The brilliant pontificate of Innocent III., 1198–1216, lasted as long as the combined and uneventful reigns of his five predecessors: Lucius III., 1181–1185; Urban III., 1185–1187; Gregory VIII. less than two months, 1187; Clement III., 1187–1191; Coelestin III., 1191–1198. It marks the golden age of the mediaeval papacy and one of the most important eras in the history of the Catholic Church. No other mortal has before or since wielded such extensive power. As the spiritual sovereign of Latin Christendom, he had no rival. At the same time he was the acknowledged arbiter of the political destinies of Europe from Constantinople to Scotland. He successfully carried into execution the highest theory of the papal theocracy and anticipated the Vatican dogmas of papal absolutism and infallibility. To the papal title "vicar of Christ," Innocent added for the first time the title "vicar of God." He set aside the decisions of bishops and provincial councils, and lifted up and cast down kings. He summoned and guided one of the most important of the councils of the Western Church, the Fourth Lateran, 1215, whose acts established the Inquisition and fixed transubstantiation as a dogma. He set on foot the Fourth Crusade, and died making preparation for another. On the other hand he set Christian against Christian, and by undertaking to extirpate religious dissent by force drenched parts of Europe in Christian blood.
Lothario, Innocent’s baptismal name, was born about 1160 at Anagni, a favorite summer resort of the popes. He was the son of Count Trasmondo of the house of the Conti de Segni, one of the ruling families of the Latium.173 It furnished nine popes, of whom Innocent XIII. was the last. He studied theology and canon law at Paris and Bologna, and became proficient in scholastic learning. Through the influence of three uncles, who were cardinals, he was rapidly promoted, and in 1190, at the age of twenty-nine, was appointed cardinal-deacon by one of them, Pope Clement III. Though the youngest member of the curia, he was at once assigned a place of responsibility.
During the pontificate of Coelestin III., a member of the house of the Orsini which was unfriendly to the Conti, Lothario withdrew into retirement and devoted himself to literature. The chief fruit of this seclusion is the work entitled The Contempt of the World or the Misery of the Mortal Estate.174 It might well have been followed, as the author says in the prologue, by a second treatise on the dignity of man’s estate. To this time belongs also a work on the sacrifice of the mass.175 After his elevation to the papal throne, Innocent composed an Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms. While pope he preached often both in Rome and on his journeys. His sermons abound in mystical and allegorical figures. Of his letters more than five hundred are preserved.
The Contempt of the World is an ascetic plaint over the sinfulness and woes of this present life. It proceeds upon the basis of Augustine’s theory of total depravity. The misery of man is described from the helplessness of infancy to the decrepitude of age and the sufferings of the future estate. Pessimistic passages are quoted from Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, and Job, and also from Horace, Ovid, and Juvenal. Three master passions are constantly tormenting man,—avarice, lust, and ambition,—to which are added the innumerable ailments of the body and troubles of the soul. The author deplores the fate of masters and servants, of the married and the unmarried, of the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. "It is just and natural that the wicked should suffer; but are the righteous one whit better off? Here below is their prison, not their home or their final destiny. As soon as a man rises to a station of dignity, cares and trouble increase, fasting is abridged, night watches are prolonged, nature’s constitution is undermined, sleep and appetite flee, the vigor of the body gives way to weakness, and a sorrowful end is the close of a sorrowful life."176 In the case of the impenitent, eternal damnation perpetuates the woes of time. With a description of these woes the work closes, reminding the reader of the solemn cadences of the Dies Irae of Thomas of Celano and Dante’s Inferno.177
Called forth from retirement to the chief office in Christendom, Innocent had an opportunity to show his contempt of the world by ruling it with a strong and iron hand. The careers of the best of the popes of the Middle Ages, as well as of ecclesiastics like Bernard of Clairvaux and Thomas of Canterbury, reveal the intimate connection between the hierarchical and ascetic tendencies. Innocent likewise displayed these two tendencies. In his treatise on the mass he anticipated the haughty assumption of the papacy, based on the rock-foundation of Peter’s primacy, which as pope he afterwards displayed.
On the very day of Coelestin’s burial, the college of cardinals unanimously chose Lothario pope. Like Gregory I., Gregory VII., Alexander III., and other popes, he made a show of yielding reluctantly to the election. He was ordained priest, and the next day, February 22, was consecrated bishop and formally ascended the throne in St. Peter’s.
The coronation ceremonies were on a splendid scale. But the size of Rome, whose population at this time may not have exceeded thirty-five thousand, must be taken into account when we compare them with the pageants of the ancient city.178 At the enthronization in St. Peter’s, the tiara was used which Constantine is said to have presented to Sylvester, and the words were said, "Take the tiara and know that thou art the father of princes and kings, the ruler of the world, the vicar on earth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, whose honor and glory shall endure throughout all eternity." Then followed the procession through the city to the Lateran. The pope sat on a white palfrey and was accompanied by the prefect of the city, the senators and other municipal officials, the nobility, the cardinals, archbishops, and other church dignitaries, the lesser clergy and the popular throng—all amidst the ringing of bells, the chanting of psalms, and the acclamations of the people. Along the route a singular scene was presented at the Ghetto by a group of Jews, the rabbi at their head carrying a roll of the Pentateuch, who bowed low as they saluted their new ruler upon whose favor or frown depended their protection from the populace, yea, their very life. Arrived at the Lateran, the pope threw out handfuls of copper coins among the people with the words, "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee." The silver key of the palace and the golden key of the basilica were then put into his hands, and the senate did him homage. A banquet followed, the pope sitting at a table alone.179 Upon such pomp and show of worldly power the Apostles, whose lot was poverty, would have looked with wonder, if they had been told that the central figure of it all was the chief personality in the Christian world.
When he ascended the fisherman’s throne, Innocent was only thirty-seven years old, the youngest in the line of popes up to that time. Walter von der Vogelweide gave expression to the fear which his youth awakened when he wrote, O wê der bâbest ist ze june, hilf hêrre diner kristenheit. "Alas! the pope is so young. Help, Lord, thy Christian world." The new pontiff was well formed, medium in stature,180 temperate in his habits, clear in perception, resolute in will, and fearless in action. He was a born ruler of men, a keen judge of human nature, demanding unconditional submission to his will, yet considerate in the use of power after submission was once given,—an imperial personality towering high above the contemporary sovereigns in moral force and in magnificent aims of world-wide dominion.