Gregory IX

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Gregory IX

During his relatively short tenure as pope, Gregory IX (ca. 1145-1241) named many new cardinals, established the medieval Inquisition, promulgated a code of canon law, and twice excommunicated Roman Emperor Frederick II.

Ugo (Ugolino) di Segni was born around 1145 at Anagni in the Campagna region of Italy. His father was Count of Segni and his uncle would become Pope Innocent III. Young Ugo was provided a strong education, attending the universities of Bologna and Paris, where he studied theology and law. He was a deeply religious man and pursued his spiritual calling with vigor and enthusiasm. Little is known about his early years as a priest.

In 1198, with the ascension of his uncle to the papacy, Ugo di Segni was appointed papal chaplain, then archpriest of St. Peter's, and finally cardinal-deacon of St. Eustachio. In May 1206, Pope Innocent III promoted him to cardinal-bishop of Ostia and Velletri.

In 1207, Innocent sent Cardinal Ugo, along with Cardinal Brancaleone, as papal legates to Germany to mediate between Philip of Swabia and Otto of Brunswick, who both claimed the German throne. The legates failed to convince either man to give up his claims, but did succeed in establishing a truce. After Philip was assassinated, they made another trip to Germany in 1209, to convince the German princes to accept Otto as the rightful king.

A Growing Reputation

Upon the death of Innocent III, Ugo di Segni played a pivotal role in the election of the next pope. The College of Cardinals, searching for someone to quickly succeed Innocent, empowered Cardinal Ugo and Cardinal Guido of Preneste to appoint the new pope. Their selection of Honorius III as pope proved beneficial to di Segni in many ways.

Ugo di Segni played a pivotal role during the pontificate of Honorius III (1216-1227). In January 1217, Honorius made Cardinal Ugo plenipotentiary legate for Lombardy and Tuscia, directing him to preach the crusade in those regions. Developing his diplomatic skills, Ugo became a successful mediator between Pisa and Genoa in 1217; between Milan and Cremona in 1218; and between Bologna and Pistoia in 1219. During this time his reputation expanded beyond the church. In addition to enjoying the support of the Pope, he developed a relationship with the young Roman emperor-elect, Frederick II, King of Sicily. It would prove to be the most contentious relationship he would have over his long and productive life.

On November 11, 1220, Frederick II was crowned emperor in Rome. At this ceremony, Frederick received the holy cross from Cardinal Ugo as a sign of his vow to embark on a crusade to the Holy Land. Ugo was a strong supporter of the Crusades, and he often preached about the importance of the Crusades, never losing sight of the fact that Frederick repeatedly failed to keep his promise.

Church vs. State

On March 18, 1227, Honorius III died, and once again the College of Cardinals sought a swift replacement. The previous selection success led the cardinals to approach Ugo di Segni and two other cardinals, asking them to appoint a new pope. One of these men, Cardinal Conrad of Urach, was initially chosen, but refused to accept the post, fearing it would appear self-serving. On March 19, Ugo di Segni reluctantly accepted the papacy and took the name Gregory IX. He was over 80 years of age but enjoyed good health and a vigorous mind.

Soon, the pope's problems with Frederick II began to escalate. For seven years, Frederick had avoided his commitment to a crusade. Within days of Gregory's election, the new pope ordered Frederick to fulfill his obligation. On September 8, 1227, Frederick reluctantly set sail from Brindial. Within three days he turned back, saying he was seriously ill and that a companion was dying from an outbreak of the plague. On many previous occasions, Frederick had announced he was sailing to the East and then had postponed his departure for various reasons. Gregory no longer trusted the emperor, and he excommunicated him on September 20, 1227.

The battle lines were now drawn. While Gregory wrote an encyclical to justify the excommunication, the emperor countered with a manifesto to the Christian princes condemning the actions of the pope. Frederick's manifesto was read publicly, and imperial colleagues stirred up an insurrection. When the pope published his encyclical in the basilica of St. Peter on March 23, 1228, he was publicly insulted and threatened by a mob. The pope fled, first to Viterbo and subsequently to Perugia.

Three months later, with the pope still in exile, Frederick mustered a small army and on June 28, 1228, embarked for the Holy Land. He asked the blessing of the pope, but Gregory refused, saying that an excommunicated emperor could not undertake a Holy War. The pope released the crusaders from their oath of allegiance to Frederick. But Frederick continued with his plans anyway. He conquered Cyrpus, but when he reached the Holy Land, he accepted the excommunication and his mission turned into a diplomatic one. Negotiating with the Sultan of Egypt for Jerusalem, he reached a treaty at Jaffa that resulted in the cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem reverting to the Christians in exchange for the Mosque of Omar remaining with the Muslims. The following year Frederick crowned himself King of Jerusalem. Gregory denounced Frederick's treaty and sent a papal army to invade the emperor's kingdom in Sicily. Frederick II returned from the Holy Land, defeated the papal army, and made new peace overtures.

