DAILY CATHOLIC - November 25, 1997    volume 8, no. 38


Installment Forty Nine

Pope Alexander III: The Middle Ages' Alexander the Great

Installment Forty Nine

     The natural successor to Pope Adrian IV, the Church’s only pontiff of English descent was his Italian-born papal counselor Cardinal Orlando Roland Bandinelli who came from intellectual stock in the field of law and who, himself, had been a renowned professor of the art in Bologna as well as a celebrated canon lawyer in Pisa. Though he faced some opposition from a small band of pro-Holy Roman Empire cardinals who pushed their candidate Cardinal Ottavianno of Monticelli, the majority, who favored the pro-Norman policy established by Adrian, tilted the papal election in favor of Bandinelli on September 7, 1159. This met with bitter resistance by the pro-imperialist faction and the new pontiff, not even consecrated yet, had to seek refuge in the safe Norman territory to the south. It wasn’t until September 20th that Bandinelli was consecrated in the remote village of Nympha in the province of Volcia to the south. He chose the name Pope Alexander III, taking the name of a predecessor a century earlier in 1061. Meanwhile, the pro-imperialist cardinals, refusing to recognize Alexander, through the Holy See into confusion once more by elevating their own man - Ottaviano as pope - an antipope, of course. He took the name Victor IV on October 4, 1159 at the German-held abbey in Farfa northeast of Rome. The Church was once again in schism. It opened the door for German king Frederick I Barbarossa to regain the control he had seen slip away under Adrian IV. He called a council made up of mostly pro-imperialist bishops at Pavia in February the following year. There the Emperor coerced the council to condemn Alexander and endorse Victor. Alexander retaliated by excommunicating Frederick on March 24th, 1160. It was the beginning of a schism that would last nearly two decades and one which Alexander would be greatly persecuted for and which he would outlive. Because they were natural enemies of the Germans, England, France, and Spain sided with Alexander. Meeting in Toulouse, France with the English King Henry II and France’s King Louis VII present, they pledged loyalty to the real Pope; the latter inviting the Holy Father to take up residency in France. This he did, setting up the curia at Sens. This lasted until 1165 when Alexander returned to Rome at the invitation of a desperate Roman population, but only for a short time.

      By 1164 Victor had died, but this did not stop the abomination from continuing as Paschal III was thrown on the throne by Frederick. Paschal III who had been Cardinal Guido of Crema, a pro-imperialist cardinal who had worked in the Holy See for years but bitterly opposed Alexander. With Paschal as antipope, the bishops did an about face and refused to acknowledge him. Frederick was livid and called the diet of Wurzburg on May 22 1165 whereby he forced the bishops to recognize Paschal and not Alexander with the threat of severe penalties. Many caved in, but there were many who didn’t and as the months went by, more and more, even within Germany, turned their backs on Frederick and his puppet Paschal and returned in reconciliation to Alexander. This strengthened the latter’s position, not only in western Europe, but eastern Europe as well where the Eastern Emperor Manuel I Commenus expressed hope the schism in the Latin Church could work in favor of reuniting the Eastern and Western Churches. To help effect this, he requested Alexander crown him "universal emperor." Alexander, a wise man, realized the ambitious emperor was only trying to gain power at the pontiff’s expense. Thus, he proceeded cautiously, delaying any action. As time passed, so did Paschal. In his place the weakened band of pro-imperialist cardinals elected, on their own, Cardinal Giovanni who took the name Callistus III but he could not even get the attention of Frederick, let alone the people. Alexander was overshadowing anything the pro-imperialists could throw at him, and, for the most part ignored their veiled threats. But, in the west, he couldn’t ignore what was happening in the British Isles where Henry II was striving to wrest control of the clergy in England by downgrading the power of the Holy See. He backed Saint Thomas Becket archbishop of Canterbury in his disputes with Henry over this power-control issue and for it, Beckett gave his life in martyrdom for the cause of Holy Mother Church in 1170. Alexander responded by chastising the king and convincing him to become a penitent ruler and adhering to all Rome pronounced. This Henry II did. Alexander’s growing prestige and power reached its zenith in 1176 when the forces of Barbarossa and Alexander’s alliance of the Lombard League met in battle. The latter was victorious and Barbarossa was reduced to a crawling subject. When news reached Paschal, he fled Rome fearing for his life. To mark the official end of the schism, Alexander triumphantly convened the Third Lateran Council on March 5, 1179. The Council reaffirmed the reforms long promoted by Alexander and first generated by Pope Saint Gregory VII and proudly proclaimed the supremacy of the papacy. This eleventh ecumenical council also passed the rule still in force today - that it would take two-thirds of a majority to elect a pope. Bishops pledged anew their loyalty to Alexander and the Holy Father called for an established procedure for persecuting heretics which proved to be the beginning of an organization that would gain great power a few centuries later: the Inquisition.

     Alexander’s law expertise and judicial decisions contributed greatly to establishing many of the codes we have today in Canon Law. In addition, though a man of military knowledge, Alexander more often than not chose the path of peace through negotiation before taking up the sword as a last resort. He influenced the Christian world greatly in denouncing the evils of slavery of the surfs and, in many ways, helped inaugurate the eventual end of the medieval age with the end of serfdom as we shall see in future installments.

     After the Lateran Council he returned to Rome, but a few die-hard pro-imperialist cardinals didn’t get the message and nominated their own antipope Innocent III to replace Paschal. But he was no match for Alexander and was dispatched within a few months as 1180 dawned. Always a pontiff on the move, Alexander spent the final years of his pontificate traveling from town to town throughout Italy evangelizing to the citizens and reassuring them of the power of the Holy See. It was in one of these small villages - Civita Castellana, just north of Rome - that God took home this one hundred and seventieth successor to Peter on August 30, 1181. His body was returned triumphantly to Rome for burial in the Lateran palace, but the pestering families aligned with the rebuked pro-imperialist assaulted the funeral cortege and pelted his coffin with stones and wrote insults all over the sarcophagus. Despite the insults, nothing could prevent this Pope from going down in the annals of Church history as one of the great pontiffs who left an enduring mark on Holy Mother Church in the governing and prestige of the Holy See.

NEXT ISSUE: Pope Lucius III: The peaceful pope tries to reinforce the defense against hersesy.

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.

November 1997