Trial of the Century: “When the Pope Does It, That Means Its Not Illegal.”

In the galaxy of Italian Catholicism, Alberto Melloni and Sandro Magister may not quite be matter and anti-matter, but they’re definitely not on the same planet. Melloni is a progressive historian and essayist, an exponent of the “Bologna School” and its liberal reading of Vatican II, while Magister, an influential journalist, is a voice for the church’s conservative and traditional wing.

When Melloni and Magister agree on something, therefore, you can be reasonably sure it’s beyond politics. Melloni and Magister are also veteran figures, who’ve more than logged the miles to know what they’re talking about.

All this comes to mind in light of an essay Melloni published Monday, which echoes a point Magister first made last May: To wit, that a new fundamental law Pope Francis issued for the Vatican City State on May 13, 2023, contains an absolutely unprecedented claim about the pontiff’s temporal authority.

The pope, the document asserts, is “called by virtue of the munus petrinum [Petrine ministry] to exercise sovereign powers over the Vatican City State.”

When the document first appeared, Magister wrote that “in reality, in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, the munus petrinum that Jesus conferred on the first of the apostles has nothing to do with any temporal power.” He backed that up with an appeal to history, noting that the papacy existed for at least eight centuries without any territory of its own, and also continued to exercise its ministry between 1870 and 1929 when it once again was bereft of any state over which to rule.

Melloni was more caustic in his own analysis on Monday.

“Not even the most tenacious defenders of temporal power have ever maintained that it was conferred on Peter consistent with the primacy and infallibility defined by the First Vatican Council,” Melloni wrote.

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