Life & Soul

How to… join the papal nobility

Rose Kennedy was made a papal countess

In spite of a succession of reforms in the modern era, including the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has never abolished the papal nobility: those aristocratic titles formerly occupied by the likes of the Borgias, the Medici, the Orsini, the Pamphili and the Borghese.

St Paul VI was the last pontiff to address the question of the nobility when in 1968 he reformed the papal court with his letter Pontificalis Domus, retaining the nobility as part of the Papal Household, and therefore also the right of pontiffs to confer titles such as prince, duke, count or countess on whomever they chose. One such member of the papal nobility was Rose Kennedy, mother of US President John F Kennedy. She was conferred the title of Countess of the Holy Roman Church.

All pontifical noble titles are within the personal gift of the pontiff, and are not recorded in the Official Acts of the Holy See. They are rarely awarded but both Pope St John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI ennobled distinguished individuals during their pontificates.

Among the nobility are the Counts of the Sacred Palace of the Lateran, a title usually reserved for pontifical chamberlains.