Innocent III and the Papal Monarchy: Church and State in the Middle Ages

By September 19, 2010

Continuing my theme of rethinking our metanarrative of apostasy to resotration, I wanted to talk a little more about the Middle Ages.

Pope Innocent III was the object of Protestant derision. Luther taught that the Christian millennium began with Constantine but ended with Innocent when the papacy became the anti-Christ. Historians do point to Innocent as the height of papal power both in his claims and his achievements. Innocent claimed that the pope was the vicar of Christ and therefore had authority over temporal power. (Before that popes used the terms ?vicar of Peter?). Innocent sat atop of what Collin Morris calls The Papal Monarchy, delineated in Morris?s book by that name. Such power generated a ton of animosity both among contemporaries and later Protestants.

Yet I argue here that the church was in a bind in the middle ages. Temporal powers were eager to control the church in their lands and church leaders saw such control as essentially making the church the puppet of the state that would strip the church of any ability to exert moral authority in society. If the church lacked all temporal power, church leaders observed, the nobility would run amok abusing the church, the poor, and just about everyone else.

This bind is laid out in Morris?s book. Morris says the title of the book is ?a paradox, not a fact. A papal monarchy was in principle and in practice inconceivable in medieval Europe? (1). Medieval European political thinkers promoted what is called the Gelasian principle: God had two powers, royal and priestly, and they needed to respect the boundaries (17). Thus, ?In the proper sense of the words, papal monarchy was impossible? (1).

So how did it happen? First, the rise of papal power came after the collapse of the Carolingian empire. That coupled with the Viking raids on the 10th century made much of Europe rather lawless. Particularly France turned into Hobbes?s ?war of all against all? as local barons waged internecine wars, plundered the church, and oppressed the poor. This gave rise to feudalism as the poor turned over their rights to gain protection from the barons.

To make a long story short, the rise of the Papal Monarchy is the story of the pope?s fight with the Holy Roman Emperor (the guy in charge of Germany). In 1000 AD the pope didn?t have much authority outside of Italy, the Emperor ran the church in Germany and even oversaw papal succession to a degree. By 1050 a group of reformers were gathered in the curia (the pope?s council) who wanted to reform the church and assert papal power. Chief among these was Hildebrand who became pope Gregory VII; his reforms became known as the Gregorian reforms. Gregory worked to put an end to married priests and simonacs but also wanted the power to appoint bishops throughout Christendom. The Emperor didn?t want to give up the power so Gregory excommunicated him, and he (Henry IV) walked over the Alps in the snow to receive absolution in order to prevent his vassals from revolting.

Such battles between the Pope and Emperor continued for the next centuries, with the Emperor often invading Italy and the Pope working to find allies to repel him. By 1250, under pope Innocent IV, the papacy finally won and had broken the power of the Emperor in Italy. Yet the victory created new problems. Says Morris, it is ?correct to see the papacy as the victim of its own success?. After 1250, it is hard to find the same championing of international reform ? and the tide of complaints about the curia, which had in all conscience been high enough since early in the twelfth century, rose to a mighty flood? (582).

One of the lead critics was political philosopher Marsilio of Padua who argued, seemingly anachronistically, that true political power came from the consent of the governed. Yes, in 1250. Marsilio argued that kings derived their power from the consent of the governed because the kingdoms had representative bodies (like Parliament in England and the Estates General in France) that assented to the king?s rule. The pope on the other hand had no such representative body and thus did not rule by the consent of the governed and thus could not rightly wield any temporal power. Marsilio was really popular with royal authority at the time.

Criticism also came from within the church. Many in the church were uneasy with papal power altogether. In fact, says Morris ?there was a tradition going back to Jerome that with the recognition of the church by the Christian emperors ?it became greater in power and riches indeed, but poorer in virtues?, and in the twelfth century it was supposed that Constantine and pope Sylvester were immediately responsible for the change? (404). The biggest critics were the Franciscan spirituals, who formed in 1250, claiming to be the true followers of St. Francis by insisting on absolute poverty. They noted the contrast of the wealth of the papacy and, following Joachim of Fiore, looked forward to the age of the spirit when the papacy would be reformed. In 1294, under these criticisms, the Cardinals decided to elect the man considered the holiest person in Christendom to be pope. Pietro Angelerio, who became Celestine V, had been a hermit in the mountains and had no experience running anything. He resigned (a first) after only a six months, dashing the hopes of the reformers.

