An Examination of the State of Vatican City
“I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” —Pope John XXIII
Probably the biggest peculiarity of a tiny nation so steeped in vastly mysterious and arcane tradition, (with each of this nations’ traditions being in itself a peculiarity in comparison to other nations’ modes of government), is not that it is the world’s smallest country—nor even that in spite of its size that it is arguably the world’s most powerful—; it is that it is a state—the last remaining of its kind on our planet—which is ruled by an absolute monarch. (Such a fact is not even so strange a part of the peculiarity to deem it the most enthralling particle of its perplexity); the really enticing and shocking realization is a most unsettling paradox: that this last of the absolute monarchs is elected by the very people he has total control over.
Can a nation possessed of such a quizzical dichotomy—a ruler in entirety all powerful, a people satisfied in relinquishing their power over their own governance—possibly even survive in today’s shrinking, conforming globe? There has since the latter part of the eighteenth century, been encroaching our world, two phenomena which no nation in the wake of each has been successfully able to withstand: communication and democracy. Yet this nation has seemed to seamlessly accept both while retaining one of the oldest forms of government in existence and has smoothly synthesized the two forces with its uniquely and equally as all-encompassing style of influence.
What class of government can we assign this nation to for categorization? How does such a nation compare to the other democratic and technologically-connected states of the world? Why is it considered to wield such dynamic and enviable power despite its miniscule geographic stature? What influences since the Second World War can be ascertained to have shaped its presence today? Exactly what powers does its all-powerful monarch hold? With the foremost of curiosity, how can one explain its seemingly contradictory electoral system, for must such an electoral system be contradictory to the principles of a free and democratic society if it elects an absolute leader?
The first certain notion that can be asserted is that of the origin of this nation’s name. The State of the Vatican City, whose official governing entity is internationally recognized as being The Holy See, derives its ancient moniker from something of an antiquity even greater than its own institution. Vatican City, the small city-state on the outskirts of Italy’s Rome that is ruled over by the last remaining of the absolute monarchs, is named in honour of the hill whereon the entirety of the comparatively microscopic city is situate—Vaticanus as the Romans called it even before the arrival of the Apostle Peter in the capital of the Empire thousands of years ago—; even today, this hill and the nation built on its summit retains this name—as Vaticano—in Italian.
In order to grasp and appreciate the far-reaching institution and world power that is Vatican City, one must have its various political and traditional peculiarities explained. It is with the most sincere presence of personal interest that the present writer is currently stricken with that he will outline, as an introduction to the intricacies of this undeniably unique nation, the Vatican’s operation through the following topics. Its type of government and administrative divisions; its legislature and legislative process; its executive structure and powers; its judiciary; its constitution and that document’s provisions of government powers and human rights; its electoral system; followed by examinations of its key personalities and events in its political history since the Second World War and its political spectrum of policies and coalitions. It is through these avenues that this writer will be, just as John XXIII was desirous of doing, opening the windows of the Vatican. Only then will you, reader, be able to see in to this country’s mechanism and so too, its mechanism into you. The Holy See has never waned in casting a romantic spell on all who glance at it, and lend ears to its perpetual legend and myth. From Napoleon’s conquest of its endless vaults of historical documents and secrets, to Italy’s obsession with its territorial holdings, and the Mafia’s fixation on its financial wealth, to the undying support of the faithful and the beseeching of world leaders for its most desirable sanction. To even shed a thought of curiosity for Vatican City is to succumb to its wonder.
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The first thought of curiosity most often shed when one is proffered the myth of the State of the Vatican City (as is its official long-form name in English) is confused, singular recognition of the Vatican’s ancient institutional raison d’être: governance of the Roman Catholic Church. This is usually the only purpose the minds of much of the world assign to this small city. Many overlook the fact that The Vatican (as so many familiarly call it) has since 1929, been a full-fledged nation; being such it has since that year been possessed of two mandates of government: the spiritual administration of the Church, its doctrine, and its 2.3 billion followers, and the temporal governing of its seat, Vatican City. To be duly noted is that this dichotomy of power that the twentieth century has borne for this nation has concurrently given rise to a dichotomy of institution. With these two virtually—and rightly, as the Reformation and the Revolutions of our recent past dictate—unrelated mandates of power operative in one nation, the necessity for two institutions has manifested itself.
To meet the potential problem of intertwined Church and State, the papacy established not so much another institution per se, but a titular department of its duty known officially in English as the Holy See. A Holy See is actually a type of Catholic division within its vast departmental hierarchy which was established to recognize unique situations where the Church was possessed of certain spiritual force and temporal power, such as being established by an apostle of Jesus, or with the intent of administering the work of Christ, though not necessarily national power as the Vatican is. There are five Holy Sees worldwide, and each has had since the early millennia of the Church, certain distinction, mainly historical in nature, but subsequently, recognition of the clout of these regions in spiritual and temporal affairs, hence The Vatican’s designation as such. Allegedly, each See was the location of an original church established by one of Christ’s apostles, hence their alternate name of Apostolic Sees. Jerusalem, that most ancient of Christian cities, is a Holy See, and its reason for being such is quite self-explanatory: according to Church doctrine, it is here that many notable events in the life of Christ—the Church’s founder—occurred. Also, Constantinople is a Holy See, for this place, founded by Andrew, is where the Roman Empire’s first Christian Emperor had his seat, and subsequently this place became the seat of the Holy Roman Empire. Alexandria is too, a Holy See, as is Antioch, being established by the apostles Mark and Peter, respectively. This brings us, reader, to Rome, (in actuality, Vatican City, which is surrounded by Rome), where the first Church outside of Jerusalem was founded, supposedly by Christ’s favorite apostle and heir, Peter—the first Pope—who is also purported to be entombed beneath the City. The apostle Paul is said to have helped Peter establish this See. The common bond between these five regions is, as mentioned, their simultaneous presence of both spiritual, or doctrinally Church importance and power, and their temporal, or secular, civilly important, governmental power. They are ranked by precedence in the following order: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem (which receives fifth rank on account of it once being a pagan city, which, though Rome itself was pagan before Christianity, is purified on account of it being the resting spot of Christ’s successor).