Reconciliation and Confrontation

Gregory remained in exile until February 1230, when he returned to Rome. Frederick sent Herman of Salza as his representative to negotiate with the pope. The Treaty of San Germano was signed on July 20, 1230, restoring papal possessions in Sicily to the pope. This treaty brought a truce between the two leaders. The ban of excommunication was removed on August 20, 1230, and the pope and emperor met at Anagni, where they finalized their reconciliation.

The peace between these two strong-willed men was short-lived. The emperor sought supreme temporal power, so that the pope would have no right to interfere with his empire in Italy. Gregory, on the other hand, believed the pope should have supreme power in Italy. Although Frederick assisted the pope in suppressing some minor revolts as required by the Treaty of San Germano, he soon began to disregard the treaty.

Frederick wanted to unite his empire with Lombardy and Tuscany. He launched a war against Lombardy, winning a key battle at Cortenuova on November 27, 1237. The freedom of Lombardy was necessary for the safety of the pontifical states. In order to protect Lombardy from the emperor, Gregory allied with the Tuscans, Umbrians and Lombards to stop Frederick's progress. But Frederick kept winning battles and extended his ambitions to include the Patrimony of St. Peter, the papal territory, and all of Italy. When Frederick invaded Sardinia, a papal fiefdom, Gregory on March 12, 1239, again excommunicated the emperor.

This action once again divided the papacy and the empire. Gregory believed that there could be no peace as long as Frederick remained emperor. He preached against Frederick, urging the princes of the empire to elect a new leader. He placed a ban on any princes who supported the emperor, threatening excommunication.

Despite the papal threats, many princes remained on the side of Frederick and the empire. Encouraged by this support, Frederick set out to declare himself master of the Pontifical States. Gregory ordered all bishops to convene in Rome on March 31, 1241, but the emperor forbade the bishops to travel to Rome and his troops captured several of those who defied his order. Frederick sent an army to Rome and encamped outside the city. But before a confrontation could occur, Gregory died suddenly on August 22, 1241.

Canon Law and Education

The contributions of Gregory IX are overpowered by the complex relationship between the pope and Frederick II. To his credit, Gregory is considered to have been one of the most energetic popes of his time. He played many roles, including canon lawyer, theologian, defender of papal prerogatives and diplomat. He published the Decretals, decrees of ecclesiastical discipline that remained fundamental to the Catholic Church until modern times. These codes of canon law are among his greatest accomplishments.

Gregory IX recognized the importance of education and is credited with reintroducing Aristotle's teachings as the basis of scholastic philosophy. He commissioned William of Aubergne to make Aristotle's work once again accessible to students. He bestowed privileges on the University of Paris, his alma mater, and watched over its professors. Gregory had a deep and abiding relationship with St. Francis and St. Dominic, founders of the Franciscan order, and he was a cardinal protector of the order. He also acted as an advisor to St. Clare of Assisi.

Through his religious beliefs, Gregory hoped to reunite the Roman and Greek churches. Germanos, the Patriarch of Constantinople, sent a letter to Gregory in which he recognized the papal primacy. In the letter, Germanos complained of the persecutions that the Greeks suffered at the hands of the Romans. Gregory dispatched four monks to discuss reunification, but Germanos and the Emperor Vatatzes would make no commitments. Gregory's attempts to reunite the two churches failed despite his strong efforts.

During his papacy, Gregory created 14 new cardinals. Two went on to become popes—Sinibald of Fiesco (Innocent IV) and Raynald of Segni (Alexander IV). He canonized his good friend St. Francis of Assisi, as well as St. Anthony of Padua, St. Virgil, St. Dominic, and St. Elizabeth. He wrote hymns in honor of St. Francis and was instrumental in establishing the Office of St. Francis.

The deeply religious beliefs of Gregory IX were a primary consideration in the decisions he made. The pope saw the crusades as necessary to the continued growth and defense of Christianity. At the request of King Louis IX of France, he sent a papal legate to assist the king in his crusade against the Albigenses, a religious sect in southern France. The Albigenses were considered heretics, and Gregory showed little patience or compassion toward heresy. He approved a law that condemned unrepentant heretics to death by fire and repentant heretics to life in prison. This teaching was the basis for the medieval Inquisition, through which the Church would punish heretics for many years to come.

Were it not for decades of skirmishes with Frederick II and the role he played in the Inquisition, Gregory's religious devotion and educational advancements would have been his primary legacy.


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Gregory IX

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