The Pontificate of Innocent III (1198 – 1216) and The Tragedy of the Great Schism

Here, I am going to develop two particular aspects of ecclesial history that are often neglected by Western historians: The reign of Innocent III as Pontiff in Western Christendom, and the tragedy of the great schism between Eastern and Western Christians as a lasting consequence of the Fourth Crusade.

The eleventh century is often called the century of Saxon Popes: Gregory VI (1045 – 1046), Clement II (1046 – 1047), Damasus II (1048), Leo IX (1049 – 1054), Victor II (1055 – 1057) and Steven X (1057 – 1058) all reflected, through their ascendancy to the Papacy, the strength and power of the Holy Roman Emperor. The struggle between the temporal power of the Kings and the spiritual pressure of the popes came to a head in the reigns of Pope Nicholas II (1059 – 1061) and Gregory VII (1073 – 1085) in their opposition to King Henry IV. Henry was ultimately driven by a revolt among the German nobles to make peace with the Pope and appeared before Gregory in January 1077 at Canossa. Dressed as a penitent, the emperor is said to have stood barefoot in the snow for three days and begged forgiveness until, in Gregory’s words: “We loosed the chain of the anathema and at length received him into the favor of communion and into the lap of the Holy Mother Church” ( Robinson 1904: 283).

These tensions between emperors and pontiffs were to continue into the twelfth century and ultimately gave rise to the “distinctive separation of Church and State when the emperor signed the Concordat of Worms (1122) forfeiting any right to invest bishops with the ring and the staff symbolic of spiritual authority” (Ozment, 1980: 4). This demarcation of the secular from the ecclesiastical nevertheless did not hamper papal aspirations on the part of the emperors, nor the aspirations of the popes to exercise the power of emperors.

These power struggles had already led to a clericalization of the Western Church under Gregory VII (1073-1085). It must be noted that the authority of this pontiff and those that followed him demonstrated the secular and imperial nature of the pontifical office. With Gregory we find the creation of a Christian commonwealth under papal control. In the Dictatus Papae Gregory claimed:

  • That the Roman pontiff alone is rightly called universal.
  • That he alone has the power to depose and reinstate bishops.
  • That he alone may use the imperial insignia.
  • That all princes shall kiss the foot of the pope alone.
  • That he has the power to depose emperors.
  • That he can be judged by no one.
  • That no one can be regarded as catholic who does not agree with the Roman church.
  • That he has the power to absolve subjects from their oath of fealty to wicked rulers (Pope Gregory VII, quoted in: Baldwin, 1970: 182-183).

Lameygh lists the powers and privileges attached to the Papal office:

  • The Pope can be judged by no one.
  • The Roman Church has never erred and will never err till the end of time.
  • The Roman Church was founded by Christ alone.
  • The Pope alone can depose and restore bishops.
  • He alone can make new laws, set up new bishoprics, and divide old ones.
  • He alone can translate bishops to another see.
  • He alone can call general councils and authorise canon law.
  • He alone can revise his own judgements.
  • He alone can use the imperial insignia.
  • He can depose emperors.
  • He can absolve subjects from their allegiance.
  • All princes should kiss his feet.
  • His legates, even though in inferior orders, have precedence over all bishops.
  • An appeal to the papal courts inhibits judgement by all inferior courts.
  • A duly ordained Pope is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter (1986: 241).

The Papacy as an institution reached its zenith of power during the pontificate of Innocent III (1198 – 1216). Not surprisingly , the dominant model of Church in these centuries was that of Church as institution. It is interesting to note that a significant alternative model of Church, that of servant, began to develop at this time through the work of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis held up poverty, simplicity, chastity, humility and obedience as his ideals, often ministering to the poorest of the poor. The legends surrounding his charismatic personality attest to his simplicity of faith that was highly contemplative in nature and is expressed so wonderfully in the “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” In the final year of Innocent’s pontificate, the Dominicans were established as an Order of Preachers whose main perpose was to win back the Albigensians and Waldensians by exhaustive preaching. Dominic attempted a radical departure from the use of force and believed that it was necessary to be better heralds of the Gospel.

In Rome, the pontiff exercised supreme authority and his pontificate must be understood in the context of the twelfth century Decretum of Gratian (c.1140) and the subsequent commentaries of the “Decretists”, especially Rufinus of Bologna (c.1157). They believed that the interpretation of the Matthean verse, “I will give you the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt.16:19) suggested the existence of a “heavenly empire” and an “earthly empire” over which the Pope exercised supreme authority. At the same time, Alanus of England expounded an extreme theory of papal world monarchy (Barraclough, 1968; Dwyer, 1985; Ullman, 1972).