While there are two distinct types of governmental administration in Vatican City, it is one authority by which each has its responsibilities executed. As will be outlined later, the Pope is the leader of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See. The type of government which permits such a scenario where one individual is charged with such power as to be the supreme and absolute overseer of both of a nation’s separate political entities is an ecclesiastical elective monarchy. It should be understood before any description of this type of government proceeds, that ecclesiastical is referring to power invested not in religious authority, as is the case in a theocratic system—such as was extant in Afghanistan before the so-called War on Terrorism, and in Iran—but rather, religious authority is invested in the power of such a leader as an ecclesiastical nation has. The Catholic Church is not the root of the power nor the authority of Vatican City’s government, but one of the two responsibilities it has. Its other responsibility is managing the nation which provides a home for the Church’s central departments, and its elected leader, who happens to be a monarch.
In this type of governing system, absolute authority—legislative, judicial, and executive—is possessed by a king or queen, who is elected for life to their post by a body of electors who are each eligible candidates for such a position, and are each officers of some church or system of religion. Once elected to this monarchial post, the incumbent does not relinquish their clerical responsibility, but retains it in the form of an even higher theological status, acting in their position doubly as a nation’s head of state, and head of the church or religious system from which they were elected. Since such a system provides only for elected monarchs, there are no dynastic legacies, only the implications of predecessors’ doctrinal policy.
Touched upon briefly was the role of administrative divisions within Vatican City. Nationally, the Vatican—in this respect, the Holy See—has no administrative divisions to govern. It is operative as a unitary system and has no dependent states, provinces, counties or the like. Meanwhile, the other Holy Sees—which are traditionally-elevated regional departments of the Roman Catholic Church—, and their closely-related divisions in the Church hierarchy are in fact, administrative divisions themselves. Relating back to the institutional dichotomy of Vatican City (whose internationally-recognized secular governing identity is that of the Holy See, not the Vatican itself), that spiritual arm of its division of power, and not its temporal one, is the branch which operates most similarly like a federal system; its many parishes, dioceses, bishoprics and archdioceses, et cetera constitute the Church’s equivalent of states, provinces, counties and the like. Since the Church is not a nation, it is not included in this differentiation between federal and unitary administration.
In regard of the legislative administration of Vatican City, the Pope, as stated possesses absolute authority over this branch of government. Operating much like the European kings of old, the Pope delegates the day-to-day legislative and advisory responsibilities to a council that is officially called the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. This is the closest equivalent of a legislature possessed by the Vatican. It is an interesting technicality that this legislature is not comprised of elected members, but ones appointed by the Pope, who serve five year terms, and members do not introduce legislation, but merely debate on the implications of legislation, all of which originates from the Pope. The legislative process in Vatican City is relatively undefined, the nation’s constitution merely necessitates that such a body of councilors as the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State be present. What can be outlined is the traditional route a Vatican law takes to becoming of such status.
The Pope is invested the right of being able to introduce any type of law at any time he pleases. It is as simple as writing down what he desires to be law, this constitutes the law’s formal introduction (which in most every other nation would be done through a government member of Parliament or Assembly introducing the proposed bill to the House and having it debated upon through several readings until passing or rejection); the Pope is not obliged to submit his proposed law to the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, though it is customary that he do so, mainly for advice on its outcomes if—more accurately, when—passed. Similar to other nations, the proposed law is not merely read, but debated on. The Pontifical Commission is headed by a President, styled the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, who is the closest equivalent this nation has to a Speaker of the House.
The President, like all members of the Commission, holds his post for a period of five years and is appointed personally by the Pope. Upon the death of the Pope, the Commission is not dissolved at all, but merely surrenders some of its regular duties (such an interim period is called a sede vacante), with the President of it being required to step down from his post, and not leave his duties in the Commission, but retain them, only as a general member of it though. The next President of the Commission is appointed again, personally by the newly-elected Pope for a five year term, and chosen from among the members of the existing, or currently-serving Commission. (The members of the Commission retain office until their five year terms are completed, regardless of a Pope’s death, unless, of course, their term’s completion coincides with the Pontiff’s death). Selection of the Pontifical Commission’s President is essentially a rotation among its members. The number of members required as a quorum for meetings of this legislative body is indeterminate, and the amount of members is solely at the Pope’s discretion. To resume discussion of the loose method by which a Vatican law is passed, upon drafting its proposed text, the Pope will assign its examination and debate to the Commission. They cannot in anyway change the law’s wording or contents, but can merely recommend such alterations as they feel are of importance to suggest to the Pope.
