by Rich Rubenstein on March 11, 2015 · 2 comments

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Here’s an article I wrote on Pope Innocent III, the most powerful pope of the Middle Ages, as both an inspiration and a warning to Pope Francis. I wrote about Innocent in my book, ARISTOTLE’S CHILDREN, and think of him often now that Francis occupies the Holy See. I think Francis does, too.


Richard E. Rubenstein

There is a natural tendency to compare Pope Francis’s attitudes and actions to those of his sainted namesake from Assisi. The first Francis was also a vehement critic of clerical luxury and power seeking, a partisan of the poor and outcast, a lover of all God’s creatures (including His animals), an inveterate activist, and a would-be international peacemaker. Surely, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina understood the implications of becoming the first pontiff to take this famous name! Even so, to focus exclusively on Saint Francis as a model for the current pope is to miss identifying a precursor and exemplar at least as influential, if not more so – and definitely not a saint. One cannot fully understand Pope Francis’s aspirations and concerns without considering the magnetic and controversial figure of Innocent III, perhaps the greatest pope of the Middle Ages.

Born to an aristocratic Italian family that furnished the Church with no less than nine popes, Lotario de’ Conti was only 37 when he was elected to govern the Holy See and took the name Innocent III. The year was 1198, a high point in the era of explosive population growth, economic change, and cultural ferment that many historians call the Medieval Renaissance. Innocent was to rule as pope for the next eighteen years, until his death in Perugia from a sudden illness. During this time he was widely considered the cleverest and most powerful man in Europe – a daring innovator and reformer, shrewd politician, passionate moralist, and ruthless defender of the status and prerogatives of the Roman Church. Innocent’s life and work may provide Pope Francis with a model of far-sighted papal leadership, but they also raise danger signs that he would do well to heed.

The Conservative Radicalism of Innocent III

Pope Francis is aware, of course, that it was Innocent III who incorporated Francis of Assisi and his followers into the Catholic Church as the Order of Friars Minor, now known (with the Poor Clares and the Order of Saint Francis) as the Franciscans. Legend has it that, while considering Francis’s petition for official recognition, Innocent had a vivid dream in which he beheld the mendicant preacher supporting the damaged church of St. John Lateran (at that point, Christendom’s principal home church) on his own thin shoulders. He awoke, the story says, determined to bring Francis inside the defective structure that he alone had the power to restore. Dreams aside, the Pope’s recognition and incorporation of the Franciscan movement was a stroke of political and ethical genius. It was a prime example of a more general policy, shared in many ways by the current pontiff, that one might call conservative radicalism.

By Innocent’s time, the Roman Catholic Church had become an enormously wealthy and powerful institution, dominating European culture in ways that seem almost unimaginable today. In addition to building and operating houses of worship and monasteries and caring for parishioners, it administered vast territories, fielded armies, and made and unmade kings. The Church produced commodities, invested in trading enterprises, patronized the arts, operated schools, hospitals, and universities, and employed perhaps ten percent of Europe’s working age population. Such a worldly institution, rife with power seekers and hustlers in orders and out, provided critics of clerical corruption with no shortage of fat targets. If left to agitate outside the Church, fervent movements of purification like Francis’s had the potential to split Christendom along lines of region and social class that would emerge more clearly during the Reformation. As Innocent well knew, a similarly zealous movement founded by a Lyons merchant-turned-preacher named Peter Waldo had been declared heretical during the 1170s and violently persecuted by Rome. The Pope did not know, but might have predicted, that these “Waldensians” would turn up several centuries later as a militant faction of the vast movement to “protest” and dismantle an allegedly corrupt Church.

For the brilliant and ambitious Innocent, the key question was always whether a proposed reform of Catholic doctrine or practice would leave the institutional Church stronger – more fully supported, more competent, and more dynamic – than it would have been if no change had occurred. The answer often turned on his keen appreciation of the changes that were already transforming European society with dizzying speed.

