Question: What was the papal tiara? What was the significance of Pope Paul VI's giving it away? Should future Popes resume the use of the tiara?
Answer: In many Catholic churches the tiara is displayed on the traditional flag of the Holy See. Paradoxically, it is still displayed in many of the churches of the New Order in spite of its symbolic banishment by Pope Paul VI. Like devotion to St. Philomena or St. Christopher, the tiara belongs more appropriately to traditional Catholicism than to its One World counterpart. The accompanying illustration shows the tiara together with the keys that represent the pontifical power of binding and loosing.
In modern times, the tiara was a sort of bee-hive shaped head-covering that supported the three crowns of the Popes. It developed over many centuries, reflecting the changing climate of Church-state relations. It was first mentioned in the (forged) document known as the "Donation of Constantine," in which that emperor was supposed to have conferred vast temporal benefits on the Church. As a sign of the papal office, Constantine was said to have allowed the Pope to wear a distinctive white cap. This cap acquired a single crown around 1130, while the Church was disputing the right of the emperors to appoint bishops and confirm the election of popes. A second crown appeared about 1300, during the reign of Pope Boniface VIII, famous for his quarrel with Philip IV of France which caused Boniface to issue the bull Unam Sanctam, declaring the necessity for everyone to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. A third crown appears to have been added about forty years later during the rule of Benedict XII at Avignon.
Even after the addition of the third crown, the quality (and consequent cost) of the tiara varied from pope to pope. While a few popes commissioned lavish headpieces, many were modest. Eventually the custom developed that the newly elected Pope's tiara would be furnished by the people of the diocese from whence he came prior to election.
The tiara remained the symbol of the Pope's political power until the fall of the Papal States at the end of the 19th century. It was worn on occasions of state and processions about the Papal territories. For liturgical functions, as bishop of Rome, the Pope wore a miter. Yet, the tiara was not a purely secular emblem. For, when exercising his infallible teaching office in making a solemn dogmatic definition, the Pope wore the tiara as a symbol of his supreme jurisdiction.
While it is relatively easy to trace the history of the tiara, it is more difficult to interpret the significance of abandoning it -- it is much easier to know what someone did than to know why he did it.
The historian, Thomas F.X. Noble, in his history of the Papal States, The Republic of St. Peter (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984), suggests that the tiara was abandoned
Of course, Professor Noble writes as an historian, and not as a theologian. He is reporting appearances rather than the underlying realities. In their legitimate commands, the popes still possess universal jurisdiction -- even if no one obeys. If the modern popes have ceased being universal bishops, they have only to resume acting like the Good Shepherd to pick up where they left off.
Yet some of the appearances which Noble reports are also realities. The Holy See no longer controls the third or so of Italy that it held through the 19th century1 -- it certainly does not exercise the world wide political influence it held in the 11th or 12th century -- it boasts no temporal crown.2
In a sense, what people perceive is their reality. If popes like John XXIII and Paul VI felt that it was wrong to protect their Ecumenical Council with the charism of infallibility -- if modern Popes feel that it is out of touch with the world to chastise the Church's liberal detractors with anathemas -- if they excommunicate only those loyal to the Faith -- then, at least in peoples' perceptions, they confirm Professor Noble's observation that they "no longer exercise universal jurisdiction."
Should the Popes resume the use of the tiara? Clearly it is more important that they take control of the Church and undo the damage of the past thirty years. They must proclaim the true teachings of Jesus Christ. They may never again administer Papal States, but they must be prepared to exercise their legitimate jurisdiction over souls in all nations.
The tiara is just a symbol. But sometimes symbols mold reality in their image. Perhaps the next Pope will be crowned with such a symbol and allow himself to be formed by its meaning rather than by the meaning of its absence.