Strangely, there is no set period of reading or debate, nor a predetermined amount of times the proposed bill must be read, it traditionally is passed after the Pope is satisfied with the conclusions of the Commission. The President acts as more than mere moderator of such debates and is quite an active member in the discussions and examinations. It is the President who delivers the opinions of the Commission to the Pope. The Pope has at his sole pleasure the ability to either include or ignore the Commissions’ suggestions. There is no formal ceremony of passing the law, it is merely endorsed by the Pope, who signs it using the Latin form of his regnal name—the official name he took to use upon being elected monarch of Vatican City, and of the Church—and by affixing an impression in wax of, or a lead copy of his seal, which is made from his famed ring—his most famous symbol of authority—, called in Italian, the piscatorio. At this point, the Pope’s draft, whether he has amended it or not, has become official law of the State of the Vatican City and possesses full legality. Evidenced by the singular body which helps the Pope create laws, the legislative branch of Vatican government can be said to be of a unicameral system in nature.
The laws of the Vatican can be broken, much as it seems every other aspect of this nation so far, into a dichotomy: Canon Law and Pontifical Constitution. Canon Law is the collective body of conventions, norms, and regulations as recognized and adopted by the Church over the centuries of its administration. The current revised collection of Canon Law dates from 1917. It is updated by various high-ranking members of the clergy as results of their various conferences, councils, meetings, et cetera. These such laws are conveniently codified and grouped into categories of relevance and precedence; they are the official laws of the Church and of the nation that is Vatican City. In rare exceptions where Church law cannot possibly be applicable (such as in secular or certain criminal issues), the laws of neighboring Rome, Italy suffice. Canon Law is very complex and specific, due largely in part to its successive additions over the centuries, and the changes those centuries brought.
The other section of the body of the laws of the Vatican is that section consisting of Pontifical Constitutions. These are not to be confused with constitutional law as it is internationally defined, as the national constitution of the State of the Vatican City is quite separate and of an entirely different legal status. Pontifical Constitutions are the laws created through the method referred to above, originating directly from the Pope. The term constitution is applied to these laws in the archaic sense of the term, describing the fact that they constitute the policy or doctrine of the Pontiff. Every law which originates from the Pope and is examined by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State is a Pontifical Constitution. Canon Law generally can only be added to and revised by the clergy as a collective body, and not the Pope as an individual, though with his absolute status of spiritual and temporal rule over the Vatican, he is ultimately able to perform such alterations.
Like nearly most nations, Vatican laws remain in force indefinitely unless expressly outlined in their texts as being only temporary, or of course, unless they are replaced. One other interesting peculiarity of the Vatican legislative process is that this nations’ laws are not ever repealed, they are replaced outright. (While in nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom, individual laws can be taken out of force merely by their repeal, and not requiring a replacement law unless desired). It would appear that laws in the Vatican City are only nullified when replaced entirely, and usually, the replacement law expresses such an undertaking within its text.
As a side note, the Vatican is not governed directly by the laws set out in the Catholic Bible, as may be suspected. There are two Canons that the Popes’ policies are subject to: Canon Law and the Canon. Differentiation between the two is this: Canon Law is as outlined above, ecclesiastical convention and regulation, while the Canon is the official body of texts included in the Bible. When at his pleasure compelled to draft a law, or as we have herein set its name as a Pontifical Commission, the Pope most always looks to both Canon Law and the Canon for inspiration and compliance. Though the texts of the Biblical Canon are used only for reinforcement of the Pontiff’s policy, and do not dictate it, otherwise such a scenario would be deserving of the category of a theocracy.
“Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of Saint Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, His Holiness,” begins the official titles of the chief of this nation’s executive branch. Arguably the best-known and most recognizable Head of State in the world, the leader of Vatican City is called the Pope. Though there is no actual decree saying this nation’s leader must be a male, it is a requirement in order for the Pope to be elected, that the candidate must be a cardinal, and according to the norms set out in Canon Law, all members of the Catholic clergy, which of course includes cardinals—the highest attainable rank within the Church hierarchy excepting that of Pope—the incumbent can only possibly be male. He acts, as outlined previously, in a double capacity as leader of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore, 2.3 billion of its followers, and also as the leader of the world’s tiniest nation, the State of Vatican City. It can even be argued, with ample justification, that the Pope is the single most powerful ruler in our modern world, though such a claim rests on the technicality that the Pontiff’s power is entirely by legislative means; the constitution of the Vatican—and centuries-accepted tradition—deems His Holiness an absolute ruler over his nation and his Church. (Not even the American President—so often considered to be the world leader with the most power to wield—can boast of being legally granted as many and as absolute the rights that the Vatican’s head of state has. The President of the United States does not legally have even half of the powers which the Pope does.) What are these astounding rights—spiritual and temporal—the Pope is constitutionally guaranteed?
To complement those double roles, the Pope is the chief of the two divisions set up for both aspects of his reign; the Vatican, in the sense of its spiritual affairs, and the Holy See in terms of its secular ones. The Holy See is the Pope’s executive branch of government, and it is this body which other nations of the world deal with. That is why the embassies in the 172 nations which have formal diplomatic relations—two more nations than the United States has embassies in—with the Vatican, and its Pope, bear the name of Apostolic Nunciatures to the Holy See, not to Vatican City.
The Holy See, or the Vatican’s executive, consists of the Pope, the Secretary of State (a title not at all equivalent to those of the same name in other nations), the Governor of Vatican City, and the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, whose Commission is essentially the cabinet and also the legislature of the nation.
