‘To Respond to the Needs of Our Times’: New Fundamental Law for Vatican City State Kicks In

The legislation is aimed to make the country more accountable in governance and financial oversight.

Palace of the Governorate of Vatican City State
Palace of the Governorate of Vatican City State (photo: By Staselnik / Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ new Fundamental Law for Vatican City State, which comes into force on Wednesday, aims to make the small autonomous territory more accountable to international commitments, increases the role of the laity in its governance, and attempts to tighten financial oversight.

The new law has also raised concerns that it gives the Pope unchecked power over the running of the Vatican, even going so far as to apply the spiritual office of Peter to run the temporal affairs of the state.

Announced on May 13, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, the Vatican said the new law has been introduced to “respond to the needs of our times” and serve as “the framework of the numerous reforms carried out during these ten years of the pontificate.”

The new legislation replaces Pope St. John Paul II’s Fundamental Law issued in 2000, which in turn succeeded the one issued on June 7, 1929, by Pius XI.

Explaining the new law to the Register, Church law professor Maria D’Arienzo of the University of Naples, Italy, said the centrality of the governorate — the government of Vatican City State — is now emphasized, placing numerous responsibilities under international rules such as security, environmental protection, a raft of administrative duties, and preserving and enhancing the Vatican’s artistic heritage.

“In all these areas, the governorate will have to act in compliance with international regulations,” D’Arienzo said, adding that it will now participate in “international institutions of which the Holy See is a member in the name, and on behalf of, the state.”

She said an additional change is that the president of the governorate, currently Legionary Cardinal Fernando Vérgez Alzaga, now effectively has a direct line with the Pope regarding any future legislation, rather than having to pass through the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, the legislative body of Vatican City that the president also heads.

“He can now submit directly to the Supreme Pontiff those issues considered most relevant, whereas in the previous Fundamental Law it was provided that they would be submitted only to the Pontifical Commission for examination,” D’Arienzo said.

She added that the new organizational structure, “characterized by the centrality attributed to the governorate and the downsizing of the functions of the Secretariat of State,” underlines the autonomy of the functions proper to the state “as a means of guaranteeing the universal mission of the Supreme Pontiff.”

Another novelty is that the Fundamental Law is a change in terminology. The word “powers” now refers only to the supreme pontiff, in contrast to the other organs of the state that exercise “functions” — legislative, executive and judicial.

“This clear specification of terminology highlights and underscores the subservient nature of the Vatican City State,” D’Arienzo said, noting that, according to the Article 1, legislative, executive and judicial powers now pertain “solely to the Supreme Pontiff, who, as Sovereign, has the fullness of the power of government.” These are distinct from the various Vatican State bodies that “implement the powers of the Supreme Pontiff” and therefore serve as “functions.”

Vatican ‘Pope King’?

After its announcement on May 13, the new law caused some controversy by appearing in its preamble to apply the pope’s spiritual government of the Church to the temporal governance of Vatican City State, something critics say has hitherto always been resisted.

In a May 31 article, veteran Vaticanist Sandro Magister referred to the opening line of the preamble of the new law that begins: “Called by virtue of the munus petrinum [petrine ministry] to exercise the sovereign powers also over Vatican City State …”

With these words, the new law cloaks with “divine right” not only the “spiritual government of the Church but also the temporal government of Vatican City State,” Magister wrote, whereas, “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 went on to explain how “history confirms this” by the fact that “for many centuries the papacy did not have a state of its own,” and after losing the Papal States in 1870, “it went another sixty years without any territory at all.”

The Church, he said, has always taken “the greatest care to avoid giving in to theocratic doctrines of fusion between throne and altar” and has always avoided the temptation of creating a “pope king.”

Quoting 19th-century Cardinal Luigi Lambruschini, Pope Gregory XVI’s secretary of state, Magister wrote that linking papal temporal power to the “divine origin of the Chair of St. Peter” — today referred to as the munus petrinum — “is unsustainable and dangerous.” Cardinal Lambruschini, called to evaluate a text “in defense of the temporal authority,” argued that “if temporal authority were absolutely necessary for the Supreme Head of the Church in the way expressed by the Author [of the text], it would therefore follow that Jesus Christ would have failed his Church in necessariis [essentially] at the very beginning of the age that established it, since for several centuries the Supreme Pontiffs were certainly not temporal Sovereigns.”

