Thursday, January 7, 2010

Innocent III and Francis of Assisi

From Hans Kung's book:

As early as 1209, six years before the Fourth Lateran Council, a truly historic meeting took place between Francis of Assisi and Innocent III, the Poverello (little poor man) and the sole ruler. The great alternative to the Roman system took shape here in the person of Giovanni di Bernardone, the name given at birth to the happy-go-lucky worldly son of a rich textile merchant from Assisi.

Innocent III was aware of the urgent need for reform of the church, for which he would soon convene the Fourth Lateran Council. He was sensitive enough to observe that the outwardly powerful church was inwardly weak, that the heretical currents in the church had increased powerfully, and that it was difficult to overcome them solely with force. Would it not be better to bind them to the church and meet their wish to engage in apostolic preaching in poverty? In principle Francis of Assisi was not unwelcome to him.

But precisely what was the concern of the Poverello? What was the meaning of the "rebuilding of the fallen church" which the twenty-four-year-old understood to be his calling in a vision of the crucified Christ in 1206? It was nothing less than an end to a self-satisfied bourgeois existence, and the beginning of real discipleship of Christ in poverty and itinerant preaching in accord with the gospel, indeed conformity to the life and suffering of Christ and identification with Christ. Specifically the Franciscan ideal had three key points:

  1. Paupertas, poverty: a life with absolutely no possessions, not only for the individual member of the brotherhood but also for the community as a whole. Money, church buildings, and the quest for Roman privileges are prohibited. The brothers are to work, work hard in the fields; they are to beg only in an emergency. So Francis did not want a mendicant order.

  2. Humilitas, humility: a life which renounces power and influence to the point of extreme forms of self-denial and mortification, patience in all situations, and a basic mood of joy which can endure even taunts, ridicule, and beatings.

  3. Simplicitas, simplicity: discipleship of Christ in great simplicity in all that is done. Knowledge and learning are nothing but obstacles here. Instead of this there is to be a new relationship with creation, as is expressed above all in the "Hymn to the Sun": a new relation to animals, plants, and inanimate phenomena of nature; all creatures are brothers and sisters.

In conformity with Jesus, but not in confrontation with the hierarchy, not by drifting into heresy but in obedience to pope and curia, Francis and his eleven lesser brothers (fratres minores) were to realize their purpose and, like the disciples of Jesus, proclaim the ideal of the gospel life everywhere through itinerant preaching. On the basis of a dream according to which, as the tradition goes, a small, inconspicuous religious prevented the basilica of the Lateran from collapsing, the pope finally approved Francis' simple rule and published it in the consistory.

However, all this meant that Francis, dangerous though he seemed, had committed himself wholly to the church. He had promised reverence and obedience to the pope and bound the brothers by the same promise. At the wish of his patron, Cardinal Giovannni di San Paolo, he even had himself and his eleven companions elevated to the clerical state by the tonsure. This made their preaching activity easier, but at the same time furthered the clericalization of the young community. Priests too now joined the society. The process of the ecclesiasticization of the Franciscan movement had begun, and Francis, who had wanted to detach himself from all things in poverty, was now more dependent on holy mother church. Behind this stood above all the nephew of Innocent III, Cardinal Ugolino, who during Francis' lifetime made himself his friend and protector. A year after Francis' death he ascended the papal throne as Gregory IX, canonized Francis, against Francis' express wishes had a splendid basilica and a monastery built in Assisi, and at the same time relaxed the Franciscan rule by adding constant interpretive qualifications. At the same time, as we have seen, he established the central Roman Inquisition.

Francis of Assisi, with his gospel demands, was originally the alternative to the centralized, legalistic, politicized, militarized, and clericalized Roman system. It hardly bears thinking about: what would have happened had Innocent III, instead of integrating Francis into this system, taken the gospel seriously and adopted the key points of Francis of Assisi? What would have happened had the Fourth Lateran Council introduced a reform to the church on the basis of the gospel?

Innocent III died unexpectedly seven months after the conclusion of the council. On the evening of June 16, 1216, he was found in the cathedral of Perugia, abandoned by all, completely naked, robbed by his own servants. He was probably the only pope who on the basis of his unusual qualities could have shown the church a fundamentally different way, who could have spared the papacy a split and exile, and the church the Protestant Reformation. Even if a great church cannot be so enthusiastic and idealistic that it ignores the complicated questions of the exercising of office and the law; in other words, even if offices must be handed on in a legitimate way, the law implemented, and financial transactions carried out, the basic question still remains: should the Catholic Church be a church in the spirit of Innocent III, or in the spirit of Francis of Assisi? We recall the key words of Francis' program:

  • Poverty. Innocent III stands for a church of wealth and splendor, of greed and financial scandal. But would not also a church have been possible which had a transparent financial policy, was content and made no claims, was an example of inner freedom from possessions and Christian generosity, and did not suppress the life of the gospel and apostolic freedom but furthered them?
  • Humility. Innocent III stood for a church of power and rule, of bureaucracy and discrimination, of repression and the Inquisition. Would not also a church have been conceivable which was modest, friendly, and engaged in dialogue, was made up of brothers and sisters, and was hospitable even to those who did not conform, whose leaders engaged in unpretentious service and showed social solidarity, and which did not exclude from the church new religious forces and ideas, but made fruitful use of them?
  • Simplicity. Innocent III stood for a church whose dogma was excessively complex, for moralistic casuistry and legal safeguards, a church wth a canon law which ruled everything, a scholasticism which knew everything, and a magisterium which was afraid of the new. But would not also a church have been possible which was a church of good news and joy, a theology orientated on the simple gospel, which listened to people instead of merely indoctrinating them from above, not just an official church which only teaches, but a people's church which keeps on learning afresh?


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