To do away with the confusion of the Secretary of State in the Vatican’s executive, he is a cardinal appointed by the Pope to preside over the Secretariat of State, which is not a government department dealing with foreign relations as such a name implies in most other countries, but the highest department within the Roman Curia (as the hierarchy of Vatican departments—each called a dicastery—is named). The Secretary of State acts as the equivalent of a Prime Minister and not as the chief of foreign relations. Essentially, the Vatican Secretary of State is that nation’s Head of Government. The Pope, being a monarch, is the Head of State, while the Governor of Vatican City is the equivalent of a mayor—that of Vatican City itself—combined with a vice-regal representative, equivalent to a Governor-General or Lieutenant-Governor in nations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, et cetera. The President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State is basically the chief of the nation’s cabinet and chief of the nation’s legislature.
The current incumbents of these executive offices are His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, His Eminence Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, His Eminence Governor of Vatican City Edmund Cardinal Szoka (also concurrently the President of the Governatorate of Vatican City State, or simply, its executive branch of City and vice-regal government), who is also the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State.
The powers of the Vatican’s head of state include absolute legislative, executive, and judicial authority. The Pope is simultaneously leader of each of these branches of government, and the chief justice for each of the Vaticans’ courts (as will be outlined shortly). As being possessed of such total control over the nations’ workings, the Pontiff is often faced with many complications that would limit his simultaneous role as Church leader. To deal with this, the papacy has delegated the executive management of each of these branches of government—legislative, executive, and judiciary—to trusted cardinals, who do not dictate the policies of each section they oversee, but ensure the compliance of these sections with the policies of the Pope as outlined in the constitutions—or, laws—he has written.
The executive branch operates through the Roman Curia. As explained above, the Curia is that collection of various departmental ministries so required of any national government; it consists of dicasteries, each charged with multiple duties, as opposed to a singular obligation for each. In observation of the general structure of these dicasteries, it is safe to say that it is average for each to have about three sub-sections, or mini departments of operation. They deal mainly with Church government, such as the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, the main purpose of which is to investigate miracles occurring around the world—miracles which help to strengthen not only the faith of Catholics, but global belief in the integrity and strength of the Vatican, politically and spiritually—and is operated by clerics and by laypersons alike. Another example of the many dicasteries, this time a secular one, is the Secretariat of State; this department is divided into two sub-departments, the Section for General Affairs, and the Section for Relations with States; the former manages the vast communication of the Holy See, including the distribution of the Vaticans’ publications, messages, materials, and the Pope’s religious and national policy. This department’s latter sub-section is responsible for one thing: networking—an ancient network that is the mother of all networks, it sends Holy See diplomats to nearly every nation on Earth, and receives them, it also acts subtly as an intelligence service, arguably the oldest and most efficient in the world, relaying daily numerous reports on the affairs of every nation and is a tough negotiator which fights for support of Vatican policy. With a unique presence of two opposing forces—politics and faith—the Vatican may be entirely populated only by clergy (in fact, most employees, especially all laypersons, live in Rome, on Italian territory), but it does have its executive sway. Indeed, every branch of the Holy See’s structure is almost entirely populated by members of the clergy, and it is because of this fact that so often a confusion is made that the Vatican is a theocracy, a place where a deity, or a holy scripture runs a nation and not secular, unbiased policy. This is not true in the Vatican, for the presence of the Church within the government is a mere symbol of the intertwining of two separate, ancient bodies; the Church does not dictate Vatican City’s national policy, nor does the Holy See dictate the policies of Catholicism.
There has been a noticeable trend of recent Popes relinquishing little by little particles of their absolute rights and duties. John Paul II, to maintain a healthy separation of Church and state, delegated, as alluded, his personal responsibility of managing every Holy See dicastery to cardinals he had appointed solely to that post for that purpose. More changes have been subtly made to the Pope’s executive power since the Second World War, but this will be elaborated on soon. Regardless, the Pope is still an absolute ruler, constitutionally-charged to have the final say on the affairs of both a national government and of the world’s biggest religion. The delegation of state power to various figures other than His Holiness is a sign not of defeat or of exhaustion, but rather of devotion to the Pope’s original cause: the promulgation of the Universal Church. Ultimately, Benedict XVI does have final authority on the Holy Sees’ policies dealing with its internal government and with its affairs with other nations and organizations. He still, like every Pope since Peter, meets regularly with world leaders and diplomats, and as you, reader, will shortly see, the Pope, while stepping back from all of his power in the last decades, he has also been wielding a hell of a lot more of it—enough to make even Walls crumble.
Three tribunals—not courts per se—in total constitute the judicial arm of the Vatican, and the most advanced and oldest legal system in use in the world today. Though there is much of a dichotomy in every aspect of this nation, its judiciary is appropriately neutral in its placement. Neither exclusively spiritual nor entirely secular, the court system of Vatican City is unique and, like everything presented so far about this country, has its own distinctively Vatican flair about it. The three tribunals of the Vatican are the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary—not a prison or relating directly to any penal system as its moniker may uncomfortable imply)—, the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, and the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota. The first of these tribunals is officially spiritual in nature, but in practice, capable of being political, as reader, you will quickly see.
The Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary can be succinctly defined as a court of mercy and forgiveness, particularly of sins; it is charged with hearing cases which deal with either of three issues: excommunications—particularly the justification in assigning them and especially the reversal of them—, sacramental impediments, and indulgences—granting and maintaining them. This list creates more questions, which this writer will explain. Excommunications are that peculiarity reserved not only by the Catholic Church, but also by many other faiths and systems of religions, as a means of spiritual penalty, an eternal punishment; an excommunication can only be granted by the Pope, and is granted after consideration and advice from and by this tribunal. It is the highest and most severe form of Church punishment, and according to Catholicism, has the effect of keeping the individual it is conferred upon from ever entering Heaven.
