The Fourth Lateran Council, 1215 

The Fourth Lateran, otherwise known as the Twelfth Ecumenical Council, was the closing act of Innocent’s pontificate, and marks the zenith of the papal theocracy. In his letter of convocation, the pope announced its object to be the reconquest of Palestine and the betterment of the Church. The cotincil was held in the Lateran and had three sittings, NOV. 11, 20, 30, 1215. It was the most largely attended of the synods held up to that time in the West. The attendance included 412 bishops, 800 abbots and priors, and a large number of delegates representing absent prelates. There were also present representatives of the emperor Frederick II, the emperor; Henry of Constantinople, and the kings of England, France, Aragon, Hungary, Jerusalem, and other crowned heads. 

The sessions were opened with a sermon by the pope on Luke 22:15, “With desire have I desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer” It was a fanciful interpretation of the word “passover,” to which a threefold sense was given a physical sense referred to the passage of Jerusalem from a state of captivity to, a state of liberty, a spiritual sense referring to the passage of the Church from one state to a better one, and a heavenly sense referring to, the transition from the present life to the eternal glory. (This interpretation or so-called interpretation of Holy Writ should convince any unbiased reader of the fact that the pope is anything but infallible in his interpretation of Holy Writ—H.V.) The deliverances are grouped under seventy heads, and a special decree bearing upon the recovery of Jerusalem. The headings concern matters of doctrine and ecclesiastical and moral practice. The council’s two most notable acts were the definition of the dogma of transubstantiation and the establishment of the institution of the Inquisition against heretics. 

The doctrinal decisions, contained in the first two chapters, give a comprehensive statement of the orthodox faith as it concerns the nature of God, the Incarnation, the unity of the Church, and the two greater sacraments. Here transubstantiation is defined as the doctrine of the eucharist in the universal Church, “outside of which there is no possibility of salvation.” 

The council expressly condemned the doctrine of Joachim of Flore, that the substance of the Father, San, and Spirit is not real entity, but a collective entity in the sense that a collection of men is called one people, and a collection of believers one Church. It approved the view of Peter the Lombard whom Joachim had opposed on the ground that his definition would substitute a quaternity for the trinity in the Godhead. The Lombard had defined the substance of the three persons as a real entity. Incidentally, the invitation to this Fourth Lateran Council included the prelates of the East and West, Christian emperors and kings, the grand-masters of the Military Orders, and the heads of monastic establishments. 

Amaury of Bena, a teacher in Paris accused of pantheistic teachings, was also condemned by name. He had been accused and appeared before the pope at Rome in 1204, and recalled his alleged heresy. He or his scholars taught that every one in whom the Spirit of God is, becomes united with the body of Christ and cannot sin. 

The treatment of heretics’ received elaborate consideration in the important third decree. The ecclesiastical and moral regulations were the subject of sixty-seven decrees. The rank of the patriarchal sees is fixed, Rome having the first place. It was an opportune moment for an array of these dignitaries, as Innocent had established a Latin succession in the Eastern patriarchates which had not already been filled by his predecessors. To avoid the confusion arising from the diversity of monastic rules, the establishment of monastic orders was thenceforth forbidden. 

The clergy are warned against intemperance and incontinence and forbidden the chase, hunting dogs and falcons, attendance upon theatrical entertainments, and executions, dueling, and frequenting inns. Prescriptions are given for their dress. Confession is made compulsory at least once a year, imprisonment fixed as the punishment for priests revealing the secrets of the confessional. The tenure of more than one benefice is forbidden except by the pope’s dispensation. New relics are forbidden as objects of worship, except as they might receive the approbation of the pope. Physicians are bidden, upon threat of excommunication, to urge their patients first of all to summon a priest, as the well-being of the soul is of more value than the health of the body. Jews and Saracens are enjoined to wear a different dress from the Christians, lest unawares carnal intercourse be had between them. The Jews are bidden to keep within doors during passion week and excluded from holding civil office. This was repetition of the decrees of the synod of Toledo in 581. 

The appointment of a new crusade was the council’s last act, and it was set to start in 1217. Christians were commanded to refrain from all commercial dealings with the Saracens for four years. To all contributing to the crusade, as well as to those participating in it, full indulgence was promised, and added eternal bliss. Another important matter which has settled, as it were in a committee room of the council, was the appeal of Raymund VI, count of Toulouse, for redress from the rapacity of Simon de Montfort, the fierce leader of the crusade against the Albigenses in Southern France. 

