St. Thomas Aquinas maintains that our intellect cannot grasp anything except through our senses. Recognizing this truth is essential to understanding the city of Rome and—beyond Rome—the Catholic Church, because Rome means nothing without the Church, and the Church loses her identity if is deprived of her Roman character.

The Church has five characteristics: She is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, the final characteristic both summarizes and condenses the previous ones: The Church is Roman. Her Roman character is tantamount to the Church’s dimension as an institution.

The most noble description of the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ; this definition refers to the spiritual and supernatural dimension of the Church. But the Church itself has a body, an historical institution that receives life from her spirit but is as necessary as the spirit to the life of the organism as a whole. This institution is the papacy.

Today, much is said about the pope as a person, and perhaps no other pope has been the subject of as much literature as John Paul II—an exceptional figure, with such an overwhelming personality that it makes us forget about the institution behind the man. The institution is not this or that pope but the papacy—established by Jesus Christ to perpetuate His historical mission until the end of time.

The symbolic language of the Church—the liturgy—reminds us not only of her mystical dimension but of her institutional dimension. A ritual dating back to the days of the early Church, the pontifical coronation (the imposition of the tiara after the election of the pope by the cardinals in conclave) best expresses the essence and significance of the papacy as an institution.

The Catholic Church is a monarehical institution. Among the prophetic words in the Scriptures concerning our Lord, we find that it was prophesied of Him that He should be a king, that He should rule the nations, that He should wear a crown. He transmitted His headship and His office to the Church. One of the privileges that He conferred upon His vicar was that he, too, should wear a crown.

The first coronation took place before A.D. 700, and the ceremony may date back to the early Constantinian era. The last pontifical coronation was that of Paul VI, on June 30, 1963, nine days after his election. Among the first decisions Paul VI made was the abolition of the flabelli, canopy, gestatorial chair, and the tiara itself—the very coronation ceremony.

The tiara is a cylindrical headdress, pointed at the top and surrounded by three crowns, which the pope wears as a symbol of sovereignty. It may be derived from the miter of the high priest of ancient Israel, or it may be a transformation of the Phrygian cap supposedly given by Constantine to Pope Silvester as symbol of the new freedom of the Church.

The conic miter, or mitra turbinata, which was worn by the ante-Nicene popes, had a golden crown at its base. This was eventually doubled to show that the pope had not only spiritual primacy but the canonical right to invest the emperor. The third crown was added by the Avignon pope to symbolize the Roman state.

Theologically, the three crowns represent the papal power over the three Churches (militant, purifying, and triumphant); and the threefold authority of the Church (magisterium, order, and jurisdiction); and the three missions exerted by Jesus Christ as prophet, priest, and king. During the coronation Mass, a week after the election, while the choir sang the antiphon Corona aurea super caput eius (“The crown of gold upon his head”), the cardinal removed the miter from the pope’s head. Then, coming to the front of the balcony, the cardinal replaced it with the papal tiara and addressed the new pope with these words:

Receive the tiara adorned with the three crowns and know that you are the Father of princes and kings, the Sovereign of the world, and the Vicar on earth of our Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom is honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

The pope’s coronation does not create his authority; this begins at the moment he accepts his election. However, the abolition of the coronation ceremony contributed to a diminution of the pontiffs power. This liturgical act incarnates the principle of pontifical sovereignty and expresses his suprema majestas (supreme authority) and plenitudo potestatis (the fullness of power). What is the foundation of the pontifical sovereignty expressed by the coronation ceremony?

Christ is the invisible Head of the Church. But since the Church was founded also as a visible society on tins earth, she was to have a visible head—the vicar of Christ. Jesus Christ accorded his governing power to a single person, placing St. Peter as the foundation of His Church and tasking him with the government of all communities. The fulfillment of Christ’s prophecy regarding the change of Simon’s name to Peter (which in Greek means “rock” or “stone”) took place on a memorable occasion in Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus clearly expressed the reason for the new name, promising Peter supreme authority over the Church. As St. Matthew writes:

Jesus saith to them: But who do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus, answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona; because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in Heaven.

This confession is formally approved and immediately rewarded by our Lord when He replies (Matthew 16: 18-19):

Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

The tradition of the Church has always affirmed that Peter, the fisherman from Galilee chosen by Christ to feed His lambs, came to the capital of the Roman empire to proclaim the Gospel. During Nero’s reign, he underwent the torment of the cross, like his Divine Master. Peter was martyred in Nero’s circus in the Vatican and buried nearby.

As a man, Peter lived and died like the rest of the saints and apostles; as Pope, St. Peter remains at the center of the Church, through his pastoral ministry and supreme religious authority. St. Peter did not receive the promises of he pontificate for himself, but for the good of the Roman Church. Since the Church must last until the end of the world, the ministry of Peter survived him in order to safeguard the Church over the centuries. The pope is bishop of Rome insofar as he is the successor of Peter, and is pope insofar as he is bishop of Rome. But the bishop of the See of Rome is also bishop of the world. The Roman Church is the mother and mistress of all the churches of the world.

