Quia Maior and the Fifth Crusade, 1213-1215

The Fifth Crusade left a permanent mark on Roman Christendom, laying the foundation for the Protestant Reformation but even so, altering the way we look at serving in the church, even now.

It was Pope Innocent III’s second attempt to organize and lead a Crusade; he had learned from the Fourth Crusade and believed that the key lesson was not to lose control. And to raise enough money. In 1215, the Pope hosted the Fourth Council to be held at the Lateran Palace in Rome, a general church council like the great old ones at Nicaea and Chalcedon, except that by now, only Rome was involved. He had given participants a long time to plan their journeys, so the council was very well attended. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes the presence of 71 archbishops, 412 bishops, and 900 abbots!

The Council mostly dealt with theological issues like transubstantiation, which it affirmed as a necessary belief. (That’s the literal transmogrification of bread and wine into flesh and blood when the priest blesses it in the Mass.) There were also some interesting details, like the establishment of a 12-month probation period for heretics, during which if they took no action to defend themselves, they were presumed to be admitting to it (and then the secular ruler was obliged to banish the person). ¬†Or, in a very different vein, one canon required every bishop’s seat (cathedral) to establish a school. Differently again, the Council proclaimed no new religious orders; if anyone wanted to start a new thing, he had to choose from an existing template.

The Council also cleaned up some political messes, excommunicating the Kings of both France and Germany, much as the Council of Clermont had done in 1095, and for basically the same reasons. That action had an impact on the upcoming Crusade, of course. It seems likely that royal lobbyists were quietly pointing out that evicting the two richest kings from Christendom’s good graces was a really bad way to launch an international project. But the Council was firm, divorce was not acceptable.

The Council also set up some rules looking forward to the next Crusade, which was being called by a separate Papal Bull known as Quia Maior. The Council stipulated that Jews and Muslims should wear a distinctive of dress, so they could be told apart visually. (I guess it had unnerved them to see how easily a Crusade could slaughter Catholics in Provence?) It also laid an arms and even shipping embargo on the Muslim lands, to prepare the region for war.

But the bull itself, Quia Maior (its opening words), laid out a new vision of how Christendom could participate in the Crusade. In this vision, you could go on Crusade without leaving home. The whole church could become a Crusading machine, as it were. That’s because Pope Innocent III recognized that giving money to the Crusaders was as important as going personally on Crusade.

In the original vision, a penitent sinner showed his wish to be forgiven by going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a way of acting out repentance: you stop sinning, turn from that life, and take up another life. The only way to earn the forgiveness of sin was to act through the deeds of repentance, making and keeping a vow. The Pope’s proclamations merely stated that this particular act was a sufficient penance for any sin, however large. But if a knight did not make a vow, or did not keep it, then he did not earn forgiveness. He had to go or die trying. (or he could try another kind of penance at home)

After the Fourth Crusade went so tragically off the rails for lack of funding, Pope Innocent III widened the meaning of participation. The penitential action that earned forgiveness now included any sort of help. You could go, or you could for example buy your poverty-stricken neighbor knight a horse, so he could go. You could donate cash to the expedition directly, to be used for whatever need. In fact, just as with charities today, that was the preferred option. Please consider NOT going! Please consider just giving as much money as you can: rest assured, it is sufficient penance, you will be forgiven.

What Pope Innocent III did not realize is that he was setting up a new church custom: buying forgiveness. By the time of Martin Luther, selling “indulgences” was a practiced fundraising operation. The money didn’t need to be used for Crusades, once it was in the church coffers, though doubtless during the run-up to a Crusade, much of it did go there. They say some cathedrals were funded mainly from “butter indulgences,” the purchase of regional forgiveness for eating butter during Lent’s long fast. (In places where olive and walnut oil were plentiful, they didn’t need butter.)

The Pope had an idealistic view of it: he was permitting all men to participate and contribute, even if they could not fight or go. Even if they gave the widow’s mite, their priest could still assure them of forgiveness. The whole of Christendom was thus mobilized to be cleansed of sin while building up the church’s power. Innocent III died soon after the Lateran Council broke up, so he never saw the way his precedent worked out. It’s ironic that the same Pope could lead the Council to forbid monasteries from requiring entrance donations, at the same time that he set up the indulgence-selling precedent. He genuinely did not see the connection.

Innocent’s death was the occasion of showing just how much his parishioners were not…innocent. He was laid out in state in Rome, that is, wearing his robes and jewels. By the next day, when the future Archbishop of Acre came to receive his blessing, he found the Pope’s body stripped of all valuables and most fabric. Next time they say “when in Rome,” just remember that sometimes what the Romans do isn’t worth imitating. (Nothing against Rome really: the poor are the poor, all over the world and through time.)

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