Innocent was a natural successor to these theorists. He had been a student of the Canonists Huguccio at Bologna and Peter of Corbeil at Paris, and was regarded by his contemporaries as a brilliant canon lawyer, though his book De Contemptu Mundi et De Sacro Altaris Mysterio, written shortly before his election, shows him to be a mediocre ansd safe orthodox theologian. He was elected to the pontificate at the age of 37. He was a

man elected to the papacy who was destined to bring the office to the summit of its political power and, perhaps in virtue of that fact, to prepare for its decline as a spiritual and moral force. In doing this, he paved the way for rise of the Renaissance papacy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries… he intended to be both spiritual leader of Christendom, and its political master as well; and it was from his hand that the Emperor and the kings of the various Christian states were to accept office as his vassals (Dwyer, 1985: 173).

A few months before his election in 1198, the emperor Henry VI had died. Innocent began his reign at a time when a power vacuum existed within the Roman Empire and “at the outset of his reign had an exceptional opportunity to define for the future, the proper role of the papacy in the temporal affairs of Europe, both in practice and in theory” (Tierney, 1964: 127). Innocent’s own perception of his role as pontiff and his view on Church-state relations are well documented, and demonstrate his theocratic and hierocratic world-view:

The Lord Jesus Christ has set up one ruler over all things as His universal vicar, and as all things in heaven, earth and hell bow the knee to Christ, so should all obey Christ’s vicar, that there be one flock and one shepherd (Quoted in Margaret Deanesly, 1972: 141).

He described himself as “lower than God but higher than man”…he claimed that Peter was given “not only the universal Church but the whole world to govern”, and his attitude to temporal authority is well summed up in his communication with the nobles of Tuscany: “…just as the moon derives its light from the sun…so too the royal power derives the splendour of its dignity from the pontifical authority” (Quotations from Tierney, 1964: 132).

In the decretal Venerabilem Innocent expounds his beliefs that he has an obligation to intervene in certain temporal matters. While it is right for princes to elect their emperor, it is the duty of the pontiff to ensure that the chosen candidate was also spiritually worthy for coronation. In Novit (1204), written to justify his intervention in the dispute between King John of England and King Phillip Augustus of France over the fief of Normandy, Innocent claimed that he could certainly judge temporal matters (Ullman, 1972: 207). He furthermore intervened in the conflict between Philip of Swabia (brother of Henry IV) and Otto of Brunswick, where he dramatically proclaimed his basic papal principle relating to the government of Christian society. According to Innocent, the emperor was given “a plenitude of power” by the pope who enjoyed ” a full plenitude of power” given to him by God. In this case, papal favour eventually fell upon Otto, whose concessions in Italy to the papacy suggest that Innocent was motivated by less noble aims than the need to examine imperial candidates.

These less noble aims undoubtedly included Innocent’s desire to recover lost papal territories and to rid Italy of German officials and influence. The question of imperial candidacy was the most dramatic instance of Innocent’s involvement in temporal matters, but it was far from an isolated case. He intervened in the Kingdom of France to persuade Philip II to restore his legitimate wife, yet at the same time, Innocent legitimised Philip’s bastard children. He also intervened in succession disputes in the Kingdoms of Norway, Sweden and Bohemia. It was Innocent who excommunicated King John of England for refusing to accept Stephen Langton as archbishop of Canterbury, and released John’s subjects from their oath of allegiance to their king. Finally, King John succumbed and became a papal vassal. In addition, Innocent III could count as vassals the Kings of Bulgaria, Aragon, Portugal and Castille. During Innocent’s pontificate, “papal activity and influence was displayed throughout the length and breadth of Europe. The papal curia became the busiest governmental centre in the world as it then was” (Ullman, 1972: 215).

This power was not only exerted against princes and emperors. Innocent’s handling of the Albigensian heresy reinforced the contemporary concept of Church as institution. Heretics were seen as deliberately defying the authority of the Roman Church and as committing a crime against divine majesty. War was declared on the Albigensians, and, aided by the Cistercians, Innocent fought a bloody crusade against them in 1209. Papal legates, however, were keener on gaining bishoprics than on routing the heresy. “Innocent’s objectives were on the one hand to combat heresy and paganism, and on the other hand, to eradicate the abuses through which, if they were not remedied, heresy was bound to flourish; and the method used was centralisation and central control” (Barraclough, 1968: 135). In southern France the Catharist heresy was particularly strong. Francis of Assisi and his followers “wanted to bring people to abandon it, not by violence, but by instructing them and preaching the love of Christ. Unfortunately his solution was not adopted, and Church leaders of the time dealt with the Cathari with appalling brutality” (Dwyer, 1985: 164).