Though this first of the three types of cases heard by the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary is obviously religious in form, it is not strictly such in form: throughout history various Popes have, after expression disapproval of the policies and actions and even beliefs of certain kings and queens, and other persons possessed of political influence and leadership, used this mechanism of eternal damnation to condemn—spiritually and politically—those the Pontiff has conferred it on. To have a Pope—only possibly with the advice of this tribunal—excommunicate you is to be defeated in all planes of existence; it is a signal, nationally, of the Vatican’s relinquish of support and endorsement for you, and spiritually, of its cessation of spiritual approval of you. It is on account of this tribunal possessing the responsibility of such a case as this that it can in reality be a court both political and faithful. The other two types of cases heard by the Apostolic Penitentiary are sacramental impediments and indulgences.
The latter operates antithetically as the alternative to an excommunication; it permits you, quite literally, a ticket to Heaven, which can also be used just as politically as an excommunication, but the explanation of such will not be exhausted here. The former, an impediment, is similar politically to an embargo, whether it be of trade or travel, or of official sponsorship and approval, it also can be defined in the spiritual plane as an embargo of ones repentance and faith, inability to be granted certain spiritual rights, such as baptism or divorce or marriage and the like. These things are all handled by the first of the Vatican courts I have listed. It is headed by a Major Penitentiary, not dissimilar to a high-ranking judge, this position, too, is held by a cardinal appointed by the Pope. (Every position in the Holy See is one held by a hand-picked individual, chosen by His Holiness, excepting the numerous civil service positions within the City.)
The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura is the equivalent in Vatican City of a nation’s Supreme Court. It is, like such a court in every other nation, the highest appellate court and the court of last resort. Its authority is of the highest legal nature, with no authority higher excepting the Pope himself, who—referring back to the Pontiff’s absolute rule—it should be noted, can at any time intervene in any Vatican legal proceeding, both spiritual and temporal, and issue a definitive verdict and penalty at his pleasure. Such intervention overrides any decision, whether decided or proposed, of the court in question. Likewise, His Holiness may grant a pardon or exoneration in any matter at any time he wishes, with such pardons and exonerations becoming official the moment the Pope speaks and or writes them.
All apologies for digressing, this tribunal handles only a few special cases, and most every case appealed to the level of the Holy See—for every Catholic is permitted to appeal directly to the Vatican in spiritual matters, and even whole nations and their governments entitled to stand before Vatican courts in temporally political matters—never even reaches the Apostolic Signatura, and are instead diverted to the Sacred Roman Rota, an appeals court which will be explained after this tribunal. Like the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Signatura handles three types of cases: tribunal and or dicasterial (inter-departmental) conflicts of jurisdiction, appeals regarding administration of Vatican—exempli gratia, Holy See—government, and unethical decisions of the Rota and or the Penitentiary. Therefore, the Signatura is overly secular in its charges and operations, but quite spiritual in the nature of the original cases being appealed to it.
The third and final tribunal of this nation is the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota, and it is probably the most interesting Holy See court in regard to its method of operation. Though it is at the middle level of courts in Vatican City, it is probably the most thorough; as the inclusion of the term rota in its name may indicate, its hearing of cases—appeals to be precise—follows a cycle, or rotation. This court hears the appeals of every type of matter in Vatican City the state, and the Catholic Church. It is the next court up from regional Church courts the world over and each case is heard by a different judge in rotation. When an appeal is made to this court, there is a team of judges—called auditors in the Vatican—who are waiting to each in rotational turn handle the various cases. Each case is not necessarily heard by every judge, but each case is handled by a different judge and sometimes different judges for the same case. It handles general appeals so has no special types like the tribunals do. If one wishes to appeal the outcome of a Rota appeal, they can go, if they meet the requirements listed above for the Signatura, to that most supreme of Vatican courts.
Oddly, the Signatura does not appeal the decision made by the Rota, but the ethics behind the decision. This is a peculiarity only found in the courts of this nation and no others. If the Signatura—Supreme Court—finds the Rota’s method of judgement improper, they order that the case be revisited by them, not the decision. Interestingly, the Rota, nor either of the two other tribunals, does not actually interpret law, but the ethics behind the application of that law. The only authority in the Holy See capable of interpreting law—a responsibility which actually is that of the court system elsewhere in the world—is the Pope, as part of his constitutional duties. The Pope usually waives this right, as it is time consuming and questionable, and assigns it to the heads of the dicasteries; each head of a dicastery interprets the law in question to see if the appellate complied with Canon Law and how it relates to the department in question, the department which the respective head oversees. Also, these dicastery cardinals are the interpreters of the Holy See’s constitutional law, not the Supreme Court of the nation, another uniquely Vatican mode of operation. Like all else relating to Vatican authority, it is the Pope who has absolute resolve to interpret Vatican law, especially that branch of it constitutional in nature.
