Rorate Caeli

A Note on the Sovereignity of the Order of Malta and the Temporal Power of the Pope

In his op-ed on the Holy See's intervention in the affairs of the Order of Malta here at Rorate, Prof. de Mattei states that the Holy Father “knew he hadn’t any legal title to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign Order,” and our editor, New Catholic, stated that the Holy See’s intervention was “absolutely contrary to the Constitutional Charter of the Sovereign Order.” Certain persons, however, have noted that the Holy See has claimed the right to depose sovereign rulers in the past, and therefore a certain amount of explanation and defense of our position is in order.

The Cardinal Secretary of State has stated that the Pope’s intervention was legitimate in view of “the authority he exercises directly and immediately over all baptized faithful, whether lay or clerical.” The principle enunciated here is well established in Catholic doctrine. The only question is whether it is being rightly applied. 

In the famous Bull Unam Sanctam, Pope Boniface VIII infallibly taught that the on account of the superiority of spiritual over temporal power, the Pope has the right to judge temporal rulers:

Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the later is to be administered for the Church but the former by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power… For with truth as our witness, it belongs to spiritual power to establish the terrestrial power and to pass judgement if it has not been good… Therefore, if the terrestrial power err, it will be judged by the spiritual power…

This teaching does not, however, mean that the Pope can interfere with an earthly ruler for any reason whatsoever. The spiritual power only judges the temporal power in cases when the temporal power is acting against supernatural ends; that is, when it is sinning gravely. Pope Boniface VIII himself clarified this in an address to French ambassadors. The French Royal Chancellor, Pierre Flotte, had circulated a fake Papal letter to make it appear as though the Pope were claiming to be the King of France’s feudal overlord. Pope Boniface responded:

…he attributed to us a command that the king should recognize that he held his kingdom from us. We have been expert in the law for forty years and we know very well that there are two powers ordained by God. Who can or should believe then that that we entertain or will entertain such a fatuous and foolish opinion? We declare that we do not wish to usurp the jurisdiction of the king in any way… But the king cannot deny that, like all the faithful, he is subject to us by reason of sin… Our predecessors deposed three kings of France… And although we are not worthy to tread in the footsteps of our predecessors, if the king committed the same crimes as they committed, or greater ones, we would depose him like a servant, with grief and great sorrow. (“Address of Pope Boniface VIII to the ambassadors of the French Estates,” in: Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 187-189).

Thus, the Pope can depose earthly rulers only “by reason of sin.” In question of sin states and rulers, like all human creatures, are subject to the jurisdiction of the Vicar of Christ. This is the jurisdiction that the Pope “exercises directly and immediately over all baptized faithful, whether lay or clerical.” If the Pope interferes with an earthly ruler for any other reason, then he “usurps the jurisdiction” of that ruler. The same point was made by Pope Innocent III in the decretal Novit:

Let no one suppose that we wish to diminish or disturb the jurisdiction and power of the king… For we do not intend to judge concerning a fief, judgement on which belongs to him…but to decide concerning a sin, which the judgment undoubtedly belongs to us, and we can and should exercise it against any-one… No man of sound mind is unaware that it pertains to our office to rebuke any Christian for any mortal sin and to coerce him with ecclesiastical penalties if he spurns our correction… That we can and should coerce is evident from what the Lord said to the prophet who was among the priests of Anathoth, “Lo I have set thee over nations and over kingdoms to root up and to pull down and to waste, and to destroy, and to build, and to plant” (Jeremias 1:10). (Tierney, The Crisis, 134-135).

So we see that the Pope’s right to depose a sovereign can only be exercised in order to ensure that earthly rule is properly ordered toward supernatural ends, and is not instead engaged in mortal sins. But why did the Pope interfere with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta? As Prof. de Mattei argues it was for precisely the opposite reason:

… the intervention took place “to punish” the current in the Order which is the most faithful to the immutable Magisterium of the Church and support instead, the secularist wing, which would like to transform the Knights of Malta into a humanitarian NGO, a distributor of condoms andabortifacients “for good reasons”… In his meeting with the Grand Master, Pope Francis announced his intention “to reform” the order, that is to say, the resolve to alter its religious nature, even if it is precisely in the name of Pontifical authority that he wants to start the emancipation of its religious norms and morals.

This then, is the reason why the intervention is illegitimate; it does not fall under the one case in which the spiritual power can legitimately judge the temporal.