The Church had, by the time of Innocent III, taken on the organisational role of the Crusades with all its political and economic ramifications. Crusades were to be launched against heretics at the discretion and direction of the presiding Pontiff and were used as a means of imposing the rule and will of the Church on the unbeliever. Augustinian teaching that justified the use of torture and death as legal instruments to be used by the Church to convert the heretic became widely accepted. This acted as a prelude to the legitimisation of the Inquisition, which was to receive papal approval under Gregory IX in 1233. Heresy was to be punished for the spiritual “good” of the individual as well as for the preservation and enhancement of the status of the Church and State – an attitude and mentality equally accepted by future Western reformers such as Calvin and Luther. Such was to be the patrimony and inheritance of the Crusades.

An even darker shadow was cast over Innocent’s pontificate by his involvement in the Fourth Crusade, which led to schism between Eastern and Western Christendom in the eleventh century, an event which is one of the greatest calamities in the history of the Church.The main aim of the Crusades was to try to free the Holy Land from the Seljuk Turks who had conquered Jerusalem in 1071. This was not accomplished, but rather in its consequences it seriously undermined the powers of resistance of the Christian East to the advance of Islam. It also encouraged the excessive growth of papal power in the West, and this over-centralisation of Church government resulted in many abuses and provoked widespread discontent. Thus the Reformation itself, which split the West into two hostile camps, was one of its results flowing from the split between East and West. This means that both East and West have paid dearly for their loss on unity, and although they have suffered in different ways, the ultimate results have been the same: their spiritual life has become impoverished and the growth of their culture one-sided, whilst extremist tendencies have been granted a freedom which has encouraged further splits and dissensions.

The present divided state of the Christian Church, which so obviously hinders her work, is therefore the direct result of the old schism between the East and West. The re-integration of Christendom is impossible unless the members of the two streams of Christian tradition can overcome their animosity and join together in the work of evangelising the world. It has been the custom for both Eastern and Western Christians to place the blame for the loss of unity entirely on the other side. Roman Catholics have accused the East of an obstinate refusal to accept the leadership of the Pope, and of undue submissiveness towards the secular power. The Orthodox, in return, have hurled against Western Christians charges of arrogance and pride, and have insisted that both Latins and Protestants have wilfully departed from the sound tradition of the early Church and perverted their religion by arbitrary and harmful innovations.

Many controversial books have been written on this subject; but if the simple question is asked, “What was the cause of the Schism between Rome and Constantinople, and when exactly did it occur?”, too often no clear answer is forthcoming. The absence of an agreed statement on such a vital issue, one which has so profoundly and so disastrously affected the life of all Christians, is puzzling indeed. Yet an explanation of it is to be found in the study of the political and ecclesiastical events which led to the break of communion between East and West.

Though conflict, disagreement and tensions in politics and theological interpretation existed from the fifth century onwards, this gradual process of open hostility and bitter hate reached its climax between the ninth and thirteenth century. It is often thought that the lasting split in the Church must have been caused by some major doctrinal disagreement. The history of the schism does not confirm this opinion. The growing alienation between the Christian East and West was provoked by political competition, petty quarrels and personal rivalries. It was a slow movement; for the Church organism vigorously resited these attacks of destructive forces. The final blow to the unity of the Church was inflicted by no heresy, but by the drunken and undisciplined mob of Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204 and massacred its Christian population.

Relations between Church and the Roman State

In order to understand how Christians were brought to this state of warfare, we have to reconstruct the main facts of the relations between the Church and the Roman State. The Christian Church first appeared in history as a fellowship of self-governing communities, scattered all over the empire, and spreading even beyond its borders. There was nothing compulsory about their unity: it arose organically from a deep realisation, shared by its members, that they all belonged to the same body, since they had all been born into the same new life. But from the fourth century, when these Christian communities received the protection of the Emperor, their constitution underwent a radical change; they lost their independence and became subject to the control of the State. Formerly, if any dispute arose within the Church, it had been settled by negotiation; but once the patronage of the Empire was granted, the Emperors began to use their political power to maintain unity among Christians, often inflicting severe penalties on those they deemed to be in the wrong.

