The Knights of Malta crisis brought rare attention to the issue of sovereignty for entities that are not territorial states – like the Holy See and the Order of Malta. (It is the Holy See – the universal pastor of the Church – not the Vatican City State which maintains diplomatic relations with states and is an actor in international law.)

In the initial stages of the conflict between the Holy Father and the Grand Master there was apparent intrusion by the Holy See into the internal, sovereign affairs of the Order of Malta. But after the defenestration of the Grand Master, all official statements and records were adjusted to reflect that the sovereignty of the Order of Malta had been respected. The Grand Master accepted a “proposal” that he resign, the governing council acted in accord with its constitution and the papal legate with plenipotentiary power is limited exclusively to the religiously professed knights. He will have nothing to do with the sovereign and diplomatic functions.

All of which is detailed elsewhere by more expert commentators. What is striking though is the nonchalance with which the Holy See initially treated the issue of sovereignty. Historically, the Holy See has insisted vigorously on its own sovereignty, complete even with the temporal power that attended the sovereignty of states.

The loss of the Papal States by armed force in 1870 meant that the Holy See was shorn of its temporal territorial jurisdiction, and it protested by not recognising the legitimacy of Italian rule over the lost territory. It took the Church some time to see that as a blessing in disguise, freeing the Church’s evangelical mission from the burden of temporal politics.

By the time of the 1929 Lateran Treaty which resolved the Holy See’s relationship with Italy, Pope Pius XI insisted on full sovereignty in as small a package as possible. He turned down an offer of a few square miles of territory along the Janiculum Hill, and took only the 109 acres that include St Peter’s Square, the basilica itself, the museums and the Vatican gardens. Vatican City was conceived as a guarantor of the Holy See’s sovereignty.

The pope, as universal pastor, cannot be constrained by the authority of any civil power, just as no civil power can justly limit the essential freedom of the Church. Nevertheless, the pope has to live somewhere. So the Vatican City State was created, the minimum required so that the pope might be civilly what he is as Vicar of Christ, sovereign and subject to no civil power. His miniature kingdom in this world is in service of preaching that kingdom which is not of this world.

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