionary rulers, and Innocent III was such a man. He is often and regularly regarded as the most influential Pope of the Medieval period. Born Lotario de’ Conti in 1160 or 1161, he was the son of Count Trasimund and the nephew of Clement III. He received his early education in Rome and studied law at Bologna. Lotario also had a keen interest in theology and studied in Paris, where he proved himself well-respected in the discipline of theology.
Lotario obtained various positions within the church after his return to Rome in 1181, including the role of sub-deacon and later Cardinal-Deacon of St. George in 1190. On January 8, 1198, Pope Celestine II died, and Lotario de’ Conti was elected the next Pope, he was only thirty-seven years of age at the time. Reluctantly, he accepted and was named Innocent III. Innocent would not allow his reluctance to become timidity. He quickly began to implement changes to the Empire. Changes that were necessary and would change the Empire’s course of history.
Mark Galli and Ted Olsen commenting on Innocent:
Innocent was born to rule; he was exceptionally gifted in intellect, will, and leadership. He was the foremost church lawyer of the age. Still, he had a combative spirit and was prone to fits of depression. He began his reign by purging church officials not loyal to him and by curbing excesses of his own household. Plates of gold were exchanged for wood, and nobles from royal families were replaced by monks. He reasserted control over the papal estates, though after an attempt on his life, he gave his family charge of key cities.
A Vision for the Empire
Innocent III had an extremely high view of his office, shaping his leadership style and vision for the Empire. He believed himself as the successor of Peter, a direct representative of Christ. Innocent III exclusively took on the title Vicar of Christ, and according to Catholic Answers, “Innocent III appeals for his power to remove bishops to the fact that he is Vicar of Christ (cap. “Inter corporalia”, 2, “De trans. ep.”).” Innocent’s vision for the Empire was complete control and expansion beyond Rome.
He believed his office that of a semi-Divine status, and he said, “Verily the representative of Christ, the successor of Peter, the anointed of the Lord, the God of Pharaoh set midway between God and man, below God but above man, less than God but more than man, judging all other men, but himself judged by none.” Innocent’s thinking, leadership skill, and desire to control set the stage for a spiritual conquest while providing for and showing respect for the authority of kings and rulers. Innocent III was a unique and exciting ruler and largely considered his time the height of the Papacy.
In 1197 Henry VI died, and there was no immediate successor. Innocent III took this opportunity to restore papal power in Rome and the States of the Church, representing the lands and revenues associated with those lands. Given that the rest of Italy had grown weary of German invasions, Innocent quickly extended his power over all of Italy.
It was not long before Germany became an area of interest as there were two claimants to the German throne, and Innocent sided with Otto IV. The Catholic Encyclopedia provides more details:
Offended at what they considered an unjust interference on the part of the Pope, the adherents of Philip sent a letter to him in which they protested against his interference in the imperial affairs of Germany. In his answer Innocent stated that he had no intention of encroaching upon the rights of the princes, but insisted upon the rights of the Church in this matter. He emphasized especially that the conferring of the imperial crown belonged to the Pope alone.
Innocent was also active in France and England. He considered one of his duties to rule not only the church but the entire world. In today’s vernacular, he might be regarded as not only a Christian Nationalist but a Christian Internationalist. Innocent continued to expand his influence over nations and princes. He was determined to know and investigate whether a king was worthy of his crown, and his office would oversee the installment to these offices.
Innocent affected nearly every country in Europe. His authority extended far and wide:
There was scarcely a country in Europe over which Innocent III did not in some way or other assert the supremacy which he claimed for the Papacy. He excommunicated Alfonso IX of Leon, for marrying a near relative, Berengaria, a daughter of Alfonso VIII, contrary to the laws of the Church, and effected their separation in 1204. For similar reasons he annulled, in 1208, the marriage of the crown-prince, Alfonso of Portugal, with Urraca, daughter of Alfonso of Castile.
In November of 1209, Innocent III excommunicated King John of England. The excommunication came over a dispute regarding the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury. John was upset that he had not been consulted, and the controversy lasted for over four years. Ultimately, John went to Rome to bow at the feet of Innocent III, and Innocent showed his power, and the expansion of papal influence grew.
Pope Innocent III also viewed his role as a defender of the Catholic faith and a fighter against heresy. The Albigenses were also referred to as the Cathari or the Cathars. The Albigenses despised Roman Catholicism and saw the church as immoral and corrupt. Due to their promotion of itinerant preachers, the Roman Church saw this as a threat to their power and authority, and Innocent took up the charge to rid the world of the Cathar heresy. Not only was it one of the bloodiest of Innocent’s Crusades it eventually led to The Inquisition, which oversaw the death and torture of many. Countless Albigenses were killed for their faith in these crusades, “More than 15,000 peasants were slaughtered in one town alone.”
Innocent III also sought to restore the Holy Land. The Catholic Encyclopedia states, “Innocent had at heart the recovery of the Holy Land, and for this end undertook the Fourth Crusade.” The Holy Land’s conquest and restoration were a high priority during Innocent’s tenure as Pope. Despite his great efforts, The Fourth Crusade fell short of its fund-raising goals, and the crusade suffered, never making its destination. The crusade turned to Constantinople, much to Innocent III’s dissatisfaction, and rather than strengthening Christianity, the Eastern Church was left vulnerable and further divided from the West.
Innocent III desired to reform the church at a time when it saw the eruption of sects and schisms due to church corruption. Innocent recognized the need to change and implemented it on a massive scale. He saw the excesses in luxurious living and drunken carousing and promoted honesty in the church’s practices.
During his reign, he recognized and gave patronage to two newly established reform groups, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. He issued over 6,000 decrees and formalized many of his reforms with the Fourth Lateran Council—where the term “transubstantiate” (meaning, the bread of Communion becomes the real body of Christ) was first officially used.
Whether Innocent’s reforms are considered a success today is often in the eye of the beholder, but history reveals there is little doubt he was one of the most significant figures in Medieval Church, and Roman Catholic History. Innocent III sought to make changes and changes he did make.
In a modern context, it is often difficult to reconcile the practices of the day that occurred in a time such as Medieval History. Innocent III sought to grow the Christian Empire, which came at a price for many. He also sought to gain not only ecclesiastical power but political power, bringing much-needed reform to the church. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “The labours of Innocent in the inner government of the Church appear to be of a very subordinate character when they are put beside his great politico-ecclesiastical achievements which brought the papacy to the zenith of its power.” Innocent III was a power broker in almost every sense of the concept. He sought to expand and reform the Catholic Church and snuff out what he deemed heretical movements. Innocent III was a mover, a shaker, and an entrencher of the Papacy in every real sense of the phrase.
Catholic Answers. “Vicar of Christ.” Accessed April 13, 2023, Catholic Answers. Catholic Answers, September 11, 2020. https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/vicar-of-christ.
Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2000.
Ott, Michael, “Pope Innocent III,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church, ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al. (New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913.
 Ott, “Pope Innocent III.”
 Ibid, 325.
 Galli and Olsen, “Introduction,” in 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 324.
 Ott, “Pope Innocent III.
 Michael Ott, “Pope Innocent III,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church, ed. Charles G. Herbermann et al. (New York: The Encyclopedia Press; The Universal Knowledge Foundation, 1907–1913).
 Ott, “Pope Innocent III.”
 Catholic Answers, “Vicar of Christ,” Catholic Answers (Catholic Answers, September 11, 2020), https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/vicar-of-christ.
 Galli and Olsen, “Introduction,” in 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 324.
 Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” in 131 Christians Everyone Should Know Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 324.