What is happening under Pope Francis seems to be a process of “Vaticanization of the Holy See”. It is a sort of Copernican revolution, which effectively overturns a fundamental principle. The Vatican City State was in fact conceived as being at the service of the Holy See, its existence guarantees a sovereignty that is more than a formality. But Pope Francis has made the state ever more central with a series of only apparently marginal decisions. Decisions that have reversed the perspective, and which make the State the central entity, with the Holy See obliged to follow.
A “Vaticanization of the Holy See” began to be perceived when Pope Francis decided to intervene in the trial on the management of the funds of the Secretariat of State with four rescripts which, in fact, changed the rules of the process while the process was in progress. The Pope, of course, has the power to do so, being the sovereign and the supreme legislative body. At the same time, popes had never done so, precisely to avoid making the state more important than the international entity.
In fact, what would happen if the Holy See found itself in an international forum defending due process having to deal with a judicial system that changes the laws while the trials are in progress? How much credibility would the Holy See have in signing international treaties if these treaties are then disregarded, at least in general principle or in terms of their application?
We are faced with actions which, although responding to internal logic, have international consequences that should not be underestimated. They are reforms that, like all others by Pope Francis, have ramifications beyond the borders of the Vatican City State.
One example are the new statutes of the Financial Intelligence Authority. Released in 2020, the statues changed the name of the authority in Financial Intelligence and Supervision Authority and gave more centrality to the role of president. But the statutes were designed with a president in the role of guarantee precisely to prevent the president from having to act as a deus ex machina, and the members of the board having other external activities without incurring conflicts of interest.
At the European level, and in particular against money laundering, the new Vatican judicial legislation, which cancels the previous reform and allows all Vatican judges and promoters of justice to work part-time, could also cause concern. It is a decision that creates a particularly difficult situation. It is as if a prosecutor in the United States were simultaneously a lawyer in France. And indeed, the law had been updated so that at least one of the judges and one of the promoters was working full time for the Vatican City State. That is not the case anymore.
In a crescendo of reforms of this kind, which do not seem to consider the specific character of the Vatican City State and the Holy See, the almost sudden promulgation of the new Fundamental Law of the Vatican City State seems yet another step in this direction.
The latest Fundamental Law had been approved by John Paul II in 2000, and had a precise purpose: to recognize that the Pope’s engagement had a universal dimension, different from that of a monarch of a state, and that state duties, powers one could say, were left to a commission, made up of cardinals because they were on a par with the Pope and shared a same level of government powers.
The fundamental law of John Paul II reflected a path of progressive removal of the tasks of ordinary management from the figure of the Pope. This path began in 1939 with Pius XI, who passed from a management done with the help of a governor to that of a commission of cardinals. Then, John Paul II entrusted his prerogatives to the Secretary of State in 1984, until he promulgated the new fundamental law in 2000.
With Pope Francis, however, we seemingly return to a central role for a Pope who alone has powers and who only delegates functions to others. Not only. Government functions are entrusted to a commission, but not made of only of cardinals, applying the principle that it is specifically the mission that gives authority, as established in the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium. But the point is not so much the inclusion of lay men and women in government structures.
The new Fundamental Law eliminates all but one reference to the Secretariat of State, centralizes everything on the figure of the Pope, and underlines that “the Vatican City State ensures the absolute and visible independence of the Holy See for the fulfillment of its lofty mission in the world and guarantees its indisputable sovereignty also in the international arena.”
In practice, the law establishes the need for the state to guarantee the independence of the Holy See. In fact, however, the Holy See has had independence and sovereignty even without a state and without a territory. It happened when Rome was conquered and annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1871, thus decreeing the end of the Papal States. The Holy See, however, continued to exist, to have international relations, to exchange ambassadors. Suffice it to say that, during the pontificate of Benedict XV, which lasted from 1914 to 1922, the Holy See opened diplomatic relations with ten different states, expanding its diplomatic network from the 17 states at the beginning of the pontificate to the 27 at the end of the pontificate.
The new Fundamental Law makes the role of the State quite explicit, no longer a “means” for the Holy See, but even a guarantee of sovereignty. It also includes the previously absent representatives of the governorate in international relations. It puts aside the Secretariat of State, which was instead the intermediary between the State apparatus and the Holy Father, and in doing so makes the figure of the Pope once again central.
In fact, in 1929, it was envisaged that the legislative power would be exercised directly by the Pope, i.e. by the sovereign, with the possibility of “delegating the legislative power for certain matters or for individual objects to the governor of the state.”
The fundamental law of 2000 instead established that it is the Pontifical Commission that directly exercises power, with the exception of cases in which the Pontiff reserves it for himself or for other offices.
Now, however, the Pope returns to the center, and among other things his role as head of state is emphasized. It is a reform that perhaps brings the Vatican City State closer to a modern state, but distances it from its natural and main purpose.
What is happening with Pope Francis is, in short, a sort of Copernican revolution in the way of perceiving the Vatican City State. The State is no longer a functional body that is functional to the Holy See, but in some cases it even becomes the body that dominates the Holy See. The regulations of the State, which is an absolute and patrimonial monarchy, can jeopardize the “diplomacy of values” of the Holy See. It would be the opposite to what John Paul II desired, which was to defend this “diplomacy of values”, making the figure of the Pope less central in government situations.
There has often been talk of the centralization work of Pope Francis, which goes beyond any synodal and collegial propaganda. In the meantime, however, Pope Francis has carried out another reform, which is that of the state. But, if the Holy See loses importance and centrality, what will become of its diplomacy? And what will be its real role in the international arena?
The risk is to deconstruct a work carried out for millennia. Maybe some problems would be solved. Of course, it would create many others.