The Emperors’ intentions were praiseworthy: they wished to preserve peace and concord; but their methods were those of the old unredeemed world, and the results were fatal. The more they tried to suppress by force the disagreements among Christians the more bitter the conflicts became, until at last the Church was split up into several hostile bodies. Most of the schisms were caused by national and temperamental divergences among members of the Christian Church, but once the spirit of mutual charity had been lost, differences in doctrine made their appearance, for the divided Christian Churches fell into one-sided interpretations of the faith.

The first split appeared in the fourth century in North Africa, where the Roman and native Christians separated into two competing sects (the Donatist Schism). In the fifth century the Greeks and Copts quarrelled in Egypt, and simultaneously a split occurred after the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) in Asia Minor and Syria between the Greeks and Syrians (the Monophysite Schism). Later on the Christians in Persia broke off relations with the Byzantine Church (the Nestorian Schism). These quarrels, disastrous as they were, did not however affect the main body of Christians, who tenaciously clung to their unity, firmly believing that there could be only one Church and one Empire. Meanwhile, during the course of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries the Catholic Church developed two distinct types of Christianity. The first was shared by all Latin-speaking Christians, who formed the Western Patriarchate of Rome. The second comprised the Syriac, Armenian and Greek-speaking world, which was divided into four Eastern Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

The Byzantine and Latin traditions differed considerably, not only in liturgical practices and customs, but also in their outlook. The Christian East was mainly interested in doctrine; the Latin West in morals. The East possessed a particular gift for worship; the West for discipline and order. The East emphasised the divergence of gifts, the West the need for uniformity and obedience. It was not always easy for the two sides to understand each other; they often viewed a new problem from totally different standpoints, and sometimes these disagreements ended in an open breach between the occupants of the two principal sees of Rome and Constantinople. But the schisms invariably ended in a reconciliation, for both sides acknowledged that the Church of Christ must include both Eastern and Western Christians, and that their gifts were complementary.

Conflict between Constantinople and Rome

A serious split between Rome and Constantinople took place in the ninth century. Its immediate cause was the irregular appointment of a new Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius (in 898) but its real origin lay in the great political conflict which occurred at the beginning of the century, when in the year 800, Charlemagne restored the Western Roman Empire. In the eyes of the Greeks, the Pope had committed a serious breach of faith when he consented to crown a barbarian like Charlemagne as Emperor of the West. It is true that the Byzantine ruler was obliged to recognise the intruder as his brother-sovereign, since he had no power to oppose him, but the Greeks strongly resented this concession. Thus two rival political powers had been set up, both claiming to be the only lawful successor the Roman Empire, and it was merely a matter of time before one or other had to be destroyed. The bitter conflict between these two competitors, which ended with the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, involved the Church also, and was thus the root cause of the schism between the Christian East and West.

The leading roles in the ever-growing struggle fell to the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Under the strong political influence of the rival Emperors, the occupants of the most important sees of Christendom started a feud, seizing on every pretext in a campaign of mutual calumny and recrimination. The Patriarch Photius first produced a catalogue of Western heresies which included:

  • fasting on Saturdays in Lent;
  • beginning Lent on Ash-Wednesday instead of on a Monday;
  • disapproval of married priests;
  • objection to confirmation administered by a priest;
  • the unlawful addition to the Greek of the words”and the Son”, when describing the “procession of the Holy Ghost.

The Latin Church retorted by producing a similar list of Eastern heresies. A lively controversy arose which gradually increased in bitterness and volume till the catalogue of heresies included more than fifty topics. Every difference in customs and teaching, which had been treated in the past as a legitimate expression in religion of the differing Eastern and Western outlooks, was now treated as an outrage. The most debated of these divergences were:

  • the question of the Filioque clause (see above);
  • the belief in a Purgatory distinct from Hell;
  • the use of leavened or unleavened bread at the Eucharist.

It would, however, be a great mistake to think that these disputes between Pope and Patriarch had seriously affected the bulk of Christians. Their sense of oneness was so strong that it took more than 400 years to destroy it. The first breach between Pope Nicholas and Patriarch Photius was eventually healed: the quarrels of their successors were also brought to a peaceful end; and when, on July 16, 1054, the Papal Legate excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, no one had any idea that this was the beginning of a schism which would last for many centuries. Its immediate cause was a trivial local dispute over the control of Latin monasteries in Constantinople. Much bad feeling was displayed on both sides, but neither was yet ready for permanent schism. The way was prepared for this, during the next two centuries, by the coming of the Crusaders.

