Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Papal Tiara

So what ever became of the historic symbol of papal supremacy, the papal tiara? We know it was discarded after the Second Vatican Counicl, but what was its history and where does it rest now? This is a truly fascinating story and especially pertinent to those, like myself, who see part of the present crisis in the Catholic Church to be a problem of authority. Not the authority problem the liberals would say we have (i.e., that the pope has too much authority), but a different kind of problem, a problem where the popes are steadfastly refusing to exercise the authority that they rightfully have and that has been exercised in the past since apostolic times. The sad story of the tiara is the story of the confusion of the place of papal authority in the modern Church and of the the modern popes' refusal to be associated with the authoritative papacy of the past. Everything from the liturgical crisis to the crisis in the seminaries to the vocations crisis to the drop in Mass attendance comes back to an authority issue: the Gospel is not going forth because the leaders of the Church are not promulgating it with authority. The role of the hierarchy is threefold: to govern, teach and sanctify. Now, nobody can be sanctified if the teaching is not going forth. Furthermore, the teaching cannot go forth unless it is taught authoritavely in the name of Christ; but the teaching cannot be taught with authority unless the Church is willing to govern and rule itself with authority. By the way, lest anyone say that the Church has to be humble in its teaching and not claim any authority for itself, I respond with nothing other than the words of the Gospels regarding Christ's teaching: "He taught them with authority, and not like the scribes" (Matt. 7:29). In our character we are called to be humble, because we know we are but dust. But in our teaching, we are to be bold, because we come not in our own name but in the Name of He Who sent us, Whose teaching is faithful and true.

The papal tiara is technically called the Triregnum and has symbolized the office of the papacy since ancient times (though its form has changed over the years). The first mention of any sort of distinctive papal headgear comes from the time of Constantine and it is believed to have been modeled on a headdress worn by Byzantine nobility. By the time of Pope Sergius III (c. 904), the popes are portrayed wearing a helmet-like cap with a single crown. Why the name tiara was eventually chosen is obscured; perhaps to distinguish it from the episcopal mitre, though the name tiara is first mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis of the 11th century referencing the pontificate of Paschal II (1099-1118).

When the second tier was added is disputed. It is certain that it was added by the pontificate of Boniface VIII (from whom I take my alias) who poped from 1294-1303, but it is unknown whether it was Boniface or his great successor Innocent III (1198-1216) who added the second tier, for their exists an image of Innocent III wearing a double-tiered tiara. The second tier seems to symbolize the widely held belief in the late Middle Ages that the popes wielded both swords of authority, temporal and spiritual. Indeed, no other reasonable explanation has ever been put forth. Both Innocent III and Boniface VIII were remembered for pressing these claims, so it is conceiveable that either pope added the second tier, but it was certainly there by 1303, when Boniface's successor, the short-lived Benedict XI (1303-1304) was depicted wearing it.

The third tier was added quickly after, and an inventory of papal treasures from 1316 mentions a three-tiered tiara. The third tier was certainly added by the mid-14th century (some say by Benedict XII in 1342) and the lappets (two strips of cloth hanging off of the back) were added soon after. There after the triple-tiara became the sign of papal authority for centuries. There have been many different papal tiaras, some varying in weight and design. Twenty-two tiaras remain in existence today, the largest being the one donated to Pope Pius VII in 1804 by Emperor Napoleon I, which weighed just over 18 pounds (this tiara, coincidentally, was never worn, because the crafty French emperor seems to have intentionally had it built too small for Pius Vii's head). Most of the papal tiaras were destroyed in 1798 when they were captured and melted down by the French under Berthier. The twenty-two that survived either postdate 1798 or somehow managed to survive the disaster. By far the oddest papal tiara was the tiara of Paul VI, the last pope to don the Triregnum, whose tiara had a bizarre, bullet-like shape. It was Paul VI who chose to put an end to this venerable custom that had always signified the authority of the popes.

