It was 20 September 1870 when the Papal States fell to the Kingdom of Italy in Rome, cementing the end to territorial rule of the Pope until 1929.
Since that moment, that very event has been met with sourness from many Catholics who continue to seek more land under the Church to defend against the onslaught of regimes who have fought against the right to life, have diminished the meaning of God in their societal structures, and oftentimes, whenever their population so desires, have tried to dismantle the religious freedom of the Church.
While all of this is deeply troubling indeed, there is, in fact, one such thing the Fall of the Papal States has positively provided the Catholic Church with, and that is permanent sovereign legitimacy.
During the Prisoner of the Vatican, the Holy See would continue to act as a sovereign entity sending diplomats all over the world, with control over its internal governance, and with the understanding that regardless of territorial possession, the Holy See would remain distinctively sovereign forever, securing the ultimate religious liberty needed in an increasingly secular world.
Thus, the Catholic Church had found their ultimate power in international law, and that is to distinguish any territory the Pope rules over from the Holy See.
Therefore, since the 1929 Lateran Treaty, the Pope has been sovereign over two distinctively sovereign entities: the Holy See and the Vatican City State. The Vatican City State provides the Pope, as Sovereign of the Vatican City State, with territorial sovereignty, while the Holy See provides the Pope with the guarantee that no matter what happens to the Vatican City State, the Pope will remain sovereign.
This same freedom the Holy See possesses is a freedom the Sovereign Knights of Malta possesses, and that is the ability of these knights to have sovereignty without land. They, too, lost their territorial sovereignty, in 1798, but so far, they have kept their sovereignty. And, given this very fact, they have been able to preserve the freedoms of their order, much akin to the Holy See.
Yet, increasingly, many anti-Catholic organizations have been seeking to erode the Holy See’s distinctive sovereignty as well as the Sovereign Knights of Malta’s due to this landless nature.
And this is exactly why the Holy See needs to preserve the Sovereign Knights of Malta’s sovereignty for religious freedom.
By having three sovereign entities, it means the Catholic Church has their sovereignty held up in three entities instead of one. These three entities are able to promote the Catholic Church and humanitarian diplomacy in all countries, in many organizations like the United Nations and INTERPOL, and now, sports too!
If the Catholic Church were to ever become illegal in a country, or if their faithful ever needed help, one of these three entities could use their embassies (apostolic nuncios), immunity, and citizenship to provide protection under international law.
It is a lot less risky for the Catholic Church to have three sovereign entities as the likelihood of the three losing sovereignty is already low, let alone all three. It is akin to putting your money in multiple banks instead of just one. And thus, by having three, you preserve a greater ability to extend your reach around the world.
And that is why for the Holy See’s self-interest, preserving the Sovereign Knights of Malta’s sovereignty should be unquestionably a foreign policy directive of Pope Francis.
Now, the internal governance of the order is another topic. I personally would prefer for the status quo of the Sovereign Knights of Malta to continue, but as long as this historic order remains sovereign, it will be a win for the Catholic Church. If the Pope really wants to take it over, he should seek to make it a personal union with the Holy See where he is Sovereign of the Knights of Malta too, similar to his ex officio role with the Vatican City State, that way it can remain distinctively independent. Another interesting ploy would be to have the Grand Master and the Pope be co-monarchs, similar to Andorra’s co-principality status. There are many ways the Pope can centralize control of the order without taking away its sovereignty. However, part of the Order’s allure and its sovereign ability to diplomatically go into many nations is tied to its apolitical nature and independence, so it really is best if they keep a separate Head of State elected internally.
Whether the Pope listens to those who care about the Catholic Church the most is up to him. If I were the Sovereign Knights of Malta, I would be prepared to use my treaties with the Italian Republic to force the Holy See to stop meddling in their own internal affairs, as the Holy See’s guaranteed territory of the Vatican City State is predicated on the Holy See staying politically neutral. While it is important for the Sovereign Knights of Malta to have their religious part subject to the Pope as spiritual sovereign, and thus the Holy See to preserve its religious obedience to the Catholic Church, it should never subject their temporal sovereignty to the Holy See or any other entity.