If, for example, the laity were awakening to their own potential power as active Church constituents, if they were demanding new types of recognition and new commitments by the authorities to serve them, this might represent an irreversible trend with the potential either to energize the institution over time or to shatter it. Innocent was determined to preserve a unified Church by transforming it, at least within certain parameters, into a more effective, inclusive, and trusted public servant. Similarly, the dramatic rise of interest in ideas and learning among an increasingly large number of literate young people could be seen either as a mortal danger to piety or as an opportunity to unite a new generation of intellectuals with the Church. The key was the willingness of far-sighted leaders like Innocent to take the risk of founding and operating Catholic universities. As a youth, he himself had studied theology at one of the colleges associated with the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. As Pope, he established these schools as the University of Paris – an institution that soon became the leading source of Catholic theology and science in Europe and a model for the development of other universities.

The radical side of Innocent’s policy was an outgrowth of his convictions that certain changes were inevitable, certain reform impulses legitimate, and the organized Church capacious enough to absorb new currents of thought and practice. Where the Franciscans were concerned, the youthful pontiff was convinced not only that mass expectations were changing, but also that Francis’ ethical orientation and practices represented essential aspects of authentic, Christ-centered Christianity.
He agreed that the Church was corrupt in the sense that sexually, financially, and charitably, its minions often failed to practice what they preached. Equally important, he believed that the institutionalized community was roomy and flexible enough not only to give the critics a voice but also to adopt some of their core values. Innocent was not one of those insecure leaders who fear to take the first step on what more timid folk may consider a ‘slippery slope.’ His sense of the inevitability and rightness of reform was bolstered by a conviction that his own vigorous, ethically charged leadership could define the appropriate changes and control them.

The same confidence underpinned the conservative component of his policy. What would not change was the Church’s ultimate authority, exercised through its authorized leaders, to determine the scope and limitations of reform. This authority included decisions on how power should be distributed among elements of the hierarchy and the community. A vital question in the Franciscans’ case was whether they would be permitted to challenge the Catholic establishment by preaching on the theological and administrative implications of their mission. Innocent insisted that Francis and his followers avoid the Waldensian error of acting as a counter-Church in the making. They were to stick to practicing good works on behalf of the poor, leave theology and clerical ethics to the professionals, and, as new-minted clerics, accept the plenary authority of the Church and its officials in all things. Their new order would pay special attention to the needs of the poor in the growing towns and cities, and would report directly to the Holy See. Reform impulses would thus be used to legitimize and augment papal authority, not to challenge it.

This combination of openness to change and determination to preserve institutional continuity may remind you of more modern conservative radicals – Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example. President Roosevelt absorbed the energy and ideas of labor unions and other social welfare organizations during the Great Depression, while incorporating them into a changed but still coherent liberal-capitalist system. As a result, people still argue about whether he was really a conservative or a radical. For his part, Pope Francis continually negotiates the boundary between reforms intended to energize the Church spiritually and politically and restraints intended to maintain legal continuity and administrative unity. For him this has meant shifting the balance between mercy and judgment toward mercy, but with the aim of strengthening the moral justification for judgment. For example, it means treating gay and lesbian people as precious souls rather than vicious corrupters, all the while maintaining the Church’s disapproval of homosexual activity and opposition to same-sex marriage. It also means overcoming the myopic clerical fixation on issues of sexual morality at the expense of a broader view of social ethics. Like Roosevelt., the Pope has vehemently condemned capitalist greed, extreme social and economic inequality, and the fetishism of the market – but, again like that president, not to the point of advocating an alternative to the profit system or approving the blend of Marxism and Christianity known as Liberation Theology.

Pope Francis: How radical? How conservative?

