Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Innocent III, Marriage, and Militant Christendom

(The Angelus, August, 2014)

Innocent III, Marriage, and Militant Christendom

For the popular mind, no pope symbolizes the majesty and glory of the Roman Catholic Church at its height more than Lothario dei Conti di Segni. Born around 1160, the future Innocent III was educated in Rome, Bologna, and Paris. Cardinal Deacon at the age of twenty-nine, he became Supreme Pontiff a mere decade later, while still under that of forty (1198-1216). Caricatured by enemies of the Faith as a purely secular-minded “lord of the world” (See Innocent III: Vicar of Christ or Lord of the World, ed. James M. Powell, Catholic University, 1994), presiding over a power-hungry Catholic political machine with an admittedly great energy and efficiency, Innocent III was actually an icon of the entire spiritually-focused reform movement of the High Middle Ages. It was transformation of all things in Christ that was his primary concern, and he underlined this theme in writing with reference to the topic of central importance to this issue of The Angelus: marriage.

One cannot look to the pope’s most famous work, On the Misery of the Human Condition, for proof of my point. Innocent intended to complement this “negative” text with another “positive” volume that he never had a chance to finish: On the Dignity of Human Nature. In any case, a much more complete guide to the spirit of Innocent’s thought can be found in his Fourfold Character of Marriage.

For Innocent, all of life is symbolized by marriage. In this book, he shows that (1) the marriage of man and wife is one of the glorious, sacramental tools raising the individual to eternal life with a God (2) who is married to the just soul because of (3) the marriage of the Logos with human nature and (4) of Christ with His Church. Through these marriages, the fruitful, sublime, corrective, transforming union of nature and the supernatural can take place and have its intended effect upon the world.

Unfortunately, however, and precisely because of the “misery of the human condition” after the sin of Adam, the task of making all such marriages truly “fruitful” in their consequences requires a great deal of difficult and humbling effort on our part. Innocent, as pastor, always reflected a practical---and often quite humorous--awareness of the number and strength of the stumbling blocks rendering fallen man’s labors towards fulfillment of the exalted goals of the fourfold union somewhat less than satisfactory. What angered him was any sign of outright rejection of the truth that everyone, and in every sphere of life, was capable of successful accomplishment of this arduous climb up Mount Tabor to ensure his transformation in Christ. Such rejection was an insult to the unlimited consequences of the marriage of the Logos with human nature in a world that was meant to serve as our pilgrim route to eternal life with the Trinity.

Two particular practical influences on Innocent’s firm commitment to stimulate the multiplication of marriage and its fruitfulness in all its forms must especially to be addressed.

One of these came from Peter Cantor (d. 1197), one of his teachers in Paris. Cantor underscored the importance of developing pastoral strategies appropriately proportioned to the different character of each specific human activity. He recognized the need to expand upon the approach taken by the tenth and eleventh century monks of Cluny---in many respects, the “founders” of the medieval reform movement. Just as the Clunaics aimed to tame the lawless soldiers of the age (whom they referred to as the malitia rather than the militia) by showing what the “marriage” of their specific military activity to Christ should really mean, good shepherds must learn how to “marry” every other human activity shaping the daily lives of men and women in their own unique ways to the Incarnate Word and make them spiritually fruitful.

It was the second influence on Innocent that confirmed his conviction that the task of making the manifold consequences of such variegated types of marriage fruitful had to be an intensely militant one; that which came from the Crusading Movement. Medieval Christian culture might have taken on a different flavor if bakers had been the initial problem for Clunaic monks rather than the malitia. As it was, however, once the redirection of the soldier’s marital vocation to proper Christian goals became the first object of the reformers’ attention, it was inevitable that a certain military “feel” would serve as a model for similar endeavors in other spheres of life, working smoothly together with the basic human sense of being engaged in a battle for daily survival.

Now the Crusading Movement was in a bad state when Innocent took over as Supreme Pontiff. Despite the labors of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Kings of France and England in the Third Crusade, Jerusalem was still in infidel hands. Worse still, the Fourth Crusade had led to a downright criminal assault on fellow believers in Zara and Constantinople. If external Crusading against the infidel were not succeeding, Innocent thought that it must be because Christians were not correcting those sins in their daily lives that prevented fruitful marriage of their souls with God; a correction that the marriage of the Word and nature made efficacious through that of Christ with His Church. This left them spiritually “asleep”, in a wretched, uncorrected natural condition rendering them unworthy of success in any of their endeavors. Victory in the external crusade for the defense of the Holy Land was therefore intimately connected with victory in an internal European crusade against the individual sins preventing the transforming marriage from becoming fruitful. If sham Christians—both among the fighting men abroad and that vast majority of believers who remained at home—could honestly be turned into true Catholics, then the success of the external Crusade would perhaps be guaranteed. Victory in such an internal conflict could only be achieved by intensifying an awareness of the primacy of the spirit in every vocation in life, not just that of soldiering. Peter Cantor’s variegated pastoral approach had to have a sword in its hand.