Such fun stories continued in the next century but these illustrate the bind the papacy was in. The papacy did advocate for the poor, encourage peace, and strive for the rectitude of the clergy. It was Innocent III who did away with the ordeal (with limited success) and it was the pope who spoke out against Jewish pogroms during the plague. Others advocated for temporal control of the church: Hildegard of Bingen prophesied that the church would become so corrupt that the state would reform it (Protestants saw themselves as fulfilling her prophecy). Many, like Celestine simply withdrew from society.

Either way, we have to remember that society as a whole was much more oppressive than ours is now. So what ought the pope to have done in such a situation, assert papal authority in the hopes of improving society like Innocent, or withdraw like Celestine? It was indeed a paradox, try to fix the world and become corrupted by it, or leave the world and neglect your duty. We are really blessed to live under the form of government that we do, but what ought one to have done when such arrangements did not exist? Who ought to run the church?

Article filed under Christian History


  1. Steve, I see at least two important points concerning the apostasy and restoration narrative that you bring out in your post. First, as you note, the Reformation-era anti-Papal polemics that are often inherited by LDS discussions are in fact centuries older than the Reformation. Second, even within a purely Mormon view of history, just how much can we expect of people living a thousand or more years ago? While a few popes managed to leave an evil reputation among their contemporaries, I think charity and a basic understanding of the historical context point towards treating the efforts to maintain and extend Christendom during some fairly lousy times with great respect. Bonifatius was probably at least as important for the later teaching of Mormonism in northern Europe as Martin Luther.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — September 19, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

  2. The orthodox managed to bridge this gap. It helps to remember them.

    Comment by Ethesis — September 19, 2010 @ 10:12 pm

  3. a fascinating look, indeed, into papal history. We tend, in hindsight, to simply brush back their actions during that period (500ad-1200ad). Would a Mormon prophet have done things differently?

    Comment by Dan — September 20, 2010 @ 8:49 am

  4. The orthodox managed to bridge this gap. It helps to remember them.

    Did the Eastern Church ever run the Byzantine Empire or any part of it? Or do you mean something else?

    Comment by Mark D. — September 20, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  5. I should probably also mention that these guys had a horrible track record when in came to religious persecution. Religious dissent wasn’t tolerated at all. Innocent III called the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars; one of the really ugly episode in Christian history. So I hope that’s one thing the prophets wouldn’t do. Still, though, I think we can sympathize with the popes in their struggles against the Emperor.

    Jonathan, agree on both points. The papacy really gets interesting in the 14th century. Is Bonifatius Boniface the missionary? I don’t know who Bonifatius is.

    Yes, do explain Ethesis.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 20, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  6. Good stuff, Steve. Nothing to add, but am enjoying.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 20, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  7. Steve, yes, that’s the Boniface I meant. Sorry for using obscure Germanicized metonymy when I should have just written that Christianizing northern Europe was an essential precursor to the Restoration.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — September 20, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

  8. Well we tried to withdraw from the world but it didn’t work. Now that we are clearly stuck in it and we’re less sure about how soon it will all end, we have started getting involved in bettering it (the world). But Enoch and his people got away.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — September 21, 2010 @ 11:51 am

  9. Though dissenting groups had a hard time “withdrawing from the world” in the middle ages, or even existing at all. The Cathars were totally wiped out, though the Waldensians managed to hide out in the Italian piedmont and the Hussites actually defeated the invading armies of the emperor. So it was sort of hard for these guys not to be political. Monks often tried to cloister themselves but, like Celestine, were often drawn into the political fray. In fact, Celestine’s successor, Boniface VIII, wouldn’t let him go and had him imprisoned, where he died a few months later. Many people thought Boniface had him killed. Boniface then tangled with the kings of England and France (he told them they couldn’t tax the church to go to war with each other) so the king of France used Boniface’s unpopularity to accuse him of sorcery and sent his men to arrest him. Boniface got away but died soon after from the shock. The king of France then moved the papacy to France where it was under his thumb.

    And some of the succeeding popes became even more unpopular and the papal schism made things even worse.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 23, 2010 @ 12:25 pm


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