Posts are coming soon
Stay tuned...

July 16 Innocent III - Papal hard and soft power


Today in 1216 one of the most consequential Popes of the Medieval Era, Pope Innocent III died. As the head of the Catholic Church and ruler of the Papal States and exerted a wide influence over the Christian states of Europe, claiming supremacy over all of Europe's kings.



From a modern perspective, strongly authoritarian, it may be a surprise that he is seen by the French Dominican Yves Congar, as a significant reforming Pope mainly due to his refinement of Western canon law and the Fourth Lateran Council. He also greatly extended the scope of the Crusades, directing crusades against Muslim Iberia and the Holy Land as well as the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars in southern France. Finally, he called for the disastrous Fourth Crusade which ended in the sack of Constantinople against his explicit orders which heightened the hostility between the Latin and Greek churches. With this complex mixed legacy, it is notable that Congar, in his magisterial scan of two millennia of reform initiatives in the church, says that Innocent III, without personally taking new initiatives was really the leader of the reform movement. In the unique vantage point of papal centralised authority, he was aware of the many needs of the church , especially the need for good doctrinal preaching, so he was on the look out for new initiatives, even unexpected ones, so as to take advantage of them and even encourage them.


The exercise of papal power and influence has greatly changed in the modern age, especially since the loss of the papal states, as they were absorbed into the newly unified country of Italy. In the 1920s, Pius XI renounced the bulk of the Papal States signing the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini in 1929, creating the State of the Vatican City, and the sovereign territory of the Holy See. The modern papacy having been stripped of significant temporal power would rely on its spiritual status and authority in international affairs. Retaining the Swiss Guard for protection, it would eschew other forms of coercive power, e.g the Papal Navy, or what had become the Papal yacht, had effectively been retired generations before (see pod of Apr 20). However at the time of Innocent, in the 13th Century there was not a distinction between temporal and spiritual power, and it would be churlish to judge him from a modern sensibility of that . He was authoritarian, and used the interdict and other censures to compel princes to obey his decisions, although not in a uniformly successful manner. He placed the tyrant King John and the whole of England under interdict (see pod of Mar 6) thus stopping daily mass in 1205, a feat not repeated until the pandemic of coronavirus! However an unintentional consequence of this would be the work of Archbishop Stephen Langton and Magna Carta, often described as an icon of liberty, it was an important foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot (pod of June 14)

Joseph Nye, the Harvard scholar, popularised the term soft power in his a book about American power. In the realm of international politics he explained that : "when one country gets other countries to want what it wants might be called co-optive or soft power in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants. A further book - Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Further clarifying that soft power is the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce (contrast hard power). In other words, soft power involves shaping the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. A defining feature of soft power is that it is non-coercive; the currency of soft power includes culture, political values, and foreign policies. Entering the Information Age, he felt that "credibility is the scarcest resource".


Perhaps one of the unexpected parts of Innocents legacy was when he met a young man from Assisi in 1209 with his first eleven followers. Upon entry to Rome, the brothers encountered Bishop Guido of Assisi, who was with the cardinalc confessor of Pope Innocent III who was immediately sympathetic to Francis and agreed to represent Francis to the pope. The pope agreed to admit the group informally, adding that when God increased the group in grace and number, they could return for an official admittance. The group was tonsured as a sign that they recognized Church authority and protected them from accusations of heresy. Though Pope Innocent initially had his doubts, following a dream in which he saw Francis holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran (the cathedral of Rome, thus the 'home church' of all Christendom), he decided to endorse Francis's order. According to Congar, this is an example of how the Holy See under Innocent made initiatives their own, gave them standing and position within the church with outstanding boldness and generosity, not wanting to cut them off but to welcome everything worthwhile and useful in the spiritual movements.


He convoked the Fourth Lateran Council, considered to be the most important Church council of the Middle Ages. By its conclusion, it issued seventy reformatory decrees. Among other things, it encouraged creating schools and holding clergy to a higher standard than the laity and forbade clergymen to participate in the practice of the judicial ordeal, the brutal practice n ancient judicial practice by which the guilt or innocence of the accused was determined by subjecting them to a painful, or at least an unpleasant, usually dangerous experience effectively banning its use, and also mandated a strict lifestyle for clergy. Much more controversially the council mandated that Jews and Muslims shall wear a special dress to enable them to be distinguished from Christians so that no Christian shall come to marry them ignorant of who they are and that Jews should not be appointed to public offices.