Prima sedes a nemine iudicatur: “The First See is judged by no one.”  Thus reads Canon 1404 of the current Code of Canon Law of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, and Canon 1556 of the previous code.  Romanus Pontifex a nemine iudicatur: “The Roman Pontiff is judged by no one.”  That is Canon 1058 of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches (those in union with the Roman See).  With these words, in either form, Dante Alighieri, the author of De Monarchia and of the Divina Commedia, would have concurred wholeheartedly, although he would have preferred the “Eastern” version as rather more precise.  On this point, at least, the Florentine would have been at one with his hated papal nemesis, Boniface VIII, and it is perhaps a bit ironic that it is the current Eastern code which offers, as a confirming authority for this canon, a footnote citing the bull Unam Sanctam of the same pope, a set of solemn pronouncements with which Dante was most certainly not in full accord.  The style of these canons is the heir of a whole juridical tradition born out of the struggles between the Roman Church and the Roman Empire that so deeply characterized the life of the Middle Ages.  Dante’s careful appreciation of the nature of this struggle in light of what he knew to be the true nature of human society has much to teach us today about the state of the Roman Church, and of the state of the state, not to say empire.  Not only Catholics but Orthodox and Protestant readers can profit by taking notice of his teaching and applying it to human society today.

We may indeed admire the “tut-tut, there-there, now” delicacy of a pope of the 20th century, Pius XI, who wrote an encyclical letter on the occasion of the sixth centenary in 1921 of the exiled Florentine’s death and burial in Ravenna, as he deals with the poet’s vehement opposition to Boniface VIII, turning Dante’s teaching on what we may call the “old world order” a bit on its ear, if not exactly contradicting it:

However much he may hold that the dignity of the Emperor is derived immediately from God, still he asserts that this truth “must not be understood so strictly as to mean that the Roman Prince is not subject to the Roman Pontiff in anything, because this mortal happiness is subjected in certain measure to immortal happiness” (Mon. III, 16).  Excellent and wise principle indeed which, if it were observed today as it ought to be, would bring to States abundant fruits of civil prosperity.  But, it will be said, he inveighs with terrible bitterness against the Supreme Pontiffs of his times.  True; but it was against those who differed from him in politics and he thought were on the side of those who had driven him from his country.  One can feel for a man so beaten down by fortune, if with lacerated mind he breaks out sometimes into words of excessive blame, the more so that, to increase his feeling, false statements were being made by his political enemies ready, as always happens, to give an evil interpretation to everything.

Transeat, as the scholastics say: “Let this argument go” so we can see how much truth there was in Dante’s frustration, for it was not simply political, but born of some very precise convictions, every bit as luminous as his understanding of the world to come.  Let us call the bard’s De Monarchia a Latin prose canto preliminary to the other metrical Tuscan three that make up the Divina Commedia.  We could even call it the Commedia Humana.  The Divine Comedy offers us the order of the world to come in a supernatural cosmology of the ultimate order of the universe governed by the Divine Goodness, which is “the Love which moves the Sun and other stars.”  Even of Hell it is said that eternal love made it, and Virgil explains at the precise middle point of the cantos that nature is so governed by love that it is the motive force for all—the saved, whether being purified or beatified, and the damned, whose damnation would make no sense unless they had resisted to the end the deepest tendency of their nature toward the Supreme Good and Love Who is God.  This ultimate order of things in the world to come is governed by principles that are divine and angelic (that is to say, ultimately spiritual and immaterial), and bodily intelligences (that is to say, human beings) are meant to be sublimated to that divine and angelic hierarchy of being and doing in virtue of the power of Christ, the God made Man.  But it is precisely this composite and bodily nature of man that must necessarily and of its very essence have an earthly existence before it can have a heavenly, or purgatorial, or infernal one.  Indeed, the pursuit of that happiness which can be obtained on earth is the prerequisite for the perfect happiness of Heaven, and the distorted pursuit of the passions which gains for man either a delay of that full joy, or its complete loss.  Thus, such happiness as can be sought on earth in accordance with the laws of human and terrestrial existence is, in a sense, a proportionately human happiness that consists of living well here in accordance with reason and faith in such wise as to reach, later on, another more perfect happiness beyond human ken.