The Influence of the Crusades

The heroic and romantic elements in this attempt to deliver the Holy Places from the Moslems still make it difficult for the Western mind to realise the disastrous character of the movement. Yet the harm it did was so great that some of the most bitter conflicts of our own time can be traced back to the mistakes of this well-intentional but ill-advised enterprise. The chief evil of the Crusades was the belief that military aggression can serve the spread of Christianity and that the sword can sometimes be more efficient than the word in the presentation of the Gospel. They lent support, too, to the idea that the robbery, torture, or murder of a someone whose religious beliefs were erroneous was not only permitted but even approved by Christian teaching. The Orthodox East, when it heard about the Crusades, felt apprehensive from the very start. The Byzantine Empire held that her army was entrusted with the sacred duty of defending her frontiers, and that Christian soldiers who laid down their lives in the battle against the infidels and barbarians had made a righteous sacrifice for a cause approved by God. But this was very different from the idea that Christian monks and soldiers, whose homes and families were not threatened, were justified in taking up arms and starting to kill others in far-away lands, in the name of the Christian religion and for the sake of controlling the land where the Saviour had lived and died and risen again.

These doubts and forebodings developed into open hostility when Eastern Christians came under the rule of the Crusaders. War is always a brutal and destructive affair, and the Crusaders did not differ much from other soldiers. When a city was captured its population naturally suffered, and it would have been too much to expect that a careful discrimination would be made between the local Christians and Moslems. Everybody was helpless before the invaders, and one’s life and property were at their mercy. Once the rule of the Crusaders was firmly established it proved of no advantage to the Eastern Christians, even when compared with their bitter experience under the Moslem yoke. In many cases it was even a change for the worse, for their former conquerors had been more tolerant than Christians of the West, and had allowed the Orthodox to continue their Church life unmolested. But the Crusaders tried to convert the Orthodox to Latin Christianity, confiscating their Church buildings, imprisoning their clergy and treating them as though they professed a wholly alien religion.

For the West, the events of the Crusades began in an aura of optimism but ended with disaster and disunity for the Church. After the death of Charlemagne, the military authority of the Franks which had supported the Papacy began to decline. The Norman incursions into Italy posed a real threat to the Church and the Papacy in 1059 acknowledged its inability to face any threat from a Norman invasion. How then could the Church reassert its lessening authority over its feudal monarchs and show that it had the necessary strength to cope with internal dissent? At this time a request arrived from the Eastern emperor Alexius Commenius and Pope Urban II for assistance against encroachments by Moslem forces into the Holy Lands. Urban II, at this time in exile, called together on the faithful to mount a crusade, appealing to the spirit of faith, to regain the Holy Lands from the sacrilegious hands of Islam while drawing attention to the political benefits of such a venture. Hollister states that “the Crusades to the Holy Lands were the most spectacular and self-conscious act of Western Christian expansionism which represented a fusion of three characteristics of medieval man: piety, pugnacity, and greed” (Hollister, 162).

The Church promised instant sanctity to all participants, a promise of full pardon for one’s sins, and a guarantee of eternal life. Urban and his successors, by granting indulgences, had sanctified this war as a holy war, and by 1096 the habit of “divinising” these conflicts became so well established that the Pauline metaphor of “fighting for Christ” was well interpreted as military knight service (Heer, 127). Military sacerdotal orders supposedly were based on high ideals of charity, chivalry, and medical care for those wounded in conflict, but too often these qualities were over-ridden by grand and petty political intrigues. By the time of the Fourth Crusade the papal powers had lost control over these monastic knights, leading to the excommunication of the Templars by Innocent III.

The growing animosity between the Greeks and Crusaders flamed up into open conflict at the end of the twelfth century. In 1185, the Knights captured and sacked Salonika, the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire; they conducted themselves with such complete disregard for the sanctity of Christian Churches that horror and indignation overwhelmed the whole of the Christian East. Contemporary Greek historians describe how the drunken soldiers danced on the alters of Orthodox Churches, how the sacred vessels and reserved sacrament, together with the icons, were made the object of the most revolting abuses, and how the corpses of men, women, and children were profaned by the conquerors. The Greeks were staggered by the scenes of deliberate cruelty and sacrilege, for the Moslems, their inveterate enemies, had always showed a genuine respect for places of worship.


