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Historia Ecclesiastica

Elect, Create, and Proclaim

On papal nobility.


In the United States, all men are equal before the law. The same is true in most nations around the world today, at least on paper. In the era of republics, democracies, parliaments, and congressional representatives, Christians are living in a world where the Church is an anomaly. For in its internal governance, the Church, for better or for worse, is a rigid hierarchy, an absolute monarchy composed of celibate men who swear an oath of obedience to upholding its order. It may seem unbecoming to point out, but among these men there are stations of rank that sit atop one another—deacon to priest and priest to bishop, and among bishops the honors of archbishoprics and the cardinalate. Then of course there are the rare and niche outliers that still fit within the order: patriarchs, metropolitan archbishops, monsignors, nuncios, and other offices. Every cleric has his place and every proper cleric should know where he fits.

Authority shoots upward to where the beloved Holy Father governs the whole Body as Christ’s vicar on Earth. This is the natural order of the clergy and a structure that largely resists any major change. (While of course every human person is a child of God and equal to every other in dignity and worth, the Church is inarguably ordered in a manufactured system of positions, each of which demands respect in varying degrees.) In phaleristics, scholars call it the “order of precedence.” And yet there are even oddities within this system. To this day, there exists a lay institution within the Catholic Church that runs parallel to the clerical hierarchy.

The “papal nobility” is an ancient yet vaguely defined institution within the Catholic Church that has existed since before the papal tiara or even a Christian Europe. It is a mysterious and low-profile distinction bestowed upon individuals privately by the pontiff. Much like the clerical hierarchy, nobility with the church comes in a variety of ranks, some more common than others. In its simplest form, one might rank nobles starting at baron and ascending to viscount, count, marquess, duke, and prince of the Roman Church. To understand the papal nobility, you have to leave theology aside for a moment and instead focus on the pope’s secular authority as monarch of a sovereign nation.

As has been the case since the Church’s beginnings in the Roman Empire, monarchs wield the power to “ennoble” their subjects. Much like the House of Windsor or the Swedish royals bestow titles to families and individuals close to the nation’s crown, the Holy See can distribute noble titles to its allies. For some, “papal nobility” may call to mind the so-called “Black Nobility”—a tight-knit group of Roman families who beginning in the Risorgimento pooled their resources to support and protect the authority and prominence of the Bishop of Rome. These families were already noble by their own right and did not need confirmation from the Vatican.

Nobles inside the Vatican have often enjoyed a direct line to the pope—serving as advisors, experts, and even close friends of the Bishop of Rome. These nobles enjoyed long, grandiose titles and honors, often unique to their holder. And while those noble families still exist and continue to enjoy proximity and cooperation with the Holy See, they are far from the extent of this institution, especially in the modern day and in our egalitarian era. The papal nobility has, historically, been a fluid and multi-functional caste system of the Catholic Church. In his 1936 autobiography, A Papal Chamberlain, Papal Marquis Francis Augustus MacNutt describes the highest rankings of lay nobility strolling the paths of Vatican City: “The lay element at the Papal Court was not numerous. Prince Chigi, hereditary Marshal of the Conclave, had no functions save during an interregnum; Marquis Patrizi, Standard-Bearer of the Holy Roman Church, Prince Ruspoli, Maestro del Sacro Hospizio, and Prince Massimo, Superintendent of the Posts, were likewise seen only at ceremonies of great pomp.”

Noblemen catered to the Holy Father’s logistical and aesthetic needs and entertained dignitaries in the Vatican. Services to the papacy such as these earned these men titles such as papal chamberlain, count palatine, and count of the Holy Roman Church. It was also around the time that the Church began relaxing its emphasis on secular birthrights and began welcoming foreigners of different backgrounds into the inner circles of the church. MacNutt, himself an American chamberlain of the Papal Court, wrote, “In the days of the temporal power, the Roman camerieri segreti were necessarily noblemen and, whatever else their rank, claimed the title of Counts Palatine, though their pretension had but shadowy foundation. Foreigners, whom the Pope appointed chamberlains, were required proofs of noble ancestry. After 1870, the Roman chamberlains gradually deteriorated and, by 1898, there were very few among them who could have aspired to that rank prior to the former date.”

Until the Second Vatican Council, the Papal Court operated just like that of a secular king’s inner circle. Historically, these titles have been valuable, socially empowering statements of authority given to trusted Catholic leaders. Laity who worked directly with the pope were given countships or dukedoms. Generous donors who funded important Catholic charities were thanked with letters granting them special status and privileges. All papal appointments to nobility are private unless otherwise decided by the pope. There is no coronation or public appointment. It’s a “gift” from His Holiness and is granted at will. While certain conventions exist and historical norms have been established, there is no ennoblement rulebook.

The United States boasts a respectful history of papal nobles, including dukes, duchesses, counts, and countesses. Buried in the archives of dioceses across the country are papers that can offer a glimpse of these elaborate favors from the pope. Rose Kennedy, the mother of President John F. Kennedy, was a proud Catholic matriarch and powerful political operator in mid-twentieth century America. Her influence over politics and culture, coupled with her devout Catholic faith and loyalty to Rome, earned her the attention of Pope Pius XII. In 1952, a letter signed by the Holy Father appeared in Rose Kennedy’s mailbox, accompanied by a personalized portrait of the pontiff.