Reader, it must have now been noticed that this writer uses often the national constitution of the Vatican as an example and evidence for each of the points explained. It is now quite befitting to devote a whole passage of this work to that particular document. As mentioned previously in the passage on the legislature and legislative process of the Holy See, Vatican laws are not amended nor repealed, but replaced entirely when such a need for legal revision seems pertinent. It is likewise with the constitutions of this vastly complex nation; the first such document in Vatican City was quite recent, and the one in current proclamation is so new as to warrant the label of recent as an understatement. When made into a sovereign state in 1929 by means of the three Later Pacts, the State of Vatican City also got a constitution, which was no less than those three treaties in consolidation. Over the decades since that not-so-far-off birth of this country, there have been numerous fundamental laws issued by subsequent Popes. Each constitution as introduced simultaneously nullified the previous, and the current is that promulgated by His Holiness Pope John Paul II in the fall of 2001. After much deliberation and vigilant effort the present writer was unable to procure any English version of the Vatican constitution. The official language of that nation is Latin—yes, Latin, and not Italian, as the misconception perpetuates, though the latter is the unofficial day-to-day informal language used—and as such, the only official versions of that document are available in that langue ancien and Italian, German, and Portuguese. To accurately interpret and understand the constitution, a quick online translation of it would in no way be sufficient and as this writer is not fluent in any of those languages, commentaries and interpretations—as without bias as possible—of it were consulted. It outlines mainly three distinct principles: the powers and duties of the Pope, the electoral process by which to produce a Pope, and national symbols of the Vatican. Details even of this nation’s flag and coins are included, as is the revised math utilized when electing a Pope. The number of cardinal electors has been increased from the 70 of centuries ago to the 120 used to elect Benedict XVI last April, 2005. An explanation of the world-famous Vatican electoral process will follow next. The constitution was drafted entirely by Pope John Paul II, with review by his Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, acting in their legally-invested capacities of cabinet and legislature. It is a very short constitution, compared to those such texts of other nations, and includes no notable political implications, though it does still proclaim the absolute rule of the Pontiff, while reassigning some of his traditional tasks to the heads of the dicasteries. The powers of the government, as such, are invested in His Holiness technically in entirety, though in practice much is shifting to the departments. Also entrenched in the document is the pope’s religious obligations, and his ability to at his pleasure introduce and ultimately pass new constitutions—both of everyday law (Pontifical, or Apostolic Constitutions) and fundamental (national, or Vatican constitutional) law. For one of the first times in this nation’s history, the defense of the country is constitutionally mandated, and as always, assigned jointly to the traditional Swiss guard and the Italian Army. The government—essentially referring to the Pope himself—has the power to override and overturn any court decisions, to grant any spiritual endowment, from excommunications to indulgences and divorce, and to revise and create Church policy, and act as the head of state and commander-in-chief. Political responsibilities are delegated to the Secretary of State and the Roman Curia. Interestingly, no human rights are mentioned nor entrenched in the constitution, and since the Holy See is not a member of the European Union or the United Nations it does not accept those organizations’ policies on the matter. Human rights has long been a major concern and objective of the Vatican but no single piece of human rights legislation exists in that nation, least of which in its fundamental law. Tradition and Church values seem to dictate and ensure such rights. Of notability is that as a condition of the Lateran Pacts that made it a nation, the Vatican is not permitted to become signatory to any world organization, but it may act as an observer or intervenor; this issue has never been officially visited by the Holy See. As mentioned, there is no constitutional amending formula nor method, a new constitution is simply entirely introduced. Also mentioned, constitutional interpretation rests with the Pope and or the heads of the dicasteries.
The means by which the Holy See and the Roman Catholic Church simultaneously obtain a ruler is through a unique system which is in practice nowhere else in the world. In fact, there is no acronym for this electoral system given to it by political scientists. It cannot be defined as FPTP nor MMP or anything similar. It has no such provisions for direct election such as countries with FPTP, MMP, BC, et cetera provide. The name for Vatican City’s election process is Conclave, which means literally, in Latin, closed with a key. The Holy See elects its ruler directly and there are no political parties existent in this nation to be represented. Among the many unique characteristics of Conclave are its ritual and its presentation of results.
Upon the death and funeral of the previous Pope—a vastly fascinating ritual all in itself which will not be explained here—the franchise of eligible electors, who must be cardinals under the age of eighty—who, subsequently, are by law required to be members of the College of Cardinals—are summoned from every Church division (usually archdiocese and bishoprics) on Earth. There are 120 such cardinals who belong to this franchise, and they represent regionally, the Church, and not its politics (this is the only similarity to political parties or electoral ridings present in the process). The cardinals are duty bound to travel to Vatican City by the set date of the election, which must begin no later than two weeks after the death day of the Pope.
During this whole state of affairs, the government of the Holy See is not dissolved, but remains quietly operative under the auspices of the Pope’s right-hand man, the Cardinal Camerlengo, who was the Pontiff’s chamberlain, or personal assistant in life. Interestingly, the Secretary of State is required to step down, as are all heads of the dicasteries, and each department is overseen exclusively by the Cardinal Camerlengo during this interim period, which ,as noted before, is called a sede vacante. Upon the crowning of the new Pope, cardinals will be appointed by the new Pontiff to fill the posts legally vacated by his predecessor’s death, such as a new Secretary of State and new President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. Very few positions in the Holy See retain their tenure in office during a sede vacante, and those which do are considered to be the most vital roles.
Returning to the explanation of the election, once the College of Cardinals has been formally summoned by the Dean of that College (which is in no way a university or school of any kind, but rather an institution with an archaic name), each one is assigned lodgings in a purpose-built dormitory, the Domus Sanctae Marthae, within the City. Meanwhile, only certain persons are permitted to remain in the Vatican, while every single employee is obliged to vacate the territory completely. The only officials remaining are the Swiss Guard who act as the Vatican’s military and the Pope’s private security force—and who act in such capacities during the election—, the cardinals, and the Cardinal Camerlengo, who is legally overseeing both the election and the day-to-day operations of every dicastery, the duties of which almost completely shut down during such an interim.
