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The Temporal Independence of the Pope (1)

The Temporal Independence of the Pope (1)


On September 20, 1870, Italian troops captured Rome, as well as what remained of the Papal States, that is, Lazio and Campania. Pope Leo XIII signed the official dissolution of these states on September 20, 1900. From 1870, the papacy considered itself a prisoner in the Vatican. The situation would be settled by the Lateran Agreements in 1929.

We intend to examine here the theological explanation of the existence of a territorial pontifical state, however limited it may be. It is about considering the temporal independence – politically – of the Pope. Fr. Edmond Dublanchy, SJ, devoted a series of articles to this subject in Revue thomiste in 1918-1919, gathered into one volume under the title La voix de Pierre pour l’indépendance du Pape [The Voice of Peter for the Independence of the Pope], in 1929, which will serve as a guide.

To pose the problem accurately, it is necessary to begin by determining precisely the meaning of the question and understanding its terms.

The Spiritual Independence of the Pope

The independence of one state or one power consists of not being the responsibility of another. The spiritual independence of the Pope consists in the fact that, in the exercise of his spiritual primacy, he does not come under any other authority.

This spiritual independence of the Pope results from two truths often affirmed by the Magisterium:

– that the Church was established by Our Lord as a perfect society, possessing all that is necessary for her to direct the faithful to a supernatural end (Dz 1719);

– that the Pope possesses in the Church the fullness of all authority (Dz 1826).

The spiritual independence of the Pope from the States is notably affirmed by Vatican I. This Council teaches that the fullness of the power of the Pope in the Church entails, for the Pontiff, the right to exercise his spiritual authority, in communicating freely with pastors and the faithful.

The Council condemns the opinion of those who say that this communication of the Supreme Head with the pastors and the faithful can be lawfully prevented; or who make this so submissive to secular power that they contend that whatever is established by the Apostolic See or its authority for the government of the Church has no force or value unless confirmed by an order of the secular power (Dz 1829).

The spiritual independence of the Pope has often been affirmed by Catholic theologians; its extension to temporal things, in so far as they have a connection with the supernatural end entrusted by Our Lord to the exclusive care of the Church, has been claimed by the supreme magisterium.

The Temporal Independence of the Pope

This full spiritual independence of the Pope entails the right to be exempt, even in the purely temporal order, from any submission to a secular authority, which might have legal power over him or demand his obedience.

This is called the temporal independence de jure. It will be shown later that it is a right inherent in the pontifical primacy as it was instituted by Our Lord.

When this independence is realized in a concrete way, by means capable of ensuring it in a stable manner, it takes the name of de facto independence.

– This de facto temporal independence is, in the numerous documents of the Holy See on this matter, since the middle of the nineteenth century, identified with temporal sovereignty.

The reason is that the possession of temporal sovereignty is, according to the constant data of long experience, the only means which can assure to the Pope, in a stable manner, the full independence required for the exercise of the sovereign pontificate.

On this subject, it suffices to recall a few very explicit affirmations from Leo XIII.

“In the course of our pontificate,” declares Leo XIII, “we have always claimed, for the Roman Pontiff, effective sovereignty, not out of ambition, nor for the purpose of earthly greatness, but as a true and effective protection of his independence and his freedom.”

“To be truly free and independent, at least in the present order of Providence, the Pope must have real sovereignty.”

“The full freedom required for the sublime function of visible head of the Catholic Church requires that the Vicar of Jesus Christ be, in his home, true sovereign, independent of all human sovereignty.”

“There can be no true independence for the Pope without territorial jurisdiction.”

– The temporal sovereignty of the Pope, considered in a concrete way, is exercised over the Roman state. This is the last point to be considered.

This sovereignty has four main properties: its legitimacy according to human law, its legitimacy according to Christian law, its inviolability according to both laws, and its necessity, at least in the present providential order, so that the full independence due to the Pope is sufficiently assured to him.

First, it is necessary to establish this fundamental principle: the temporal independence of the Pope, whether de jure or de facto, falls exclusively under the sovereign authority of the Church.


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