In June 4 comments to the Register, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, said that Magister “rightly observes” that “the ‘temporal’ of the Supreme Pontiff can in no way be derived from the Petrine primacy.”

“The true ‘fundamental law’ of papal primacy is John 21:15ff,” Cardinal Brandmüller said, referring to Jesus’ words to Peter about his future ministry and telling him that if he loves him, to “feed my lambs.”

“The ‘temporal’ of the pope, on the other hand,” he added, “resulted from historical development and found its foundation not in the so-called Donatio Constantini, an obvious forgery, but rather the transfer of power over various territories in central Italy” — a reference to the temporal power of the Papal States. Cardinal Brandmüller stressed that the First Vatican Council “doesn’t mention a single word about temporal rule.”

D’Arienzo said that the reference to the munus petrinum in the preamble concerns the legitimacy of the supreme power that the pope also exercises over the Vatican City State, the state having been created to guarantee the freedom and independence of the mission of the Holy See.

But she said such a reference “can engender considerable misunderstandings, insofar as it is likely to lead one to consider the temporal sovereignty deriving from the attribution of the office granted by the Lord singularly to Peter, first of the apostles, and which must be transmitted to his successors.”

D’Arienzo referred to Canon 331 of the Code of Canon Law, which states that “by virtue of his office,” the Pope “possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”

Vincenzo Buonomo, professor of international law and rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, told Vatican Radio that by helping Vatican City State adapt to international legal norms, the new law gives impetus to the missionary activity of the state “because it is directly functional to the magisterium of the Church and to the munus of the supreme pontiff.”

The new fundamental law, D’Arienzo explained, also introduces the term “community of the State” in Article 5, which, although it “still seems legally unclear,” includes not only citizens of Vatican City State but all who serve the Church “in an ecclesial spirit” and on a permanent basis.

New Lay Role

D’Arienzo said a further significant change is the enhancement of the laity, with the Pontifical Commission now allowing the appointment of “other members” besides only cardinals. This therefore permits not only the participation of clergy and religious, “but also of laymen and laywomen, whose involvement in roles of governance and responsibility is intended to be promoted.” This, she added, is consistent with this pontificate, especially the Pope’s recent new apostolic constitution for the Roman Curia, Praedicate Evangelium, which defines the laity’s role in the Church, and of promoting respect for life and creation, as “indispensable.”

Buonomo said the commission is “given the exclusive task of authentically interpreting the laws of the state” and will now be assisted by state councilors who will form a “special college” chaired by a general councilor of the state. Buonomo pointed out that the commission president is “no longer only executive” but also has a “control function and is the bridge between the Pontifical Commission and the Governorate.”

“Thus, it is the direct link for the issues that are most relevant and important for the life of the state: Its president is the direct link with the Holy Father,” he said.

Regarding financial reforms, D’Arienzo said these are “even more incisive” and aimed at “ensuring the Vatican system’s adaptation to the commitments undertaken on the international level.” In particular, the Pontifical Commission will now devise an annual budget and a three-year spending plan, which it will submit to the Pope for approval, inspired by the principles of “clarity, transparency and fairness.”

D’Arienzo said the origins of this reform date back to 2008, when Vatican law began being assimilated into the norms and practices shared by the international community. The new law guarantees the presence of Vatican City State globally, as the new rules will be in line with the “high standards of protection agreed upon at the European and international level.”

Finally, D’Arienzo pointed out further innovations in the area of Vatican criminal justice as the new law now places a priority on the “rehabilitation of the offender” and his “reintegration and the restoration of the violated legal order.” This new emphasis, she said, “constitutes further proof of the specificity of the Vatican system with respect to other state systems because of its instrumental character to the mission of the supreme pontiff.”

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