Pope Francis Changes Law to Allow Vatican City Court to Judge Cardinals and Bishops

In the preamble, the pope referenced Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which says that “there is true equality among all with regard to the dignity and action common to all the faithful in building the Body of Christ.”

St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.
St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. (photo: Calin Stan / Shutterstock)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Friday amended part of a law issued last year regulating Vatican City’s judicial system, now allowing the court of first instance to rule on criminal trials of bishops and cardinals.

The law previously said that cardinals and bishops could only be judged by the final court of cassation for the civil judicial system, which is the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

The prior law meant that criminal trials of cardinals and bishops were judged by other cardinals. With the April 30 update, Vatican City judges — typically lay people — will be competent to rule on the cases.

The amendments were issued by Pope Francis in an apostolic letter “amending the jurisdiction of the judicial bodies of Vatican City State,” issued motu proprio (“on his own impulse”).

In the preamble, the pope referenced Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which says that “there is true equality among all with regard to the dignity and action common to all the faithful in building the Body of Christ.”

He also quoted Gaudium et spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which says that “all men have the same nature and the same origin; all, redeemed by Christ, enjoy the same vocation and the same divine destiny; it is therefore necessary to recognize more and more the fundamental equality of all.”

“The awareness of these values ​​and principles, which has progressively matured in the ecclesial community, today calls for an ever more adequate compliance with them even in the Vatican system,” Pope Francis said.

In the update, Pope Francis repealed article 24 of a law issued on March 16, 2020, which declared that “the court of cassation is the only competent to judge, with consent of the Supreme Pontiff, the Most Eminent Cardinals and the Most Excellent Bishops in criminal cases.”

In the 2020 norms, Law CCCLI, the pope grounded Vatican City civil law in the Church’s canonical legal system, making the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the curia’s highest canonical appeals court, the final court of cassation for the civil judicial system.

The court of cassation consists of the cardinal prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, currently Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, plus two cardinal members of the signatura and two or more judges appointed for three-year terms.

The court of cassation is usually ruled by a bench of cardinal judges but can include other judges if circumstances require.

In the April 30 amendment, Pope Francis added a paragraph to article 6 of the 2020 law, stating that “in cases involving the Most Eminent Cardinals and the Most Excellent Bishops ... the tribunal [court of first instance] shall judge with the consent of the Supreme Pontiff.”

The amendment makes note of the exception to this rule contained in canon 1405 of the Code of Canon Law, which says that only the pope can judge cardinals and bishops in penal cases regarding spiritual matters or a violation of Church law involving sin and the imposition of ecclesial penalties.

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