Commentary: Formulation of a persecuting society circa 1215 - adapted to 2020 times

Lawyers might recall Pope Innocent III as the Pontiff who annulled the Magna Carta in 1215. At the behest of King John, the Pope nullified the Great Charter only 11 weeks after the King and 25 English Barons sealed and executed it. In modified form, the Magna Carta was later reissued by succeeding English Kings. The Great Charter has long been regaled as a foundation of Western democracy.

Pope Innocent III fanned the flames of other misdeeds in Medieval times. In the view of historian R. I. Moore in his 1987 book “The Formulation of a Persecuting Society,” Pope Innocent III was a principal architect of this new form of governance.

With Americans facing the multi-faceted crisis posed by the Coronavirus, economic collapse in employment, civil unrest from the police murders of African Americans and environmental calamities, commentators assert that 2020 is a year unlike any other. The assertion is debatable. But that debate is not the subject of this commentary. How leadership responds to similar challenges is.

Pope Innocent III was elected Pontiff in 1198 and died in 1216. The times are different but many of the challenges facing Europeans at the dawn of the 13th century were not all that different than the challenges Americans face today. Over the century preceding Pope Innocent III’s papacy, a warming climate in Europe extended the growing season and increased crop production, resulting in a population explosion that the rigid structure of the feudal system could not accommodate. The expanding rural population was forced off the land to find employment elsewhere. The dislocation was devastating to farm laborers and their families. The erosion of America’s manufacturing base over the past fifty years tells a similar story in a different sector of the economy.

The plague of the Medieval era was leprosy, virulent and without cure or understanding of cause.

Religious and sectarian differences animated civil unrest, led to armed conflict in Europe and a series of disastrous crusades to the Holy Land.

How did Pope Innocent III respond to the challenges? Instead of seeking a productive path to address the issues, he exploited them to eliminate competing faiths, to consolidate papal power over temporal authorities and to redirect blame from Christian leaders to “others” outside the Christian community.

Pope Innocent III authorized and encouraged additional crusades against dissident Christian sects in Europe and Saracens (the Medieval term for Muslims) in the Holy Land. In the Albigensian Crusade, the Pope pitted Christians in northern France against the dissident Cathar sect in the south. In the cause of maintaining religious order, his chosen military commander committed atrocities against civilian populations.

In 1204, crusaders on their way to the Holy Land detoured to sack Constantinople, the seat of Orthodox Christendom after the Schism of 1054. These crusaders viewed the inhabitants of Constantinople as infidels and slaughtered them. Pope Innocent III was initially furious. He soon reconsidered and offered a transactional solution: full remission of crusader sins in exchange for continuation of the mission to the Holy Land. Preventing the loss of civilian lives or punishing those responsible for civilian deaths when balanced against jeopardizing the crusader mission was not a significant factor in the Pope’s decision-making process.

Under the Pope’s authority, the fourth Lateran Council of 1215, issued explicit edicts that, according to R. I. Moore, “laid down the machinery of persecution for Western Christendom.” The machinery was to “prove adaptable to a much wider variety of victims than the heretics for whom it was designed.”

Canon 68 required Jews, Saracens and Christians to dress in distinctive garments so that non-Christians could be easily identified. Canon 69 decreed that Jews were forbidden to hold public office where they would be in a position to regulate the activities of Christians. These edicts combined with existing prejudice and other tightening societal restrictions forced Jews into the least desirable occupations in Medieval times: moneylending (needed for commerce but forbidden for Christians to practice) and rent collection (not as the owner but as agent for the owner). This, in turn, led to further persecution.

Canon 71 authorized a new crusade to the Holy Land. It forbade Christians merchants and traders from doing business with Saracens on pain of excommunication. It also provided that Christians financing or participating in the crusade would be granted full remission of future sins committed while taking up the Cross. 

The exploitation of political, social, racial and religious divisions in America is emblematic of Donald Trump’s first term. The analogy of his administration to a “persecuting society” could not be more precise. In example after example, rather than a productive path to address challenges, the President employs the “machinery of persecution” to pit American against American.

Ignoring institutional racism, the President falsely advances the notion that “law and order” is incompatible with the goals of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement. In so doing, he avoids the challenge of reforming police practices that are repeatedly responsible for the loss of innocent lives and thereby preserves an injustice in a status quo that better suits his political narrative.

In other divisive political calculations, Trump extolls the Stock Market while failing to confront wealth inequality that prevents a majority of Americans from meaningful participation in it. He declares in speeches that American health care is the best in the world while acting in court to force millions of Americans from Obamacare. Trump also demands that teachers risk health and life so America can return to the normalcy of in-person instruction and business can “open up” despite the fact there is nothing “normal” about the Coronavirus pandemic for teachers, school employees and other essential workers.

Now, we learn that Donald Trump was not only willing to sacrifice innocent American lives if preventing their deaths might have undercut his prospects for re-election, but that he did so. As set forth in Bob Woodward’s recently published “Rage,” Trump admitted in a taped conversation that he knew at the onset of the pandemic that the Coronavirus was five times as dangerous as the worse seasonal flu.

Nevertheless, he misled Americans who trusted him, lied about the threat to the public, and made medical protocols – limiting large groups, mask wearing and social distancing – a partisan issue. These decisions are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

It was a callous political calculation, but not one without historical precedent. Trump considered, on one hand, the adverse effect a severe economic downturn caused by a national “lock down” could have on his mission to be re-elected. On the other hand, he considered the potential loss of life if a national “lock down” did not occur. Just as Pope Innocent III did in the past, Trump decided in favor of advancing the mission instead of saving lives.

Donald Trump’s governance of America should be seen for what it is – an updated version of the “persecuting society” of 1215 “adapted” to 2020 prejudices, inequities and twisted ambition. Trump, like Pope Innocent III before him, sees nothing wrong in a persecuting society. In less than two months, we will find out if the American electorate does.
Samuel C. Damren is a retired Detroit lawyer and the author of “What Justice Looks Like.”