Once the City has been emptied, the Swiss Guard inspect every single building within Vatican territory for electronic bugs and bombs and any other threat to the integrity of the election; they have been performing this tradition since the middle ages, when even then certain individuals were prone to hiding within the City, attempting to eavesdrop on the very secretive election process. Once the Captain of the Swiss Guard has given his sanction, all cardinals proceed to the Sistine Chapel. Once accounted for, the only doors to the historic Chapel are sealed three times: once with locks, again with chains or rope, and finally with wax, in which an impression is made of the seal of Vatican City. The Swiss Guard are strategically placed around every part of the Chapel’s exterior and also at every building in the City, ensuring no one gets in…or leaves. In this amusing sense, the election is quite compulsory, just as it is legally. All 120 members of the College of Cardinals are required by law to attend the ceremonies and are not allowed to leave the City—or even the Chapel—until a new Pope has been elected. The public, including the news media, is permitted to stand vigil in Saint Peter’s Square to watch for the famous presentation of election results: the holy smoke.
Each day of the election—which will go on as long as it takes, which has even been whole months on end in the past—three ballots are performed. At one time, complete unanimity was required to elect a Pope but this accounted for a horrendously lengthy election process and caused much angst and argument. Presently, a majority is required to elect the Pope, and if this cannot ultimately be reached, the new and current constitution of the Vatican calls for a two-thirds majority to be met. Each cardinal, after reciting the various prayers and blessings of the election ceremony, is seated in their own individual throne, and there each is asked to raise their hand in nay or yea to first elect a master of ceremonies, for having the Cardinal Camerlengo—who also attends the elections and participates while managing the sede vacante—as the moderator would be unfair and quite suspicious given his very close position to the previous Pope.
Once one from amongst them has been designated the moderator of the election, they recite more prayers and blessings, asking God for good luck in having a speedy election, and they then cast the first of three ballots for that day. Each cardinal is given a piece of vellum to write their nomination on—and every attending cardinal is eligible for nomination—the piece of paper. Remaining in their thrones, the master of ceremonies as elected gets up from his spot and proceeds to collect each vote on a silver salver. He then goes to the altar of the Chapel and tallies the votes verbally—results are never recorded, not even the winning ones—and then proceeds to go to a fireplace in the building and, after mixing special chemicals which will either produce black smoke to signify to the waiting public that no majority has yet been reached, or white to signify a Pope has been elected, he burns them. This is the most famous aspect of the Vatican electoral process and the source of the idiom, holy smoke!
This process continues thrice daily until a vast majority, or in dire cases, a two-thirds majority is reached. John Paul II, in his new constitution of 2001, granted the electors the right to retire each evening of the election to the designated dormitory, whereat they are not permitted any outside communication including telephone calls, email, television and radio, or even conversation amongst themselves, as enforced by the Swiss Guard who vigilantly watch over the cardinals who sleep two to a scarcely-furnished room. The following day—and every day as necessary—the cardinals return to the Sistine Chapel until one of them is elected. Upon reaching some majority, that majority candidate immediately becomes Pope after the tally is read and the white smoke produced. All cardinals then cheer and clap—happy to be relieved of such a lengthy and grueling duty, no less than proud of their new Pope—while the master of ceremonies whisks the incumbent away to a back room—a room specifically reserved for the purpose of whisking a new Pope in to—and asks the incumbent cardinal to right then and there announce to the moderator who is the only one with him at this time, his new name (though not legally mandated, new Popes traditionally take a new name, an alias by which they will reign and sign all official decrees and documents, it is also the regnal name of the incumbent, who is then automatically king of the Vatican and of the Church.)
Most Popes choose to take the regnal name of an admired predecessor, or of a Biblical character or saint they favor. The new Pope must also quickly determine the ordinal number to follow their regnal name if they choose one which has been used before (John Paul II’s ordinal is the II, for he chose the name of the short-lived Pope John Paul I whom he admired), lest a dispute arise legally over the usurpation of a previous Pope’s name, which tradition forbids. Most notably forbidden by papal naming convention is the taking of the name Peter; since Peter was purportedly the heir of Christ and the first Pope, it is considered virtually blasphemous to assume his name, though it is not impossible. Benedict XVI chose the name Benedict for he admired both Saint Benedict and Pope Benedict XV, it is also thought to signal the short reign the current Pope anticipates, for both Saint Benedict and Pope Benedict XV lived very short lives, and the current Pope is ailing; such is another of the many naming traditions in the papacy, choosing a name of someone who reigned as long as you anticipate to, and or whose policies you wish to emulate.
Once the name is chosen, the master of ceremonies dresses the new Pope in his white and gold vestments—white and gold are also the official colours of Vatican City—and escorts him to a side door, knocks, and by this point the guards know that a Pope has been elected, and let the two out on their way to the famed balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica, where the new Pope—and his new name—will be announced and presented to the waiting world, and the College of Cardinals, who have not seen the Pope they elected since the ballot tally. A few days after this proclamation, the new Pope is crowned in a vast ceremony which retains only a portion of the lavish luxury it once did. Thus begins the newly-elected monarch’s rule, which is traditionally, though not always, short on account of the age of the candidates. Voter turnout, since mandatory, is most always at 100 percent and it is very rare and frowned upon for a cardinal to not be able to show up.
