ROME – In the galaxy of Italian Catholicism, Alberto Melloni and Sandro Magister may not quite be matter and anti-matter, but they’re definitely not on the same planet. Melloni is a progressive historian and essayist, an exponent of the “Bologna School” and its liberal reading of Vatican II, while Magister, an influential journalist, is a voice for the church’s conservative and traditional wing.

When Melloni and Magister agree on something, therefore, you can be reasonably sure it’s beyond politics. Melloni and Magister are also veteran figures, who’ve more than logged the miles to know what they’re talking about.

All this comes to mind in light of an essay Melloni published Monday, which echoes a point Magister first made last May: To wit, that a new fundamental law Pope Francis issued for the Vatican City State on May 13, 2023, contains an absolutely unprecedented claim about the pontiff’s temporal authority.

The pope, the document asserts, is “called by virtue of the munus petrinum [Petrine ministry] to exercise sovereign powers over the Vatican City State.”

When the document first appeared, Magister wrote that “in reality, in the doctrine of the Catholic Church, the munus petrinum that Jesus conferred on the first of the apostles has nothing to do with any temporal power.” He backed that up with an appeal to history, noting that the papacy existed for at least eight centuries without any territory of its own, and also continued to exercise its ministry between 1870 and 1929 when it once again was bereft of any state over which to rule.

Melloni was more caustic in his own analysis on Monday.

“Not even the most tenacious defenders of temporal power have ever maintained that it was conferred on Peter consistent with the primacy and infallibility defined by the First Vatican Council,” Melloni wrote.

“No one has managed to understand who the reckless canonist was who carried [the document] to the pope’s signature, with a formula … which goes beyond the figure of the Pope-King himself, in which there was at least a hyphen.”

The reason Melloni was returning to the subject now is in light of the looming conclusion of the Vatican’s “trial of the century,” which is currently in its final phase, with a verdict expected by the middle of this month.

In effect, observers such as Melloni and Magister are suggesting that the trial and its vicissitudes represent a reassertion of virtually absolute temporal power on the part of the papacy – not the spiritual authority to govern the Catholic Church, which is a matter of faith, but the civil power to rule a state, which is an accident of history – with potentially far-reaching and dangerous consequences, no matter what the court rules.

The key defendant in the trial is Italian Cardinal Angelo Becciu, a former sostituto, or “substitute,” in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, effectively the pope’s chief of staff, who’s been charged with various financial crimes related to three separate affairs: First, the $400 million purchase of a former Harrod’s warehouse in London by the Secretariat of State; second, the transfer of roughly $240,000 to a Catholic charity in Sardinia run by his brother; and third, payouts of around $600,000 for the liberation of a missionary nun kidnapped in Mali by Islamic militants.

Today, Becciu’s lawyers are scheduled to wrap up their closing arguments, having already insisted on their client’s innocence and demanded that he be absolved on every count.

Unless he pulls a rabbit out of the hat at the end, prosecutor Alessandro Diddi, a lay Italian attorney serving as the Vatican’s Promoter of Justice, appears to have failed to produce evidence that Becciu derived any financial benefit from the contested transactions – indeed, a recent Italian news report indicated that Becciu drives himself around Rome in a rickety Mazda Demio, so old that it’s actually worth less than what it would cost to have the car scrapped.

More worrying, however, is the charge by defense lawyers and other observers that the trial has been plagued from the beginning by procedural irregularities. They include a series of ad-hoc papal decrees that stacked the deck in favor of the prosecution to such an extent as to raise serious doubts about due process, arguably standing in contrast with both Catholic social teaching as well as international conventions on human rights to which the Vatican itself has subscribed.

Put bluntly, the complaint is that Francis is acting on the principle famously articulated by Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate, channeling the conviction of claimants to unchecked power throughout the ages: “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

Meloni suggests that the only real parallel to what’s going on now reaches back almost 500 years, when Pope Paul IV in 1557 had Cardinal Giovanni Morone imprisoned in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo and put on trial on charges of heresy for his alleged sympathy for the Lutherans.

Then as now, the process was marked by procedural anomalies, as Paul IV authorized prosecutors to ignore even the laws governing the conduct of the Inquisition in order to build their case, including the use of witness intimidation. Then as now, the wheels of justice ground slowly, as Morone spent more than two years behind bars before being cleared, just as Becciu was first indicted in July 2021.

Then as now, the pope tried to ensure that the cardinal in the dock couldn’t become his successor. Just as Francis stripped Becciu of his cardinal’s privileges, including the right to participate in the next conclave, Paul IV issued a 1559 decree, Cum ex apostolatus officio, stating that a suspected heretic couldn’t be elected, which everyone knew was directed at Morone.

It remains to be seen if Becciu will receive the same vindication that came for Morone, who was rehabilitated under Pope Paul’s successor, Pius IV, and went on to serve as a papal delegate to the closing sessions of the Council of Trent, where he was credited with helping to bring the council to a successful conclusion.

The most basic commonality in both cases is the contrast between the pope’s pastoral authority as head of the universal church and his temporal power as a civil sovereign – with the latter being exercised in seemingly abusive ways, which may end up compromising the moral credibility of the former.

No matter how the court rules, Melloni wrote, “the church will not come out of this more humble, but more humiliated.”

Of all the ironies of the Francis era, perhaps the most towering may be that a pope who’s invested so much energy in trying to move the church forward could end up being remembered for effectively taking it back, at least as far as its temporal power is concerned – a remembrance, in effect, of things we thought were past.