An Associated Press article published last week shed light on the weakness of the Vatican judicial system. This weakness dramatically emerged during the investigation on the purchase of luxury real estate in London by the Vatican Secretariat of State.
The investigation was a summary proceeding authorized directly by the Pope. Pope Francis skipped the procedural part of the authorizations by the Vatican Tribunal. The Vatican police searched and seized materials from the Secretariat of State and the Vatican Financial Intelligence Authority and some of the investigated people’s homes. The operations were carried forward without any consideration of the international norms.
At the moment, because of this investigation, six people were first suspended and then demoted from (or not renewed in) their position. The Vatican Financial Intelligence Authority was broadly reshuffled with new top ranks (all coming from the Italian environment). The Pope forced Cardinal Angelo Becciu to resign and even give up his cardinalatial prerogatives.
The Vatican judicial system is what it is: it works under the decisions of an absolute monarch, and thus it is out of any international convention, although the Holy See signs and ratifies many international conventions.
The Associated Press zeroed in on a critical issue, though. That the Holy See is an absolute monarchy is a fact. At the same time, the Holy See is also part of an international system, and for that reason, it signs documents, declarations, memoranda of understanding, and UN conventions. The Holy See might sometimes feel pushed to put its sovereignty at risk. Still, it does not want to risk losing the particularity of its little State, which, in the end, was born for the main purpose of giving the Pope international citizenship. The Holy See is, however, requested to comply with the treaties it ratifies.
Complying with the treaties, and keeping its specificity at the same time, is possible only if you build a detailed juridical system, free from outside influence and independent. It is not just about reforming the Vatican penal code. Instead, it deals with creating a juridical system that works, fits international standards, and does not jeopardize the Holy See sovereignty.
It is a challenging goal. To achieve it, every institution in the Holy See must see her dignity recognized. This way, the Holy See as an institution is put in the first place.
There are two currents in Pope Francis’ pontificate. The first current is that of continuity. Pope Francis did not stop the reforms already ongoing and initiated under Benedict XVI. He instead accepted them and carried them out. We are talking, in particular, about some reforms in the Holy See financial branch, but also in the juridical department (in 2013, Pope Francis promulgated the new Vatican penal code).
On the other hand, Pope Francis also made decisions that did not consider the Holy See’s structure. One example is how he merged the dicasteries even before consultations about their merging was concluded, or the way he took decisions when he saw some lack of clarity. In the end, Pope Francis considers the Holy See’s institutions as offices that must be punished in case of malfunctioning and not as parts of the Roman Curia. Somehow, some of Pope Francis’ decisions canceled some of the reform processes already initiated.
The last example of this kind came from moving funds from the Secretariat of State to the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA). The decision came at the end of a series of “back and forth” in the Vatican financial system. The choice is legitimate and follows the criterion of bringing all the financial operations under a single portfolio, and eventually, the single portfolio of a sovereign entity.
However, Pope Francis’ provisions appear to be punitive and not part of a general plan. Why is it that all the other Holy See’s offices with some financial authority were not included in this decision? Why wasn’t the rationale of the decision explained? We can deduce that the APSA management will set up a sovereign fund since this has been at the center of the discussion. We do not know what the Pope thinks, though.
Posing these questions shows that the pontificate has a problem in considering things from a global point of view. Pope Francis mostly fix situations or dismantles and builds everything up again when things are difficult. Pope Francis applied this rationale, for example, to the project of restructuring the Vatican Dicastery for Communication.
Many details show that there is not a simple design. Pope Francis’ reforms, in the end, have been barely structural. They begin with an idea, and sometimes this idea has theological grounds. They do not change the overall structure but only some aspects of the structures. Sometimes, the reforms are aimed at merging offices to save money. Sometimes, reforms establish new offices to show new priorities. We cannot say, in all honesty, that the Vatican has changed after these reforms.
The upcoming apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium will rewrite the functions and tasks of the Curia offices. The new constitution will replace John Paul II’s Pastor Bonus. This constitution was under study for more than ten years since John Paul II wanted it to express a theological idea. Pope Francis, on the other hand, always stresses that realities are greater than ideas. It is likely its approach will be pragmatic.
The question is, then, to what extent can this pragmatic approach contribute to destroy the Vatican system? And how much will the Holy See be able to keep its international credibility gained with so much effort?
Under Paul VI, in general, it was all about having priests in the key positions, guarantors of the apostolic succession and loyal although some times not competent in the issues they had to take care of. John Paul II progressively focused on professionalization, also valuing the laypeople. John Paul II further internationalized the Holy See mentality. Pius XII had internationalized the staff of the Holy See, but John Paul II internationalized its mentality. The Holy See shifted from an Italian mentality to a State mindset in the international context.
Pope Francis has not been linear. Sometimes, he has returned to an Italian mentality (like with the Financial Intelligence Authority). Sometimes, the Pope has mostly looked at his closest circle, friends able to fix concrete problems. The Pope’s focus is on specific problem solving, instead of creating a framework for solving every problem of that kind when they occur.
For all of these reasons, the Vatican judicial system is still weak. It is weak because it has been conceived in a narrow reality and has not been appropriately managed. The Pope has used his prerogatives without thinking about the consequences. The consequences can have a global impact.
We do not know if this Papal mentality will also affect other sectors of the Curia reform. Will the Holy See be considered a credible partner? True, faith is the most important thing, and many Church activities are born out of faith. It is also true its international standing permits the Holy See to remain independent and act in the world without being subjected to any other power. This is also a part of the mission of the Church.