Since the Second World War, there have been seven Popes, but two of them have, in this writer’s opinion, been engaged in wielding the highest of influence on society. John XXIII, still regarded as the Vatican’s most popular Pope, proved in the early 60s that not only could the Church be revitalized, but an explanation of its workings could entice others—from children to world leaders—to return to it. Johnny was not merely desirous of upping attendance at the various Churches worldwide, but ensuring the attendance of his government at and influence in the events shaping the world his nation was situate in. He helped America end the Cold War by being an intermediary between the arguing nations of America and the USSR, partnering his notable humor with his constitutionally-invested absolute might to get the Vatican’s foot in the door to geopolitical development.
John Paul II is notable in the 80s for having successfully convinced the USSR to cease its operations, and Germany to tears down its inhuman Berlin Wall, separating not only citizens, but cultures. John Paul II was the most-traveled Pope and on his journeys converted people not to his faith, but to having faith in the peace his government tirelessly sought to procure for humanity. The Vatican has had so much influence in ending Communism because of its seemingly infallible neutrality. Though it is a nation itself, its leader is in a way not the mere ruler of a City and a faith, but of the leaders of the world themselves, for can it not be noticed that whenever the Pope disapproves of something, some nation, some idea, that almost every country quickly follows suit, can it also not be easily noticed that despite his dealings with so many different leaders—many of whom contradict and conflict with each other—that most every leader is eager to seek his blessing…not only of spirit, but of their doings as well?
In spite of the vast political influence the State of Vatican City has had since the Second world War—and continues to have presently—, both within its own borders and in major affairs abroad, it is subject to a very limited political spectrum. As outlined in the passage of this work devoted to the peculiarities of a Vatican election, such a process does not necessitate the presence of political parties, nor does the constitution of this nation create any use of them, in essence, there are none and can never be. Regarding political bonds and groups within the Vatican, there are undeniably several, many too numerous, and too hard to explain, given the unofficial and generally private nature of such ties and divisions. This writer will attempt though to briefly outline the more noticeable coalitions—coalitions which are between members of the clergy, who help run the country—which extend beyond the country, given its structure or spiritual and temporal operation.
Among the various dioceses and bishoprics of the world, cardinals and bishops and archbishops and the like seem to side with one another regionally in their support or disapproval of Church and Vatican policy. More and more, Asia, Africa, and Latin America are becoming Catholic powerhouses, where, once that religious system gains a following, the leaders of those nations desire the following of the Pope, who, acting partly on the myth surrounding his kingdom and partly on past influence, builds even more influence. As such, the Vatican, as alluded to earlier, possesses more diplomatic relations than any nation and successfully aided in ending the Cold war and Communism. If it can do all of this—obviously a sign of intense political force through international coalition—then it is quite able to use its partnerships to its advantages. Interestingly, the Vatican gains very little materialistically through such partnerships and negotiations, excepting millions of new followers for its spiritual operations. The Vatican once controlled vast territory in Europe but has never since desired any more of the world other than its ears.
On the international scale of government, the Holy See has exceedingly strong connections and official support of many of the nations of Africa and Latin America. Rates of adherence for Catholicism in that region of the world are dramatically high and it is here that the local cardinals and clergy of the regions’ various dioceses and bishoprics have the most sway—political and spiritual—of all clergy in the Church. These nations are quite impoverished, and if economically stable, are only generally so, and as such these nations are slowly developing, and the foremost assistance the nations such as Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Caribbean nations, et cetera have been receiving in this development has been in the form of political advice and financial investment from the Vatican. To strengthen these operations, the Holy See even now has a dicastery explicitly charged with overseeing the assistance and management of not just Catholic, but government development there. In South America, thanks to the Portuguese and Spanish conquistadors of old, the predominant faith is Catholicism and the religion has even been elevated by almost every nation on that continent to having official status. The promulgation of Church support is merely the first step in securing influence.
In Africa, John Paul II appointed more cardinals from that region than any previous Pope and as such that continent is becoming a leader, not economically, but spiritually with its abundance of Catholics. The Vatican has proven it can gain not only faithful adherents, but loyal politicians. The Holy See is not in any way erring by exercising the cultural conquest it does—through the means of missionary work and financial and spiritual assistance—, but it is working on its network. As mentioned, the Vatican network of loyal clerical informants and excellent diplomats is allowing this nation to have the sway needed to change the world…by convincing its leaders to preserve and when necessary, introduce peace. The narrow political spectrum is inclusive of 120 cardinals who not merely represent the maintenance of faith in their regions of the world, but ensure that the single unending network created 2000 years ago with the beginning of the Church, never stops winding its way—and its sway—around this globe.
The bishops of Africa may be administering communion on the warm continent in hopes of being administered financial aid, and the Catholic leaders of Latin America may be hoping to be introduced to wealthy leaders, and even the Communists in Asia may be beseeching His Holiness for help in a transition to capitalism, but all of them know that to form a political union with the Holy See is the single most influential partnership they can hope for. Such partnerships create not just dependence of believers on the Church for its doctrines, but also a dependence of Catholic politicians on Vatican City’s rolodex.
It seems the Pope’s greatest weapon—indeed, the best tool at Vatican government disposal—is his voice. Those who take the time to hear it, just as those that even lend a shred of curiosity to the Vatican’s magical allure, offer themselves entirely to it. The world’s smallest nation is not its quietest, it is arguably its most active. A mere 920 people may live and work within in its walls and all be practicing members of but one idea, but those 920 are the indefatigable cogs in the perpetual machine that is the State of the Vatican City—a machine which seems to run so much more smoothly when its windows are opened.