Pope Innocent III: Theology vs. reality

There are those today who, based on their theology or political ideology, want to deny the existence of a Jewish people and nation.

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May 23, 2016 19:46
4 minute read.
Pope Innocent III

THE IMAGE of Pope Innocent III as it appears in a fresco at the Sacro Speco cloister in the region of Lazio, Italy.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Innocent III was the most powerful pope of medieval Christendom. He ordered the destruction of the Christian Albigensian heresy in southern France and he was responsible for raising troops to fight the Fourth Crusade.

As pope, Innocent III could use his religious and political authority to demand that the secular rulers of Europe follow his wishes, and most of the time he was very persuasive. But not always.

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The pope composed a letter that he sent to the king of France in 1205. He was angry and dismayed that French noblemen were borrowing from Jewish moneylenders at a high rate of interest.

This usury outraged pope Innocent because it was a reality that ran counter to the ideals of Christian theology. Jews, as killers of Christ, were supposed to be humiliated wanderers who could not gain control over Christians and make them vulnerable. But the pope wrote that “news has reached us to the effect that in the French kingdom the Jews have become so insolent by means of their vicious usury, through which they extort not only usury but even usury on usury.”

Jewish moneylenders were so successful in the medieval world of Christendom that Church property was handed over to Jews as collateral for defaulted loans resulting in the Church losing its tithes. Pope Innocent ordered the French nobility not to take any loans at high interest from Jews. The Jewish people should know their place and Church theology demanded that “the Jews, against whom the blood of Jesus Christ calls out, although they ought not to be killed, lest the Christian people forget the Divine Law” should be wanderers bearing the mark of the first murderer, Cain. “Blasphemers of the Christian name” wrote Innocent, “ought not to be aided by Christian princes to oppress the servants of the Lord, but ought rather be forced into the servitude of which they made themselves deserving” when they betrayed Christ.

Although Innocent’s power could not be denied, his attempt to demand that French nobility never borrow from Jewish moneylenders was not successful. In a feudal society based on ownership of land and when Christians could not lend money on interest to fellow Christians, Jews filled an important economic niche. Jews, who have always had a long history of international merchant activity, possessed the connections and the liquid assets to be able to make the loans to Christian princes and nobility. Church theology dictated that Jews be humiliated and in servitude to Christians, but the economic reality was quite different: Christian princes needed the Jews and this put them, sometimes, at a great disadvantage although they often benefited from the relationship.

Proof that Innocent III could not enforce his will on Christian princes when it came to the Jews was the pope’s calling of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, 10 years after he exhorted the princes of France to cease taking loans from Jews.



According to historian Robert M. Seltzer, the pope called the council “attempting to enforce discipline on Christendom” and “reaffirmed and strengthened the Church’s regulations concerning the Jews.” Innocent demanded that Jews not be allowed to own Christian servants, he restated his protest against Jewish usury and he called for Jews to wear a badge on their clothing that would stigmatize them and distinguish them from Christians.

While the Fourth Lateran Council likely exaggerated the effects of Jewish money lending – the French king had already expelled Jews from his domain and canceled Christian debts to Jews in 1182 – one must wonder why he needed to call the council in the first place. There is no doubt that the reality of Christian economic dependence on Jews was a real issue that angered the pope and the Church. The reality did not jibe with the theology.

Yes, we all know of the Christian persecution of the Jews in the medieval world – exiles, blood libels and massacres. Yet that was not the only reality of Jewish life either in the Christians realm or under Muslim sovereignty. Contrast the medieval Jewish merchant, living in a town along the Rhine River, educated and wealthy, to the Christian peasant working morning to night on a feudal estate, unable to sign his own name, uneducated and impoverished. Christian and Islamic theology demand an institutionalized humiliated status for Jews as betrayers of Christ and Mohammed – but Jews often did quite well and had some distinct advantages over the majority non-Jewish population. Of course, every Golden Age in the Jewish Diaspora ended in disaster, massacre, exile and eventually genocide. But there is no reason to dismiss the 2,500 years of Jewish life in exile as a chronicle of tears and woe.

And often, as in the case of pope Innocent III, no matter how powerful Church theology or the pope, the reality of Jewish life in Christendom would often be one where Jews were not simply victims. The same goes for the Islamic world.

There are those today who, based on their theology or political ideology, want to deny the existence of a Jewish people and nation. But the reality of a Jewish state celebrating yet another birthday smashes their fantasy to bits.


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