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Innocent I


INNOCENT I (r. 401417) was a bishop of Rome. Nothing is known about Innocent's early life save the fact that, according to Jerome, he was the son of his predecessor, Anastasius I (r. 399401). His episcopacy took place during the period of Rome's decline and witnessed some important events, namely, the displacement of Milan by Ravenna as the seat of imperial administration in the West (c. 404) and the sack of Rome in 410 by Alaric the Goth. Only thirty-five of Innocent's letters survive, in a variety of sources. A few are short administrative documents, but others are more personal and reveal a vigorous personality with decided views. The severe proscriptions against heretics issued at Rome in 407 by the emperor Flavius Honorius and later incorporated into book 16 of the Theodosian Code were probably inspired by Innocent.

In ecclesiastical matters Innocent took a strong stand with regard to the prerogatives of his see, which he viewed as the ultimate court of appeal in all important ecclesiastical cases, claiming Roman supremacy over church councils and church courts. Through his letter to Decentius, bishop of Gubbio, Innocent was the first pope to voice such a claim of dominion in the realm of liturgy as well. The church at Gubbio was considering using some liturgical rites (probably deriving from Gaul) that deviated from Roman practice. Innocent asserted that Decentius should not depart from the Roman norman understandable attitude, because Gubbio was a suffragan seebut went on to censure all other churches in the West (Spain, Gaul, Sicily, and Africa) for not following Roman usage. This stand of Innocent's was without precedent. The letter to Decentius remains a precious historical source on the Roman liturgy of this period.

Innocent's letters to Victricius and Exsuperius, bishops of Rouen and Toulouse, deal with numerous points of ecclesiastical discipline. His statement (to Exsuperius) that marital relations are forbidden to married men from the time of their ordination may indicate that his own birth occurred early in the career of his father, Anastasius I. Other groups of letters show Innocent's involvement with events in Africa and the East. His correspondence with the bishops of Africa deals with the Pelagian controversy; five bishops, including Augustine, had appealed to Innocent for a condemnation. He denounced the error but did not contest the decision of the Palestinian bishops, who had pardoned Pelagius. In the East, Innocent intervened as a supporter of John Chrysostom, the persecuted and exiled bishop of Constantinople, and of Jerome in his struggle with John, bishop of Jerusalem. Innocent also brought the churches of eastern Illyria, which had been part of the Eastern Empire since 388, back into Western jurisdiction.

The principles and precedents established by Innocent became the foundation for many of the claims later made by the medieval papacy. Innocent's policies reflect both his own strong personality and the ecclesio-political situation of the time, when the ascendancy of a new Rome at Constantinople, and the decline of the old Rome, helpless before Alaric, invited the consolidation and assertion of power by the incumbents of the see of Peter, the only apostolic see in the West.


Innocent I's letters can be found in J.-P. Migne's Patrologia Latina, vol. 20, Epistolae et decreta (Paris, 1845), cols. 457637. Not all are genuine; see Eligius Dekkers's Clavis Patrum Latinorum (Bruges, 1961), vol. 1, no. 1641. Only the letter to Decentius exists in a good critical edition, with commentary: La lettre du pape Innocent Premier à Décentius de Gubbio, 19 mars 416, edited and translated by Robert Cabié (Louvain, 1973). On the emergence of new papal claims and Innocent's role in that development, see Myron Wojtowytsch's Papsttum und Konzile von den Anfängen bis zu Leo I, 440461: Studien zur Entstehung der Überordnung des Papstes über Konzile (Stuttgart, 1981), especially pages 205264. Wojtowytsch (p. 205, n. 1) stresses that a new study of Innocent I is needed, although Erich Caspar's chapter on Innocent in his Geschichte des Papsttums, vol. 1, Römische Kirche und Imperium Romanum (Tübingen, 1930), pp. 296343, still remains important. Gerald Bonner's review of Wojtowytsch's Papsttum und Konzile in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History 34 (July 1983): 451453 suggests some added reasons for the fourth-century shifts in papal attitudes.

For Jerome's letter identifying Anastasius I as Innocent's father, see Epistle 130, sec. 16, of Isidor Hilberg's edition in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 56 (Vienna, 1918), p. 196.

Paul Meyvaert (1987)

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