His Holiness wrote:

By this brief, therefore, We elect, create and proclaim you a Countess; and We decree that you, Beloved Daughter in Christ, can and may, freely and as a matter of right, be addressed and designated by this august title in all private and public records, in all diplomatic documents, and also in all Apostolic Letters of whatever description. Furthermore, We bestow upon you each and every privilege, this illustrious title, do or can or shall be able to exercise or enjoy, excepting however the right to transmit this grant of nobility to your heirs.

Very often these gifts of nobility are hard to track down due to their personal, private nature. Rose Kennedy’s letter from Pope Pius XII is held in the archives of Kennedy Presidential Library. And because the title was non-hereditary, none of her children became counts or countesses after her death. These more modern ennoblements and their language often blur the line between simple gestures of thanks and serious calls to action. While scholars can rest assured Rose Kennedy did not inherit a fiefdom or county with her title, the pontiff did specifically mention her right to “each and every privilege” of the position. What exactly that means becomes more opaque with each anecdotal incident.

This use of nobility as an award of honor for services rendered to the church can also be observed in another American example, Her Ladyship Katherine Price—a “countess of the Holy Roman Church” in the Diocese of Amarillo, a title awarded by Pope Pius XI in 1936. Price was a major financial benefactor to both the dioceses and local Catholic school systems. As with Kennedy, it’s not clear whether she received her noble title as an honor or a means of furthering her work. While one might imagine a doddering old lady with bags of money as a mild and obedient benefactor, evidence suggests she was active in decision-making and marshaled resources for the Church when needed. In the same letter as her ennoblement, Price’s bishop assures the freshly appointed countess that he was heading a search for a personal secretary for her office as she had requested.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI restructured the Papal Court into the more cozy and informal-sounding “Papal Household.” With this change, the parade of counts and barons of the Church transformed into a trickle. Services that previously made a man a count palatine or chamberlain nowadays earn him the less-opulent title of “Gentleman of His Holiness.” Pope John Paul II is rumored to have ennobled two Polish friends as “gentlemen,” and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reportedly dabbled in privately bestowing noble titles on laity. Titles, like in other monarchies, are either life titles or hereditary titles. While the latter can be passed from parent to child as a form of inheritance, life titles die with the recipient.

It is unclear if Pope Francis has Ennobled anyone. Even if he has in private, it’s hard to argue that the nobility hasn’t fallen off in recent decades. No matter what political ideals you subscribe to—and regardless of the ethical implications of royalty and hereditary social privilege—it is impossible to ignore our modern, global society’s deliberate lack of garishness and showmanship. The papacy is no exception. Not so long ago, the pontiff was carried out of the Vatican on his gestatorial chair amongst a flurry of feathered fans and scarlet-uniformed footmen. Whether appropriate or not, the pope was a king in the truest secular sense.

Nowadays, Pope Francis often forgoes ceremony and pageantry completely. He very rarely even wears his Ring of the Fisherman, which he had cast in gold-plated silver to save money. The fancy hats, scarlet robes, traipsing horses, and golden scepters of Old World politics have been replaced by suit jackets, pressed trousers, and tasteful marks of office such as lapel pins. The Church has returned to an institution serving the poor, not the interests of petty princes and barons. And if the laity have a problem with that, they should begin praying for clarity on what exactly it is that they worship.

At the same time, Pope Francis has flung open the doors of the Vatican and welcomed input from all sorts of lay people. In one recent and notable instance, he restructured the Congregation for Bishops to include female input. While many clutch their pearls at the march of laity into the halls of power, others celebrate the fresh air of non-clerical leadership. Perhaps then, the issue can be retooled and reimagined. It is possible that this new era of lay-clerical coordination can be simplified and sanctified in the same breath with just a return to the order of precedence.

Queen Elizabeth II and her platinum jubilee attracted the eyes and ears of over ten million people from around the world, many of whom are not her subjects. Her celebrations were attended by hundreds of English nobles, some hereditary, others life peers. Knights of the British Empire’s many orders could be seen patriotically and reverentially paying respects to an unelected monarch. The popularity and spectacle of it all causes one to pause and wonder: has the Catholic Church failed to utilize this very same resource of hierarchy, honor, and intentional privilege?

In the increasingly secularized, meritocratic, and egalitarian world, authentic pomp and circumstance for individuals deemed worthy of respect have become a rarity that draws eyes and ears. And here the Church sits on millennia of knighthoods, noble titles, fraternities, orders, and awards of service. Laity all over the world have been moved by the Holy Spirit in ways that have prepared them to lead outside the clergy. Lay theologians, Catholic philosophers, and even opinion writers have stepped in to defend the Church and spread the good word of Jesus Christ. More than just rewarding them, a revival of the nobility would create a sense of legitimacy and authority to command attention from the public. Activists, politicians, social coordinators, church managers, scholars, and more play key roles in the growth of the flock and are poised to push the Church forward arm-in-arm with the clergy. Maybe it’s time to name a duke or two.

Timothy H .J. Nerozzi is a reporter at Fox News.

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Timothy Nerozzi is a reporter for Fox News. He was previously a news editor at the Washington Examiner.