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Innocent III

Pope from 1198. One of the greatest popes of the Middle Ages, Giovanni Lotario de’ Conti was unanimously elected at the age of thirty-seven, following the death of Celestine III. A member of one of the noble families of Rome, he studied theology at Paris and canon law at Bologna and was made a cardinal deacon by Clement III (1190). Although not an outstanding cardinal, he did actively participate in Curial matters and wrote a book, On the Contempt of the World, an exhortation to asceticism and contemplation which became popular throughout Europe. He was able to marshal traditional ideas of the papacy and thus make it the pivot of W and E Europe. He had a keen intellect and knew exactly what had to be done for the Roman Church to dominate all human relationships. In addition to mastering the tasks of the Curia, he was also an able statesman and his dealings with European monarchs are evidence of his desire to be viewed as the supreme arbiter in all cases and the preserver of unity throughout Christendom.

Innocent began his reign by reorganizing the administration of Rome. He obtained the right to nominate the senator who ruled Rome and to receive an oath of fidelity from him. Following the collapse of German rule in Italy after the death of Emperor Henry VI, he was able to restore and expand the Papal States, thus strengthening the position of the papacy and preventing the unification of Italy. Under Innocent, the Fourth Crusade (1202-4) was launched, resulting in the formation of the Latin Empire of Constantinople. It failed, however, to unite the Eastern and Western churches. Also the great Fourth Lateran Council (1215) was summoned by Innocent. Some of the more important of its seventy decrees included the official approval of the term “transubstantiation,” the suppression of heresy, the role of the church in secular justice, the necessity of paying the tithe, and several other actions which shaped church policy for centuries. The council also fixed 1217 as the year for a crusade against Islam.

Innocent was heavily involved in European politics. In the controversy over whether the Hohenstaufen, Philip of Swabia, or the Guelf, Otto of Brunswick, should become Holy Roman Emperor, he decided in favor of the purportedly pro-papacy Otto. But when Emperor Otto IV invaded Sicily, the pope excommunicated him and supported the election of his ward, Frederick II. In England, Innocent put the land under interdict and excommunicated King John for his refusal to allow the papal appointee to the archbishopric of Canterbury, Stephen Langton,* to enter the country. John submitted in 1213. Innocent also intervened in the matrimonial affairs of such monarchs as Peter II of Aragon, Alphonso IX of Léon, and Philip II of France.

Bibliography: S.R. Packard, Europe and the Church under Innocent III (1927); L. Elliott-Binns, Innocent III (1931); C.E. Smith, Innocent III, Church Defender (1931); J. Clayton, Pope Innocent III and His Times (1941).