So it is that in De Monarchia Dante teaches that the power of the Roman emperor derives directly from God, but for a reason that is very far from statism or baroque Gallican and Protestant theories of the Divine Right of Kings.  Dante founds the necessity of the emperor’s power on the human intellect, the merely potential tabula rasa that, in order to be perfectly actualized, needs social peace and stability.  The human mind, which governs the human will and passions, must live in a context of order, free from the violence of the passions of his neighbor, and hindered from its own individual excesses by one who governs philosophically, so as to enable man to live as well as possible on this earth, and thus reach some good measure of temporal happiness.  It is the emperor who is the minister of this peace and freedom from the passions, as it is the angels who govern man’s liberation from them in the Purgatorio and the Paradiso.  Since the nature of earthly man comes from God, so the one who has care of human society has his power directly from God:

Wherefore a twofold directive agent was necessary to man, in accordance with the twofold end; the Supreme Pontiff to lead the human race to life eternal by means of revelation, and the Emperor to guide it to temporal felicity by means of philosophic instruction.  And since none or few—and these with exceeding difficulty—could attain this port, were not the waves of seductive desire calmed, and mankind made free to rest in the tranquillity of peace, therefore this is the goal which he whom we call the guardian of the earth and Roman Prince should most urgently seek; then would it be possible for life on this mortal threshing-floor to pass in freedom and peace.  The order of the world follows the order inherent in the revolution of the heavens.  To attain this order it is necessary that instruction productive of liberality and peace should be applied by the guardian of the realm, in due place and time, as dispensed by Him who is the ever present Watcher of the whole order of the heavens.  And He alone foreordained this order, that by it in His providence He might link together all things, each in its own place.


If this is so, and there is none higher than He, only God elects and only God confirms.  Whence we may further conclude that neither those who are now, nor those who in any way whatsoever have been, called Electors, have the right to be so called; rather should they be entitled heralds of divine providence.  Whence it is that those in whom is vested the dignity of proclamation suffer dissension among themselves at times, when, all or part of them being shadowed by the clouds of passion, they discern not the face of God’s dispensation.  It is established, then, that the authority of temporal Monarchy descends without mediation from the fountain of universal authority.  And this fountain, one in its purity of source, flows into multifarious channels out of the abundance of its excellence.

Now of course, for the Catholic Dante, the Roman pope also has his power directly from God and not from his electors, but the pope then governs earthly men in the things that touch on their eternal and spiritual nature, and only indirectly with temporal things, and the emperor only as a man with an eternal destiny.  Dante’s emperor was, as it were, a terrestrial pope, binding only on earth but truly chosen by God.  Indeed, we can say that, if the Divine Comedy is attentively examined, it will be seen that for Dante the Roman Empire forms a preliminary analogy for understanding the ultimate order of things to which the Roman Church is meant to lead the subjects of the temporal order.  In Purgatorio he is assured that he will someday be one of the blessed in Heaven, “a citizen of that Rome, where Christ Himself is the Roman.”

So what?  We will answer (if the reader has persevered to this point!) that these notions which seem at first glance to have little to do with contemporary life in Church and state have much light to shed on the present mess we are in.  After all, Dante places Saint Celestine V in Hell because he resigned the papal office, thus occasioning the election of Boniface VIII, with his very imperfect polity.  (Although his ecclesiology was true enough; I am not a heretic!)  Boniface was in some ways the unwitting precursor of that relativization of the importance of a sound and divinely guaranteed state for the life of the Church.  It could seem to some that the Church has all She needs to govern men on earth in Her own powers.  But this is not true, and the postrevolutionary and postmodern West is proof of this.  After all, it was the Habsburg emperor who, in 1903, intervened with an imperial veto in the conclave that elected the luminous Saint Pius X, thus preventing the election of the Francophile Rampolla, who was an ally of the Republican French, and doing the Church a great service for some decades to come.  Without a sound state the Church can barely guarantee the human formation of Her children, and now we witness that the last and most fundamental and divinely established human institution, marriage and family life, is being defended with a weakness akin to negligence or even malice by many of the ministers of the Roman Church.  Modern popes have valiantly tried to compensate by their own office for the lack of a legitimate civil power, but for some time now the Church’s legitimate claims on the state are ignored or abrogated by Her very Self.  The Church is a divinely guaranteed institution, yes, and She is hardly to blame for the evils She has sought to prevent.  But even so, popes, even those who are now enjoying Paradiso, could sometimes have done a better job in a society and Church that could now be called an Humana Tragoedia.  Dante would concur with this, but of course no one, least of all this writer, can judge the First See.  As someone once said, Chi sono io per giudicare?  “Who am I to judge?”