This post is in part a response to a very recent article by the Modern Medievalist, whom I respect highly (and yet nonetheless disagree with in this case), and partly as a general response to the distortion of the concept of Sovereignty in Modern times. This has been brought to the forefront by the investigation of Holy See into the Religious Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta. As the investigation is still on-going, it would be unwise to comment on specific situation of the Order today, so this post is mainly confined to the general principles involved.
First to clear up a major misunderstanding (not present in the in the Medievalist’s post), neither the Holy See, nor the Order are nations, even in the distorted modern sense of the world. The Vatican City-State is of course a country, the Knights of Saint John are an interpatrial order, both are jurisdictions. However, the major misunderstanding is really concerning the nature of Sovereignty itself. The modern distorted notion sees sovereignty as a kind of exclusive control, clearly contrary to the principles of the Natural Law. What then is the correct understanding of Sovereignty? As I wrote in On the Current Crisis;
A Sovereign is one who is super regnos, who has Authority and consequently jurisdiction, which is by no means exclusive. The Father of a Family who owns property is thus Sovereign, he has authority and jurisdiction over his property and those who dwell upon it, but is himself under the rule of the law. Thus Countries themselves are Sovereign and yet bound by the Ius Gentium [Interpatrial Law], whose protector and embodiment is the Emperor and the Empire.
Now the objection is raised that the Papal Bull Pie Postulatio Voluntatis establishes a kind of exclusive “sovereignty” by which the Order of Hospitallers is freed from any kind of interference. While it is true that Postulatio Voluntatis promises as to keep the Order free from “any underhand subtlety, or violence,” it does so because the Knights were established under the direct Authority of the Apostolic See¹. And far from being under no other authority, the Grand Master of the Order, ex officio (since 1607) an Imperial Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, was not only bound by the general authority of the Sovereign of Sovereigns, but by the specific laws governing the direct jurisdiction of the Emperor.
The history of the Order of Malta has been complicated by the fact that from the resignation of Ferdinand Reichsfürst von Hompesch zu Bolheim in 1799, until the Order’s reestablishment by Pope Leo XIII in 1879, the position of Grand Master was effectively vacant. A rival order was created by Russian King Paul I and under the influence of this order, the Knights of Malta began to take in unprofessed lay members who had not taken the religious vows of the Order. The concerns of the Holy Father which prompted the investigative commission, are apparently in part that the Order is slowly transforming itself into a Secular organization. Regardless of the findings of the Commission, Fra Matthew Reichsfürst Festing has done nothing more than his vow-bound duty in submitting his resignation at the Holy Father’s request, and I am sure that no evil but rather only great good can come from this display of the virtue of Holy Obedience.
¹According to the current Constitution of the Order, it pertains to the Grand Master “to execute the acts of the Holy See, insofar as these relate to the Order.”