In order to understand the situation in the world and the Church at this time in history, it is important to do a quick review before launching into the thirteenth century. During the twelfth century there had been great difficulties between Church and state as we have detailed in past installments, including many heated battles between Popes and Emperors, bishops and kings. The Holy Roman Empire actually was not holy nor was it Roman, and for that matter, existed in name only. What the great Charlemagne had begun had been obliterated by many of his successors. The Holy Roman Emperor was also the King of Germany and this was really the only power he held, making him similar to the kings of England, France and Spain, as well as Sicily. To offset his influence, the dukes and rulers of the various principalities and duchies in Italy formed a union known as the Lombard League. Since Charlemagne the agreement had been that the Holy Roman Emperor would be crowned by the Pope and that a new Pope would need the confirmation of the Holy Roman Emperor to rule. However, though it worked on paper, it was a miserable experiment in reality. Too often egos and power-mongering got in the way of protocol and so both parties began wavering in their commitment to this treaty. Many emperors, because of the prestige and power they thought they wielded, were unwilling to admit that their authority came from the Holy See. This became evident with the Hohenstaufen line that ascended the German throne in the early twelfth century where they would battle the Popes for nearly a century as we have detailed. The descending kings of Germany, seeing how the system worked in Constantinople where the Church was under the state, strove to establish the same in Europe but alas, Rome and the Holy See would have none of that. Though there were many weak pontiffs, even bad ones as we have exposed in past installments, there were strong ones who would not allow the "gates of hell to prevail against it." The King of England, a precursor of Henry VIII four centuries later, tried to usurp the power of the Church but met with the fierce resistance of loyal Saint Thomas Becket who gave his life at the foot of the altar for the cause of Christ's One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. There were other saints and disciples during these times who also stood up for the Church. On the other side of the coin there were many who opposed the Church as being "power hungry" and they aligned in the camp of what were called Ghibellines who sided with the Emperors. Those remaining loyal to the Church were dubbed Guelfs. As time went on they became two power blocs that turned into political parties, having nothing to do with spirituality or Church doctrine. Many good Catholics, because of their cultural upbringing and nationality, were Ghibellines and many Guelfs were pagan or lapsed Catholics, but so opposed the Emperors that they sided with Rome. Many of those belonging to these two parties often waffled, always using what was politically expedient for their own purposes. Thus, one country or principality might promote the Guelf viewpoint one month, and jump on the bandwagon of the Ghibellines the next and vice versa, depending on the political climate of Europe. Much as Republicans and Democrats switch back and forth, so did the Ghibellines and Guelfs. The political $64,000 question, though they did not have the dollar monetary system at that time, was: How much authority should the Pope have in temporal affairs and how much should the Emperor have in matters of the Church? Add to this consternation the constant rumblings and changes in leadership in every country, especially in Italy where one principality would rule one month and be overthrown the next, and confusion reigned supreme throughout the twelfth century.
It was into this atmosphere that Innocent III was thrust as a still-wet-behind-the-ears thirty-seven year-old supreme pontiff in early 1198. Without batting an eye, his first duty was to establish the Pope as master of Rome, much to the consternation of the nobles. It would take him a full decade to accomplish this but his resolve set a trend that did not go unnoticed throughout all of Christian Europe. At the same time, Innocent set out to recover much of the lands and possessions the German kings had confiscated from the Holy See. Though many Roman aristocrats were opposed because they had been paid to be loyal to the Hohenstaufen Emperor by being given positions of ruling power within each principality, they were overwhelmed by the vox populi as the citizens of Rome, dead set against German rule, sided with the Pope and overthrew any German influence in Italy. Meanwhile, with Henry VI now dead, the crown passed to Otto of Brunswick (or more specifically Nordheim), who was in a bitter struggle for the throne with fellow German Philip of Suabia. This enabled Innocent to be able to accomplish what he set out to do without interference from the King of Germany. In addition, Henry VI's widow Constance was still in Sicily as regent there and, realizing she was dying, entrusted the care of her young son Frederick to Innocent, personally assuring him that if he tutored and cared for young Frederick she would guarantee protection for the Pope in his battles. Assured of no resistance from the south, Innocent launched his reforms, recouping territories previously held by the Vatican and re-established principalities, taking them out of the hands of many nobles and installing a democratic rule where the people were given much of the say. The Romans rallied to his cause. For all loyal to the Pope, it was a glorious time as they welcomed in the thirteenth century - a century that would go down in Church annals as the "Century of Saints" as we shall see in future installments.
Next installment: Pope Innocent III the early years of the thirteenth century and his papacy
To review all past installments of this on-going series, go to Archives beginning with the inaugural A CALL TO PEACE internet issue in January 1996. volume 7, no. 1.