The Results of the Disputes

The sack of Constantinople on April 13, 1204, dealt the final blow to relations between these two branches of the Christian Communion. It was an occasion of plunder and destruction seldom equalled for horror even in modern history. The great city, which had remained unconquered ever since its foundation in the fourth century, contained unique treasures of Christian art and learning. This was also the place where all the great relics of Christian piety had been stored by the Emperor. The riches of its Churches and especially of its Cathedral of St. Sophia, were unsurpassed in the whole world. Soldiers and Latin clergy vied with each other in their attempts to seize some part of these riches for themselves; even the precious Holy Altar of St. Sophia was polluted, broken in pieces and sold. Most of it was, however, simply lost or destroyed and only meagre remnants reached Europe.

Greek writers could not find words adequate to express their disgust and exasperation at the sight of such plundering, and their descriptions found confirmation in the epistle of Pope Innocent III, addressed to his Cardinal in Constantinople. The Pope’s denunciation of the sacrileges committed by the Crusaders bear out the statements of Greek writings. This day, April 13, 1204 marks the end of the fellowship between Eastern and Western Christians. The split was brought about, not by quarrelsome theologians or ambitious prelates, as is usually suggested, but by the greed and lust of those men who, in the name of the Prince of Peace, had embarked upon a war of aggression and conquest.

The horrors of the sack of the great Byzantine cities brought about a radical change of attitude among the ordinary members of the Church. Up to this time the feeling of competition between the Christian East and the West had been confined to a few prelates and to the narrow circle of the Court. The mass of Christians has the oneness of the Church and therefore all ecclesiastical disputes had sooner or later been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. But after the aggression of the Crusaders a deep sense of indignation spread all over the Christian East. The bulk of Church members refused to recognise the Westerners any longer as their brothers and sisters in Christ. During the course of the next two centuries the secular and ecclesiastical rulers of the Byzantine Empire, under the rapidly growing threat of the Moslem domination, tried hard to come to some understanding the Christian West. At Lyons in 1274 and at Florence in 1439 reconciliation between the bishops of Rome and Constantinople was achieved; but it came to nothing, for the Eastern Christians stubbornly refused to enter into communion with the offenders. After the outrages of Knights it was the Eastern laity which became the stronghold of opposition to reunion, and all efforts on the part of prelates to bridge the gulf proved a complete failure.

Whatever had been the mistakes of the past, undoubtedly in the last and fatal stage of the disruption of Christian unity the East was the victim and the West the aggressor. The conduct of the latter during the succeeding centuries was the logical result of their particular role in the quarrel. Somewhere in the depths of its conscience the Christian West has retained a memory of the crime it once committed. Ever since that time it has been troubled by the very existence of the Christian East; it has frequently been tempted to resume negotiations with the Orthodox Christians; it has tried hard to force them to accept its leadership and to exchange their traditions for Latin or Protestant forms of Christianity. It has employed cajolery, promises and threats; it has calumniated the Orthodox faith and practice and attacked the Eastern Church whenever possible; it has never been able to leave the East alone, and both the Roman and Protestant Churches have displayed a striking similarity in their conduct.

The line taken by the Eastern Christians was the very opposite: they refused to pardon the offenders; they were unable to swallow the insult and take part in a reconciliation. Resentful and embittered, they displayed a complete indifference to the fate of Western Christians, and had but one wish: to be left alone. They ceased to recognise any moral link between themselves and the Christian West, and considered the Latins as idolaters who worshipped the Pope, and Protestants as still worse, since they had elevated the Book to the position which should be occupied by God alone.

A study of the relations between East and West during the last 800 years is a sordid and melancholy business. Both parties wilfully persisted in their errors; one side was arrogant, the other unforgiving: the West tried hard to induce the East to submit; the latter remained firm in its refusal to open its heart and mind to those who had formerly been allies and who had violated the bond of peace and love. There is little hope of any improvement in the relations between Eastern and Western Christians until the true cause of the schism is fully recognised. It is a fact of paramount importance that the split was occasioned not by any doctrinal disagreement, but by political and cultural differences which flared up into open warfare at the time of Crusades.


The Understanding of Church in the West (11th – 13th Centuries)

Innocent III considered a crusade to regain the Holy Land to be an urgent task of his pontificate. What he did not count on was the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, who never did reach Jerusalem. The triumphalism with which Innocent greeted the establishment of primacial authority in Constantinople demonstrated his global view of the Church as an institutional force.

If the Fourth Crusade represented the low point of Innocent’s pontificate, then the Fourth Lateran Council called by him in 1215 was the high point of his pontificate (Brooke, 1971; Granfield, 1981; Powell, 1965). It was the first genuinely universal Council in the Medieval West; not only Bishops but Abbots and Provosts as well as the secular powers were invited. Representation was accorded to all the various Orders within the Church and all “Doctors” received the power to vote. In one sense, the thirteenth century Church thus believed that the supreme magisterium of the Church belonged to the Church as a whole and not exclusively to the Bishops. The Council dealt mainly with the preservation of faith, particularly against heretics. Decrees were enacted on preaching, education of the clergy, elections, marriage and tithes. “The assembly was an impressive testimony of the standing and function of the papacy as the monarchic instrument of governing Christendom” (Ullman, 1972: 232).