This yearning to energize and re-moralize the Church without abandoning traditional doctrinal and structural norms raises a host of questions about the future of the conservative/radical balance in the Pope’s thinking and policies. On the doctrinal side, how deep shall the reform scalpel cut? Does respecting the humanity of homosexuals, for example, mean that their love is no longer to be considered ‘unnatural’? In fact, is Natural Law, as Thomas Aquinas understood the concept, still to be considered an adequate basis for moral judgment? And, what about the mélange of doctrine and custom that governs the organization of the clergy: the ban on women priests and cardinals, for example, and the prescription of clerical celibacy? So far, Francis seems inclined to resist gender-based reforms (he speaks disapprovingly of efforts to “clericalize” women), while allowing at least a faint hope that the question of clerical marriage may at some point be reconsidered.

Even more poignantly, what if the problems that the Pope hopes to solve through exhortation and moderate reform remain unsolved? Suppose that capitalism continues to enrich a few people while undermining social ethics, threatening the earth’s ecology, and impoverishing the multitude? Will it then be time to reconsider Marx’s relationship to Jesus? Clearly, Francis, who has called Marxism “wrong,” adding that he has known “many Marxists who are good people,” prefers to avoid changing traditional doctrines formally, while at the same time allowing gradual alteration of their mood, tone, and practical application. His Jesuitical training, like Pope Innocent’s legal background, gives him a shrewd understanding of the differences between de jure and de facto rules. Yet, in law, politics, or theology, altered attitudes and behaviors tend over time to alter formal doctrines. For this reason, those deeply committed to maintaining doctrinal continuity often view attitudinal change as heretical. (Think of the ways in which European-style social democracy, which Francis’s philosophy sometimes seems to favor, has been tabooed in the United States!)

Little wonder that Francis’s moral gestures and asides make old-fashioned conservatives so nervous. Equally anxiety-producing are the implications of his reform policies for Church organization. One feature of his administration, at least thus far, is the enhancement of his own authority at the expense of clerical higher-ups of the sort favored by Benedict XVI and traditional power centers such as the Curia. Where conservative radicals are concerned, this sort of power shift is probably to be expected. In order to maintain the institution’s authority while confessing its faults and providing constituents with new services, both Innocent III and Franklin Roosevelt found it necessary to supplement their own undoubted charisma with greatly expanded administrative powers.

Critics often brand such moves anti-democratic, but conservative radicals attempt to square the circle by forging new links between central authority and local organizations. The radical legal reforms implemented by Innocent III – for example, taking priests out of the unsavory business of judging “ordeals,” but giving Church courts new jurisdiction over local disputes involving the clergy – multiplied these center-periphery links. In a similar spirit, Pope Francis convened a Synod on the Family in 2014 to consider numerous issues of Catholic doctrine and practice involving the family, such as the status of divorced and re-married people. Gatherings of bishops aren’t new, but this one was unprecedented, since its purpose was to define issues that would be debated in local congregations worldwide before being considered by a reconvened synod.
Francis’s instinct, then, is to strengthen the “top” and the “bottom” of the Catholic community simultaneously at the expense of bureaucratic satraps in the middle. Perhaps the clearest example of this effort to enhance both papal authority and popular legitimacy is his determination to breathe new life into an ancient practice: the use of his office to help resolve difficult international and inter-communal conflicts. In fewer than two years, he has visited Israel/Palestine, prayed at the Wall of Separation, and called the failure of Israelis and Palestinians to make peace “unacceptable.” He has played a key role in brokering a historic diplomatic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, visited Sri Lanka to call for truth and reconciliation processes involving the still-alienated Tamil and Sinhalese communities, and used his trip to the Philippines to call for an end to corrupt political practices generating civil strife there. Meanwhile, he has made efforts to heal the Roman Catholic-Greek Orthodox split, dialogued with Protestants, Jews, and Muslims, and insisted that free speech not be used to insult Islam or other faiths.