Innocent’s entire pontificate must be seen from the perspective of a militant, disciplined, and highly nuanced pastoral effort to ensure the fruitful marriage of souls with God, a project always intimately connected with the other three forms of marital union. It was this that dictated his exalted sense of the role of the pope, as a figure peculiarly “married” to the Incarnate Word. It was this that stimulated his paternal concern for the rest of the Catholic clergy, “married” to their dioceses and their parishes. It was this that caused him to call the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the most important of the medieval councils for the practical work of “marrying” individuals and societies in which they lived to God.

It was also this that opened Innocent’s mind to every innovative pastoral endeavor that proved itself to be effective in ensuring an increase in the number of marriages of souls with God---with the intellectual work of the Universities of Paris and Bologna marrying men’s minds with heaven, and the hands on “marital guidance” of the mendicant Franciscans and Dominicans on every level of human endeavor at the top of the list. And given his crusading mentality, it was hardly a wonder that scholarly battles inside the university good so intense; or that St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) could adopt the language of a crusading knight committed to deeds of derring-do on behalf of his Lady, Apostolic Poverty, or that of a chivalric soldier on mission to Egypt to convert the Sultan; or that St. Dominic (1170-1221) and his followers would go on militant attack against Catharist Albigensians who denied that transformation in Christ was possible at all.

Despite what his detractors say, our so-called “Lord of the World” was never interested in political sovereignty over any place other than the Papal States. The “sovereignty” he sought was as Vicar of Christ standing guard against anything blocking marriage of the soul with God. Once again, his work in this regard was what our hopelessly parochial contemporaries would probably call “modern” because of its tenderness and nuance---hence, his concern for the poor tormented more and more in an ever more complex medieval economic society by usury.

Sometimes dedication to an exalted theme---such as the marriage of souls with God---can cause a person to be rather casual with respect to its literal meaning. This was not true for Innocent. Concerned with marriage in three other senses though he was, his serious treatment of the ordinary marriage of a man with a woman was always just as vigorous. As one might expect, such concerns could take Innocent down highly nuanced pastoral pathways, as this bull of April 29th, 1198 indicating his dedication, as “marital matchmaker”, to the plight of ladies of ill repute well illustrates:

Among the works of charity that the authority of Holy Scripture proposes to us, there is one of real importance, which consists in correcting him who wanders on the road of error. Thus, it is necessary to ask women who live voluptuously and permit anyone indifferently and without concern to have relations with them to contract a legitimate marriage in order to live chastely. With this thought, we decide by the authority of these presents that all who will rescue public women from brothels and marry them will be doing an act which will be useful for the remission of their sins. (Powell, p. 70).
Let us end by noting that Innocent III’s deep regard for marriage on its most literal level extended to the rich and powerful as much as to the poor and emarginated. And therefore, as Augustin Fliche notes in his entry in Powell’s book, even “at the risk of wounding a prince whose friend he was and who was liable to render still greater services to the church”, he considered himself “a prisoner of doctrine before whose demands the temporal interests of the church ought to bend, so imperious were they” (pp. 69-70). Hence, his letter to Queen Marie, the wife of King Peter of Aragon on January 19th, 1213, denying an annulment because of the terrible assault this would make on the sacred marriage bond:
He who is our faithful witness in heaven, to whom every heart is open and no secret remains hidden, that in the marriage undertaken a long time since between you and our very dear son in Christ, Peter, king of Aragon, your husband, we have never departed from the right path and we have not deviated either to the right or to the left. We have acted, as our conscience is a witness, as in all the cases brought for our examination, for, by His will, we take the place on earth of Him who, just and loving justice, judges without taking account of persons. Thus, although among other princes of this world we feel for this king, by reason of his deed, a particular affection and we desire honors and personal advantages for him; nevertheless, from the fact that it is a question of justice, as we are not allowed to protect the poor and honor the visage of the powerful, we can not and we ought not, neither to him nor to any other, grant the lesser favor since it pertains to the sacrament of marriage, which, instituted by the Lord in Paradise before sin, looks not only to the perpetuation of the human race but represents the union of Church with the holy church, that of God with the faithful soul, that of the Word with human nature, according to the testimony of the apostle, who in treating of marriage expresses himself in these terms: I say that it is a great Sacrament in Christ and in the Church (Ephes. 15: 22) (Powell, pp. 69-70).
Hence, a pope caricatured as being obsessed with political issues would not curry the favor of the true sovereign powers of the world if such fawning threatened the sacrament of marriage, even in its most obvious form. He duty to protect marriage weighed heavily upon him, because he, as pope, was married with the Incarnate Word in a special way, and responsible for multiplying the number of souls married to God more than anyone else on earth. Nothing would cause him to mar his militant commitment to his own special marital vows. Let us pray that the example of Innocent will influence his contemporary successor to defend all four forms of marriage with equal crusading zeal. The task of dealing with the powers of this world in a way that avoids currying their favor and protecting the marriage of the Papacy with the Incarnate Word is never an easy one---but Deus lo vult!

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