Theology within the Church of the 12th and thirteenth centuries was still very much influenced by the writings of Augustine:

In theology and philosophy it was not only his teaching that was of paramount influence; his whole outlook on the world of men and things, above all his characteristic blending of the natural and the supernatural, or rather his acceptance of human life as it is in fact lived by the Christian, a human creature and yet a child of God, impressed itself upon the whole fabric of medieval religious thought so as to seem not merely one interpretation, but the only possible outlook (Knowles and Obolensky, 1969: 250).

Augustine’s world-view was unquestionably accepted, and the Church as a physical and political reality was seen as being in mystical communion with Christ. Christ was its head, and all those who are joined by the Spirit, visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly make up the Body, with the Holy Spirit being the Soul of this communion. Augustine himself saw the earthly Church as an inferior part of the total Church, and as Dulles expresses it: Augustine saw it as “the communion of saints that exists imperfectly here on earth and perfectly in the blessed in heaven” (1978: 105).

Yet, these four centuries also saw the extra-ordinary contribution of great saints and great intellectuals such as Bernard of Clairvaux, Anselm of Canterbury, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Francis of Assisi, Bonaventure, Thomas of Aquinas, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, and Catherine of Sienna to the philosophy, theology and spirituality of the Western Church. These, and other scholars of the time influenced Church teaching in a way not experienced since St. Augustine. Table six, at the end of this module, presents a time-line which indicates the richness of these centuries for the development of Christian learning and spirituality.

Thomas Aquinas believed that “the Church essentially consists in a divinising communion with God, whether incompletely in this life or completely in the life of glory” (Dulles, 1978: 47). For Aquinas, the unifying force that bonded the earthly and heavenly together was the Holy Spirit, for through grace and the commitment to Christ human nature could be sublimated and an interior union with God made possible. In this way grace perfected nature (Knowles and Obolensky, 1969: 363). Thomas applied Aristotelian principles of philosophy in his theological arguments. In this way he endeavoured to build a bridge between faith and knowledge. Yet within his own lifetime the intellectual insights of Aquinas were not appreciated:

His conception of the relationship of faith and intelligence was both too profound and too radical, and by the end of the century in which he died, men in the theological faculties of the universities were beginning to lose confidence in the power of human intelligence to understand God and his works. As is always the case, loss of confidence in the power of human intelligence marked the beginning of the decline of a great culture (Dwyer, 1985: 182).

These centuries can be viewed through many windows; they also witnessed the establishment of the Carthusians, the revival of the Cistercians, the founding of the Carmelites, Franciscans and Dominican order. The ideal that one should live a life as closely related to that of heaven was promoted by reformers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and by the monastic orders at Cluny, where the ideal monk was seen as “a dedicated servitor who by means of an almost perpetual stream of vocal prayer and praise helped to form the earthly counterpart of the heavenly choir” (Knowles and Obolensky, 1969: 255). Bernard believed and taught that the Church must serve and nor demand service; must be poor, not seek enrichment. To Pope Eugene (1145 – 1153) he had written: “If we are to think highly of ourselves, we should perceive that a burden of service is laid upon us, not the privilege of lordship bestowed” (Nigg, 1959: 205).

It is interesting to note that under the Dominicans and the Franciscan Friars (both groups won the patronage of Innocent III) an alternative model of Church began to emerge. During his pontificate, Innocent was increasingly confronted by a slightly better educated population, who were becoming increasingly critical of a legally fixed and judicially enacted brand of Christianity. It is interesting to note, when considering his acceptance of the Franciscans and Dominicans, that he seemed to be sympathetic to such non-conformists and their emphasis on pastoral work and apostolic poverty. His attitude seems quite enlightened as long as their was no sin against “divine majesty” and no compromise with the orthodoxy of faith. The twelth and thirteenth century saw the building of many cathedrals to contain relics and major works of religious art. The wealthy were major contributors, many buying favours and indulgences through their patronage:

In one sense the glorious cathedral was the epitome of everything that was wrong with the late Middle Ages: signs of privilege and wealth, segregation from the masses and vast centers of relic collecting, money-making shrines and vast commercial enterprises inflicted on the common people by nobility and wealthy aristocrats (Bausch, 1981: 213).