In some ways, these activities, too, are reminiscent of Innocent III, who was a remarkably active and influential arbitrator of conflicts between European princes. But, for the medieval pope, the Church’s role as peacemaker was a corollary of its supremacy over mere secular authority. Innocent settled conflicts authoritatively by deploying not only moral legitimacy, but also coercive legal (and sometimes military) power. Furthermore, he had no hesitation in dictating solutions to disputes to which he and the Church were parties. Innocent famously placed King John of England under an interdict for blocking the appointment of his own favorite, Stephen Langton, to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, when John finally submitted, he reciprocated by declaring the Magna Charta, which had been forced upon the king by rebellious barons, to be invalid! With equal indifference to charges of bias, he intervened to place Frederick II of Sicily on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire – a move that furthered his policy of keeping the Papal States out of German hands.

Pope Francis, of course, is hardly likely to revive the practice of using the interdict and excommunication to enforce his arbitral rulings. Nor will he meddle in local politics to the extent that Innocent did. Even so, one gets a whiff of Innocent’s assertiveness when Francis appears before the European Parliament in Strasbourg to argue that, “Europe has lost its way, its energies sapped by economic crisis and a remote, technocratic bureaucracy,” and to lecture the startled MEP’s on the folly of Euro-centrism in a globalizing world. The same spirit underpins his refusal to condemn the terrorist attack on the Parisian staff of Charlie Hebdo without also demanding that Western journalists show more respect for other people’s religious sensibilities. The confidence of such statements – the Pope’s assumption that he has the right and duty to call secular authorities to account on moral grounds – is stunningly Innocentian, even if the modern Church lacks its predecessor’s propensity to use legal and military power to enforce its will.

Innocent’s Dark Side: A Warning to Francis

The use of coercion and violence, in fact, was a principal feature of what one might call Innocent’s dark side – a tendency, if the authority or unity of the Church were threatened, for his conservative radicalism to morph into a peculiarly destructive form of radical conservatism. Two situations were apt to catalyze this transformation: the rise of heretical movements within Catholic domains, and external challenges to Roman hegemony by non-Catholic communities. In either case, two further conditions increased the probability of mass violence: the Church’s material interests and its global ambitions. The Pope was one of the great feudal lords. As a wielder of earthly power, he was not averse to playing power politics or making war in order to protect his territorial and class interests. And, the Church that he led was a global institution with expansionist aims. This dynamism produced legal and administrative reforms like those enacted at the Fourth Lateran Council, which, among other things, regulated the private behavior of the clergy, mandated an annual confession of sins for the faithful, and required Jews and Muslims to wear special dress to distinguish them from Christians. It also produced a series of blood-drenched crusades against alleged enemies of Christendom.

Francis of Assisi, one recalls, was not the only charismatic reformer embraced by Pope Innocent. Another was Domingo de Guzman, a Spanish monk whose Dominican order became the clerical vanguard of the Church’s anti-heresy campaigns, and, later, a mainstay of the Inquisition. In the 1190s, Innocent sent Domingo and other missionaries into southern France to argue the Church’s case against the Cathars, a numerous Christian sect, strongly supported by local nobles, that embraced a dualist theology, considered the Catholic hierarchy irremediably corrupt, and called for the creation of a new, purified church. In 1208, infuriated by the assassination of his legate in Toulouse, the Pope preached a Crusade against his fellow Christians, the so-called Albigensian Crusade, which resulted in the invasion of the South by land-hungry northern knights and the killing of tens of thousands who resisted, both Cathars and Catholics. In one famous, perhaps apocryphal incident, the commander preparing to storm the city of Beziers asked the Cistercian abbot there how to tell the Cathars from the Catholics. “Kill them all,” the abbot is said to have replied. “God will recognize his own.”