The pope’s primacy is his supreme power in all of his spiritual jurisdiction, his capacity as head of the Catholic Church, bishop of bishops, prince of pastors, successor to St. Peter, and vicar of Christ on earth. This power is not simply primus inter pares (the first among peers), whereby he would enjoy a formal preeminence over the other bishops. It is a real authority extending over all the members of the Church and—without exception—pertaining not only to allegiance and respect, but to submission. The keys, the emblem of sovereignty, have been given to St. Peter alone, and through him to the Roman pontiff who possesses plenary, entire, and independent authority, and has no superior on earth.

Christ might have selected another form of government, instituting the visible Church as a democracy or an aristocracy. The practical question, however, is not what Christ might have done, but what Christ actually did.

In a monarehy, one person possesses supreme power. He has direct and immediate rule over all subjects within his kingdom, whether as individuals or as a body. Christ tempered monarehy with an aristocracy, so it is not in the power of the supreme ruler to abolish those inferior rulers whose power was equally of divine origin. Pontificate and episcopate both belong to the internal constitution of the invisible Church. Neither can cease to exist it the Church is to endure as instituted by Christ. Pontificate without episcopate would not constitute the Church; nor would episcopate without pontificate.

Plenitude of power to rule a society of men includes legislative power, judicial power, and coercive power. Legislative power is the authority to make the laws by which a society is governed. If laws are universal, they can be made only by a universal or supreme ruler. If laws are particular—binding only a part of society—they may be made by the ruler who has the power to govern that part. The supreme pontiff alone, as universal ruler, has power to make a universal law, to bind the universal Church. It is not in the power either of any individual bishop, or of all the bishops in one body, to make a universal law. Church councils are called by the pope, and the pope must promulgate their conclusions before they become laws of the Church.

Every bishop is, nevertheless, a lawgiver within his own limits. He has jurisdiction over his subjects, and his jurisdiction includes the legislative authority by which his flock is to be governed. He has neither the right nor the authority to make a law to govern other flocks, nor to make a universal law.

Judicial power is a necessary consequence of legislative power because, in the application of laws, there may be controversy. For the decision of a controversy, there must be a judge. All judges are not equal in their judicial authority. The sentence of a lower judge may be appealed to a higher judge; the judgment of a supreme judge is, however, a peremptory judgment, from which there can be no appeal. Bishops are therefore true judges, but not supreme; their judgments are true judgments, although they are not peremptory. They may be reversed on appeal to higher judges whose judgments may, in turn, be reversed on final appeal to the sovereign pontiff who is, by institution of Christ, the supreme judge from whose judgment there is no appeal. Sedes Apostolica a nemine judicatur—the Apostolic See is, and can be, judged by no man.

A ruler of men must also have coercive power; otherwise, laws will be made in vain, and the execution of judgments will not be secured. A law must have its sanction in a threatened punishment, and he who threatens must have the power to inflict. This power, as it is a power to bind, is possessed by the pontiff because it was, in its fullness, bestowed on Peter.

Bishops also possess coercive power; but, like their legislative and judicial powers, it has limits. Even within those limits, it is dependent on the power that is independent and supreme. The pontiff’s power is independent of every other power on earth. What he binds on earth, no man can loose; what he looses on earth, no man can bind. Christ gave the Keys of His Kingdom—the visible Church on earth—to the pontificate, not the episcopate. These principles were proclaimed a dogma of the Catholic faith by Pius IX at the First Vatican Council in 1870. This proclamation came to assume paramount importance, enabling Pius’s successors to fend off attempts to behead the Church of her supreme authority and to turn her into a democratic and egalitarian ecclesiastical society.

Understanding the significance of pontifical sovereignty is important not only for Catholics, but for all who value authority and order—especially today, in a world sinking into chaos. We face an unprecedented offensive against the sovereignty of nation-states and, indeed, the principle of sovereignty itself Globalization and separatist movements join forces in dismantling nation-states, which are seen as transitional historical phenomena, bound to disappear. This process applies to the Church as well, where progressive theologians argue that pontifical primacy is an expression of an outdated concept of sovereignty. The papacy and the Church, they assert, need democratic and egalitarian reform; the monarchical and hierarchical structure of the Church should go the way of the vanishing nation-states.

Still, the principle of sovereignty flows directly from human nature; neither political nor ecclesiastical society may renounce this principle without falling into anarchy and chaos.

The liturgy and ritual of the Church—the visible expressions of her life—are today often neglected and unappreciated within the Catholic Church; nonetheless, they help us comprehend more deeply not only the relevance of the Church’s eternal message, but the significance of the principles and institutions on which civil society is founded.