Once again, Pope Francis has changed the Vatican judiciary system. He did it with a motu proprio, the third on the issue since he promulgated the new judicial system in 2020. The need to continuously “adjust” laws analyzed and evaluated according to ad hoc requirements is striking. And so is the fact that these reforms often go in two directions: either further centralization or an annulment of the work done in the past.

The latest reform of the judicial system seems to have both characteristics. First of all, centralization. The Signatura, the supreme Vatican court, has also in practice acted as the Vatican “Cassazione” (the final appeals Court), or at least the connection between the two was clear. For that reason, the president of the Signatura, a cardinal, was always also president of the Cassazione and was assisted by two other cardinal judges who came from the ranks of the Signatura. The 2020 reform had not changed this situation, it simply inserted the possibility of laypeople among the additional judges. Pope Francis separates the Signatura from the Cassazione with the latest reform. The four members of the “Cassazione” will be nominated directly by the Pope, who will choose its president.

Thus, the Tribunal of the Signatura remains only for questions of canon law, while the civil tribunal of the State loses that link with canon law which had characterized it. Pope Francis not only changed the judicial system but changed the philosophy of the Vatican State. He somehow makes it more worldly, more lay, more secular. And he makes the Cassazione more closely tied to the will of the Pope.

The second feature is the step backward. The 2020 reform provided that at least one judge of the panel of the Vatican Tribunal and one member of the office of the Promoter of Justice would serve the Vatican full-time, i.e., without holding other positions outside the Vatican walls. It wasn’t an unreasonable requirement: apart from the president of the Vatican Tribunal, Giuseppe Pignatone, all the other members of the Vatican Tribunal and the office of the Promoter of Justice, starting with the Promoter of Justice himself, have jobs in other states, sometimes even of a different nature to those they perform in the Vatican.

At the beginning of the Vatican City State, it was necessary to co-opt people for the judicial administration of the State, which was appropriate considering the small number of crimes to be addressed. Now, after the Holy See has adhered to all international standards, there is a need for people who are dedicated totally and solely to the questions of the Vatican State. After all, can anyone imagine a judge in Italy working as a lawyer in France simultaneously?

The issue had been raised by Moneyval, the Council of Europe committee that evaluates countries’ adherence to standards of financial transparency. After outlining an anti-money laundering system that met with the favor of several Moneyval reports, the Holy See found itself having to deal with a Vatican court that did not respond to all suspicious transaction reports, had no specialists, and that had no stability. Thus, the latest reports noted the modest activity of the Prosecutor’s Office, called for more specialists and showed concern that there were no full-time judges.

The Court established an office for financial crimes, and the legal system had established that at least one of the judges and one of the promoters be full-time to guarantee transparency and the lack of conflicts of interests. But the Pope has decided that now we are going backward, that no one should be full-time, resulting in a fundamental step back.

The reform of the legal system also presents other details, such as the possibility of appointing a president of the deputy court who takes the place of the president during trials in case these extend beyond the president’s mandate and he does not want to stay on.

In any case, the first two themes are central and provide a detailed look at the philosophy of the pontificate.

Centralization, implemented in various forms, shows the will of the Pope not only to make decisions but to intervene decisively in the processes that are taking place. This is because the Pope wants to govern the processes unfolding, and he does not want the risk that decisions will be taken in different directions from his.

From here, a series of initiatives: the consistories convened every year to redefine the College of Cardinals, the frequent change of collaborators, the personal decisions that dominate the work of the colleges – the reform of the Curia was published on 19 March, suddenly, for example.

This also applies to the ongoing judicial processes in the Vatican. The Pope not only intervenes with four rescripts during the ongoing process of managing the funds of the Vatican Secretariat of State but now establishes that he will decide the judges of the Cassazione, which judgments will be binding. In the end, the Pope reserves the right to determine and to do so without the possibility of opposition.

On the other hand, the steps backward demonstrate a lack of understanding of the role of the Holy See at the international level. Furthermore, the absence of independent judges dedicated only to the Vatican City State indicates that Pope Francis not only considers the State essential but does not even understand the repercussions that this decision can have at an international level.

The Holy See is “Vaticanized,” bent on the needs of a State which, in reality, is not managed by looking at international regulations. In doing so, it loses its authority and weight in international fora. How will the Holy See justify this step backward to Moneyval? How will the Holy See defend due process internationally without the sword of Damocles of being accused itself by hostile governments of failing to apply the rules of due process, not even in the Vatican City State?

The reform of the judicial system of the Holy See thus raises international questions that are not of minor importance, which in reality had already been revealed in various decisions of Pope Francis. But – and this is the fact – Pope Francis does not consider the State an instrument of the freedom of the Holy See, nor does he view the Holy See as an international entity. On the contrary, they are tools that can be helpful but can also be modified depending on the circumstances.

This approach could have devastating effects in a world where credibility is based on identity and stability. And this is even though Pope Francis has maintained an excellent personal image and promoted a more international Holy See. That is not what is happening; in many cases, it has gone backward. The risk is that, in the end, the Holy See as a State will again be considered a branch of Italy, notwithstanding a work of independence of the institution carried out for half a century by all the Popes who have followed one another in this period.


2 Responses to Pope Francis, is the ongoing reform a step backward?

  1. James Scott scrive:

    ‘This approach could have devastating effects in a world where credibility is based on identity and stability. ‘

    But fortunately in/ for the Church of Christ neither identity nor stability matter?

    Ditto: credibility?

    Well certainly not the latter, I would surmise, from the many many incoherent actions, reaching an as yet unsurpassed zenith with the nauseating case of Fr Rupnik sj, over more than a decade of Pope Francis’s pontificate.

    Pope Francis who is ‘infallible in matters of faith and morals when speaking ex-cathedra’ yet who when asked about the scandalous and immoral sexual behaviour of the geographically and socially proximate papal nuncio to Montevideo during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires replied, from an air-plane galley rather than from the episcopal throne of Peter I do acknowledge, with media-endorsed moral insouciance, “Who am I to judge?’ thereby brazenly affirming that he saw himself from the outset of his pontificate as viscerally unfit to discharge the role of Bishop of Rome defined by Vatican 1.

  2. [...] di un papato missionario, che metta da parte l’istituzionalità; il desiderio di un centro che sia effettivamente al [...]

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