Innocent may not have intended such massacres to occur, but his determination to smash any serious challenge to Catholic unity and expansion often produced unexpectedly violent results. Other than the anti-Cathar massacres, the low point was probably his preaching of the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), a mobilization of European (mostly French) knights originally intended to re-conquer Jerusalem from the Muslims, which degenerated, after a series of disastrous blunders and contretemps, into a ghastly attack on the Greek Orthodox capital of Constantinople. Innocent’s role in all this was ambiguous. He did not want Constantinople sacked and reprimanded the knights who devastated the city, but after the deed was accomplished, he confirmed its results by attempting to maintain Catholic domination of the Byzantine states. This ethical and political confusion was built in to the situation, so to speak, by the fact that Catholic leaders were inclined to view any obstacle to their global ambitions (such as Saladin’s reconquest of Jerusalem from the Christians who had seized it and massacred its inhabitants a century earlier) as an attack on themselves. Innocent did not see his three Crusades as contradictory to his efforts to purify the Church by embracing ascetic reformers like Francis. To him, these wars were part of the same effort to energize, rededicate, defend, and extend the Catholic community. And Francis of Assisi agreed. After Innocent’s death, the future saint traveled to Egypt with a Crusader army in an effort to end the conflict by converting the Sultan to Christianity!

Of course, all this happened in medieval times. One may well ask why a modern leader like Francis should consider Innocent’s coercive, violent side a warning, when modern pontiffs have abandoned their medieval propensities to rule territories, dictate to secular authorities, field armies, and preach Crusades. True, Roman Catholic authorities were deeply involved in a different sort of “crusade” not that long ago, when their opposition to socialism and Communism provoked many leaders to support Franco’s fascists in Spain and Mussolini’s in Italy, to conclude a concordat with Hitler’s Nazi regime, and, after 1945, to aid Christian Democratic and conservative parties in Western Europe and anti-Communist rebels in the East. (In the United States, one recalls Francis Cardinal Spellman’s impassioned and effective advocacy of American military intervention in Vietnam.) Even so,
Pope Francis seems cut from other cloth. Evincing liberal or even social-democratic sympathies, he has strongly criticized predatory capitalism, militarism, and disregard of the needs of the disempowered and oppressed. Nor is he inclined to support right-wing nationalists who wish to curtail immigration to European countries, or to sit quietly while climate change deniers minimize the dangers of man-made threats to the environment. Francis may not be the Marxist that Rush Limbaugh has accused him of being, but, surely, he is neither a neo-medievalist nor a man of violence.

Of course not. And yet, the contradictions of Innocent III retain their relevance for modern leaders like the Argentine pope. During his recent trip to the Philippines, for example, Francis went out of his way to criticize what he called the “ideological colonization” of the Third World and to affirm the Church’s opposition to contraception and same-sex marriage. Although he is not a man of violence, he had nothing to say about the grievous economic and health consequences of banning contraception other than to remark that, given ‘natural’ methods of birth control, “Catholics need not breed like rabbits.”
“Ideological colonization” refers to the advocacy of liberal views on abortion, contraception, GLBT rights, and other current issues of sexual morality in non-Western societies. It is a brilliantly deceptive phrase that gives an apparently leftist coloration to traditional Catholic doctrines on sex and reproduction. Whatever doctrinal reasons may have inclined the Pope to promote this view, an additional motive was his determination to maintain ecclesiastical unity between the Catholic communities of the West and the far more conservative (and much faster growing) communities of Africa and Asia. Quite clearly, his interest as an institution preserver and expander is to avoid the potential First World/Third World schisms now plaguing many Protestant churches. But this sort of “unity mongering” (to use an old Marxist phrase) is not as harmless as it may seem. The Roman Catholic Church remains an immensely wealthy and influential global enterprise representing at least 1.2 billion Catholics. Unlike the 1.6 billion Muslims, billion or so Hindus, 800,000 Protestants, and half a billion Buddhists who make up the bulk of the world’s religious population, the Pope’s followers are ruled hierarchically from one supreme center. To the extent that he remains committed to maintaining the Church’s unity and increasing the influence as primary goals, there exists a constant danger that the promotion of its corporate interests will take priority over more reformist or transformative aims.