At the close of the Second Vatican Council, Paul VI descended the steps of the papal throne in St. Peter's Basilica and (this part will really make you mad) laid the tiara on the altar in a gesture of humility meant as a renunciation of all of the papacy's earthly power. Pope Paul's tiara was presented to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. by the Apostolic Delegate to the United States on February 6, 1968 as a gesture of Pope Paul VI's affection for the Catholic Church in the United States. It is on permanent display in Memorial Hall along with the stole that Pope John XXIII wore at the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

The renouncing of the tiara has understandably angered many traditional Catholics (myself included). No subsequent pope has taken up the tiara. Pope John Paul I (1978) was the first pope to be installed without being coronated (Paul VI had been coronated) and John Paul II decided to follow in his predecessor's footsteps. In his inauguration homily, John Paul II said, "This is not the time to return to a ceremony and an object considered, wrongly, to be a symbol of the temporal power of the Popes." I take issue with him here; I think the tiara, especially in the changes made to it by Innocent III, Boniface VIII and Benedict XII, was clearly and explicitly meant to be a direct assertion of the temporal power of the popes. Anybody who has studied the history of the popes and the temporal power in the Middle Ages (and I wrote my 94 page senior thesis on it) knows that this was the fundamental issue of the 13th-14th centuries. To say that the triple tiara does not represent the temporal power of the popes is just false. Sorry JPII, but it is simply not true.

Paul VI's 1975 Apostolic Constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo still allowed for a coronation, but neither John Paul I nor John Paul II took advantage of it. In 1996, John Paul II issued Universi Dominici Gregis, which removed all mention of a coronation and instead called it an "inauguration" (sounds like more democratization: remove references to monarchy and replace them with more democratic terms). However, JPII still retained the tiara in his coat of arms. This has even been done away with by Benedict XVI, whose coat features only an episcopal mitre. The only time anybody close to a pope wears the tiara now is when it is trotted out on the Feast of Sts Peter and Paul and placed on the head of the bronze St. Peter statue in St. Peter's Basilica.

I obviously think Benedict ought to take up the papal tiara again. I think no single act could be so easy for him to accomplish, yet so meaningful and symbolic. Think of how the world would react were the successor of Peter to take up his crown once again. How they would writhe and twist with discomfort at the thought of a papal crown! But, we are so uncomfortable nowadays with anything suggesting regnal power. We ought not be uncomfortable; the Kingdom of God is a Kingdom, a monarchy. The modern papacy has a fundamental misunderstanding of its own place in the Church. It thinks that love alone, without discipline, is enough to rule: this was the essential problem with John Paul II. It is like these parents who say, "I'm not going to discipline my kids; I'm just going to love them and let them choose for themselves what they want to do. I'll be more of a friend than a parent." We know how those kids will end up!
By the way, the Vatican Press Office says only that the tiara represents the Pope in his three roles as "father of kings, governor of the world and Vicar of Christ" and mentions only that it was "abandoned during the Papacy of Paul VI" without any other explanation. How would the press react if Benedict XVI were to claim himself "father of kings, governor of the world and Vicar of Christ?"

Holy Father, on behalf of loyal Catholics everywhere, in the name of Sts Peter and Paul, Gregory the Great, Pius V, Pius X and all the great popes and saints who have gone before you, and in the name of Jesus Christ Our Lord Who said, "Thou art Peter, and upon this Rock I shall build My Church," take up the rightful sign of your office! Assume the Triregnum so that the Church can governm teach and sanctify in power and in the Holy Spirit! Amen.


Anonymous said...

Very good analysis: authority must be taken up, and stronger than it currently is, no matter what: that's how it always was. I do think that Pope Benedict XVI is trying hard, but everyone knows enemies are all around.
Also, I thought that the Triregnum, as the name implies, refers to the "three reigns" of the Pope over the three "levels" of the Church: Militant, Suffering, Triumphant, and this could be added to the post. Also, I would be interested in the temporal-power issue, since I thought that the Church allows the state to wield this sword, and only acts as a "check," hence the relationship in the Inquisition: Church tries, state determines punishment. From some history that I learned, it was a similar relationship during the Pontificates of the Great Popes you mention. I would be interested in hearing why you like Pope Boniface VIII so much (We just talked about him in a Middle ages class I am taking) as well as reading your 93 page thesis. You may email me at
God bless,


Anonymous said...

I would appreciate if you could give me the academic source(s) for the history of the papal tiara. I am currently doing research for a thesis and am having a difficult time locating information on the Renaissance / Baroque use of the tiara. Thank you.

Phil said...

Thank you! This was a great article.