In terms of models of Church, Innocent III’s pontificate presents a contradiction: A Church which was so structured that all power and authority came from one person; a Church which was brutal and violent through the Crusades and the Inquisition; a Church which showed service to the poor and needy through the Franciscans and Dominicans; a Church that stood for no opposition in its theological authority; a Church that patronised the establishment of centres of higher learning where men such as Thomas Aquinas would develop new ways of theological reflection.

In a very real sense, Innocent’s reign saw the zenith of the papal monarchy with its centre in the curia. The Church as a community of the faithful had been replaced by a narrower hierarchical church, comprising clerical orders in ascending ranks jealously guarding their rights and privileges. Even the reforming Fourth Lateran Council had its program imposed upon it by Innocent, and in reality it was to the papacy that the people looked to reform the Church. Innocent’s pontificate presents for church historians a dramatic dichotomy – the institutionalised church beginning to give birth to the servant Church. Bausch quotes Professor Knowles in a final assessment of this pontificate:

Innocent III’s pontificate is the brief summer of papal world government. Before him the greatest of his predecessors were fighting to attain a position of control; after him, successors used the weapons of power with an increasing lack of spiritual wisdom and political insight. Innocent alone was able to make himself obeyed when acting in the interests of those he commanded. We may think, with the hindsight of centuries, that the conception of the papacy which he inherited and developed was fatal, in that it aimed at what was not attainable and undesirable, the subordination of the secular policy to the control of a spiritual power, but this conception was as acceptable and desirable to his age as has been to our own the conception of a harmonious and peaceful direction of the world by a league or union of nations.
…It is impossible to dismiss the whole of Innocent’s government of the Church as an exhibition of power politics to the exercise of an ambitious and egotistical man or even as an achievement of mere clearsighted efficiency. He appears rather as one who was indeed concerned to use and extend all the powers of his office to forward the welfare of something greater, the Church of Christ throughout Europe, and the eternal welfare of her children…The judgement which sees in him no more than a mitred statesman, a papal Richelieu, a loveless hierocrat, does not square with evidence. The man, who in the midst of business, could recognise and bless the unknown and apparently resourceless, radical Francis was not only farsighted but spiritually clearsighted. He died when the world still needed him, when he might have saved the papacy…He died at Perugia; his court left him, and his robes and goods and very body were pillaged by his servants (Bausch, 1981: 225 – 226).

This same theocratic monarch who began the reform by allowing a place for the Franciscan and Dominican Orders “saved the Church from petrification in a rigid hierarchy; it made possible its adoption to the requirements of a new social environment – namely the rising towns with their urban proletariat… it allowed room for new lively spirits of deep religious feeling, which earlier policy had driven out of the Church” (Barraclough, 1968: 129).

The 12th and 13th centuries were a time of change not only in the ecclesiastical but also secular spheres. It was an age which witnessed the reign of Frederick Barbarossa, the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the ascendancy of the Hapsburgs to power, and the institution of the Papal Inquisition. The society of the period was hierarchical in structure, being made of established estates or orders, each having its duties, rights and obligations, its privileges, honours, prerogatives and functions. Canon law became a power that produced not only a highly organised, political and central papacy, but also a power that so influenced societal law, that it gave rise to a new secular order and a culture that was almost totally ecclesiastical (Congar, 1969: 29).

The thirteenth century witnessed the foundations of universities in Paris, Padua, Naples, Prague, Vienna, Heidelberg and Cologne, as well as a re-discovery of the writings of Aristotle who greatly influenced the thinking of medieval scholars – Thomas Aquinas in particular. “These universities quickly rose to importance and became famous throughout Europe. They were given special privileges by the Popes, including freedom from interference by the local bishop” (Dwyer, 1985: 178). These universities were to play a vital role in the intellectual life in the centuries to follow. Previously, judgements of orthodoxy had been pronounced by regional bishops’ councils, and were sometimes followed by appeals to Rome. However in the thirteenth century universities began to take on a magisterial role. For example, the doctrinal decrees of both the Council of Lyons in 1245 and 1274 were submitted to the universities for approval before being published.

This century witnessed the uprooting of the papacy from Rome and its re- establishment in Avignon for a period for almost seventy years. The fourteenth century ended in witnessing a papacy in turmoil and disarray, forced into a schism which saw three rival popes enthroned simultaneously in confusion and conflict.

This article originally appeared as a part of “Ecclesiology: A Study in Church History” and was recovered using