Conservative radicals often find themselves confronted by such choices. Innocent III became a violent heresy-hunter and preacher of Crusades. Franklin Roosevelt became a wartime commander, jailing dissenters, interning Japanese-Americans, and announcing that “Dr. New Deal” had been replaced by “Dr. Win the War.” Lyndon Johnson put the Great Society on ice to pursue U.S. imperial interests in Vietnam – a decision that cost 50,000 American and more than two million Southeast Asian lives. The crucial decision point always seems to be the point at which the leader’s interest in preserving and expanding his institution’s power conflicts with his original intention to transform it. The temptation, as this conflict of goals becomes manifest, is to reason that since the Church or the Nation is the sole vehicle capable of accomplishing a certain moral or political mission, its institutional interests are inseparable from the values animating the mission. This substitution of institutional means for purposive ends – a reification of values – is seldom recognized (even by theological specialists!) as a form of idolatry. It therefore comes as a ‘surprise’ to them to discover that Crusades do not produce a triumph of the Christian spirit or international wars a community of free nations.

Pope Francis may well be aware of this danger. What we do not yet know is how he will respond to developments not initiated by the Vatican that arguably threaten the corporate interests or doctrinal commitments of the Church. One wonders, for example, whether his egalitarian sympathies will survive the rise to power of Marxist-inspired parties like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece, neither of which is notably friendly to the Church. More troublingly, it is hard to know what to expect if militant jihadists make further gains that threaten large Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere. The Pope has spoken movingly of his hatred of war and its horrific consequences for the most vulnerable members of society, and has strongly advocated negotiation rather than military action. Regarding the War on Terror, however, he has walked what one writer calls a “knife edge” by stating that resistance to jihadist violence is justified, while refusing either to condemn or approve specific counterterrorist tactics like assassinations and drone attacks.

The source of this uncertainty, in other words, is a covert contradiction that threatens to become overt. Francis’s commitments to advance both the Church’s organizational interests and its emancipatory goals generates the same uncertainty that liberal and social democratic attitudes do when confronted by domestic radicals threatening to alter the social status quo or foreign enemies threatening to alter the current balance of power. When push comes to shove, will the Pope’s commitments to reduce social inequality and to make peace prevail, or will institutional interests in unity and influence trump movements for significant change? A key factor often ignored, when reformers face these choices, is the need to deal with the structural sources of inequality and war, not just the passions of conflicting parties. Francis could set the Church more clearly on the road to peace and justice by strengthening lay organizations like the Community of Sant’ Egidio, a Vatican-sponsored group with offices in 90 countries that has already helped resolve numerous violent conflicts and provide aid to organizations of the poor and minorities. That community could be encouraged to define the changes needed to eliminate the systemic sources of violence and to help mobilize Catholics and non-Catholics to implement much-needed structural reforms.

From Europe to the Middle East, from Ukraine to the Philippines, the charismatic pontiff has called for dialogue and social reform to replace revenge, repression, and stasis. He has taken office at a crucial juncture in world history, when the scope and intensity of political violence has become increasingly menacing and the longing for sustainable, “positive” peace increasingly tangible. Much hinges on his ability to translate noble intentions and grace-filled gestures into policies that people demanding dignity and justice will support. Francis does not have to formulate these policies or fight for their acceptance on his own; he can use the convening power of the Church to invite warring classes, ethnic groups, and nations to participate in long overdue, desperately needed dialogues that have the potential to generate creative, system-changing policies. Anything less ambitious, I fear, will expose him to overwhelming pressures to be ‘practical’ and to put the Church’s parochial interests ahead of its world-transforming mission.

Pope Innocent III died exactly nine centuries ago next year. This long absence does not make him any less potent a model for the current Pope or any less relevant a warning. Innocent dreamed of Francis of Assisi upholding a broken Church, or so we are told. Many today may dream of the second Francis helping to heal a broken world.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

carol sanford March 30, 2015 at 12:54 pm

Hi Rich,

Best thing I’ve read about the Pope.




Rich Rubenstein March 30, 2015 at 1:48 pm

That’s very nice of you, Carol — thank you! I’m still not sure where to send this piece — maybe the National Catholic Reporter? Anyhow, I appreciate your comment.


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