The doctrinal statements and ecclesiastical rules bear witness to the new conditions upon which the Church had entered, the Latin patriarchs being in possession in the East, and heresy threatening its unity in Southern France and other parts of the West. 

Innocent III survived the great council only a few months and died scarcely fifty-six years old, without having outlived his authority or his fame. He had been fortunate in all his undertakings. The acts of statecraft, which brought Europe to his feet, were crowned in the last scene at the Lateran Council by the pious concern of the priest. To his successors he bequeathed a continent united in allegiance to the Holy See and a Church strengthened in its doctrinal unity. Notwithstanding his great achievements combining mental force and moral purpose, the Church has found no place for Innocent among its canonized saints.

The following are a few testimonies to his greatness. Gregorovius declares (Gibbon, after acknowledging Innocent’s talents and virtues, has this criticism of two of the most far-reaching acts of his reign: ‘Innocent may boast of the two most signal triumphs over sense and humanity, the establishment of transubstantiation, and the origin of the Inquisition.’) that, although he was “Not a creative genius like Gregory I and Gregory VII, he was one of the most important figures of the Middle Ages, a man of earnest, sterling, austere intellect, a consummate ruler, a statesman of penetrating judgment, a high-minded priest filled with religious fervor, and at the same time with an unbounded ambition and appalling force of will, a true idealist on the papal throne, yet an entirely practical monarch and a coolheaded lawyer . . . No pope has ever had so lofty and yet so real consciousness of his power as Innocent III, the creator and destroyer of emperors and kings.” 

Ranke says: “A superstitious reverence such as Friedrick Hurter renders to him in his remarkable book I am not at all able to accord. This much, however, is certain. He stands in the foremost rank of popes, having world-wide significance. The task which he placed before himself he was thoroughly equal to. Leaving out a few dialectic subtleties, one will not find in him any thing that is really small. In him was fulfilled the transition of the times.” 

Baur gives this opinion: “With Innocent III the papacy reached its height and in no other period of its long history did it enjoy such an undisturbed peace and such a glorious development of its power and splendor. He was distinguished as no other in this high place not only by all the qualities of the ruler but by personal virtues, by high birth and also by mind, culture, and learning. 

And, finally, Hagenbach gives us the following: “Measured by the standard of the papacy, Innocent is beyond controversy the greatest of all popes. Measured by the eternal law of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that which here seems great and mighty in the eyes of the world, seems little in the kingdom of heaven, and amongst those things which call forth wonder and admiration, only that will stand which the Spirit of God, who never wholly withdraws from the Church, wrought in his soul, How far such operation went On, and with what result, who but God can know? He alone is judge.” 

This concludes, in this article, our quotation from Philip Schaff as he writes on Innocent III. The appraisal of Hagenbach is surely conservative and sober. It is certainly true that, measured by the standard of the papacy, Innocent must be given a foremost place among the great popes who have sat upon the throne of Peter. However, this is not saying that also this high honor has been given him by the standard of the Lord. After all, earthly honor and power and glory cannot be said to characterize the Church of God and the kingdom of our Lord according to the presentation in Holy Writ. In the prophecy of Isaiah, verses 1-4 of chapter 63, we have a description of our Lord of glory as He treads the winepress of the wrath of the Lord alone, and as He tramples the peoples in His tremendous anger and fury. And there we read that there was none with Him as He treads that winepress and tramples the children of Edom, representative of the godless world throughout the ages. The popes’ tremendous power, in the earthly sense of the word, is surely not the presentation of the Scriptures. And the apostle Peter, I am sure, would view in all amazement the great power to which his successors have attained. The strength of the popes, after everything has been said, simply lay in their ability to enforce their decrees by the use of the earthly sword. They had the power to dethrone and enthrone kings and emperors at their will. They did not rule through the power of the Spirit and the Word but simply in the earthly and worldly sense of the word. Of course, we must remember that they were children of their particular time in which they lived. But even so, their tremendous power was not spiritual but earthly and worldly. And the Lord is the Judge. He will judge not by human standard but by His own spiritual standard. And only God knows to what extent He operated in the hearts of these men by His grace and Spirit. In an earthly sense Innocent III was a tremendous figure.