Vatican: Considerations on the New Fundamental Law

June 04, 2023
View of Vatican City

On May 13, while President Zelensky was visiting the Vatican, Pope Francis issued a new “fundamental law” for Vatican City State. Some analysts have been surprised by the first sentence of the introduction: “Called to exercise sovereign powers over the Vatican City State by virtue of the Petrine munus…”

It would be a daring attempt to derive temporal power directly from spiritual power, which even the medieval popes would not have attempted in these terms, all the more astonishing from the “synodality” pope. But is it really true?

For some commentators, Pope Francis seems to be saying that the right to exercise sovereignty over a State derives directly from the munus petrino, which would indeed be unprecedented in this precise sense.

Munus petrino is a recent expression, often used in conjunction with the Petrine “ministry” or “office,” to refer to what was once called the papacy or sovereign pontificate. In post-conciliar canonical and theological language, the new terms must be preferred as they are less pompous and more appropriate to indicate power as service.

Apart from that aspect, the text reaffirms the classic doctrine, made more explicit in the law itself: the pope enjoys, by divine right, a total independence with regard to all earthly power; he also enjoys the freedom to choose the appropriate means to achieve this independence.

Historically, the means provided by Providence has been sovereignty over the Papal States. After their loss in 1870, Pius XI deemed sovereignty over Vatican City sufficient or acceptable for the same purposes in 1929. Francis, while a cardinal, had expressed very different ideas.

In On Heaven and Earth written with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, in the chapter “About the future of religion,” he says: “History teaches us that Catholicism has varied greatly in its form. At the time of the Papal States, temporal power was united with spiritual power and this distortion of Christianity corresponded neither to what Jesus had wanted nor to what God wants. [1]”

It seems here to openly deny the principle of the prologue of the “fundamental law.”

The First Vatican Council, in the fourth session (DS 3062), affirms that the fullness of power allows the pope to exercise his authority in complete freedom, corresponding with all the pastors and faithful of the Church without interference from any temporal authority. It is like the dogmatic definition of the spiritual independence of the pope, so often claimed by the pontiffs of all ages.

When this right is realized, there is de facto temporal independence, which concretely coincides with temporal sovereignty over the Roman State, as history knew it until one hundred and fifty years ago. This identification is not based on a necessary link, but on a choice based on experience and on legitimate and inviolable rights.

Leo XIII, in Immortale Dei of November 1, 1885, affirmed: “Whatever, therefore in things human is of a sacred character, whatever belongs either of its own nature or by reason of the end to which it is referred, to the salvation of souls, or to the worship of God, is subject to the power and judgment of the Church.”

According to Pius IX, in the letter Cum catholica of March 26, 1860, the civil princedom of the Roman Pontiff falls into this category, because of the spiritual character that derives from its sacred destination and its very close connection with the highest interests of the Christian religion. This is why the usurpation of these rights was punished by excommunication and the highest canonical penalties.

If it is revealed by God that the Church and the Pope have by right a total spiritual independence, it is a duty flowing from the Revelation that this independence is effectively ensured by the Pastors and recognized by civil societies. It is also revealed that the concrete means of enforcing this independence must be determined by the Church itself autonomously.

Francis's statements in the introduction to his “fundamental law” go neither against nor beyond these doctrinal elements: it is precisely by virtue of the Petrine munus that the pope chooses, or chooses to accept, sovereignty over a state as an instrument of independence. He has the right and the duty, as Successor of Peter, to provide this independence inherent in his mission, with the means that prudence and Providence place at his disposal.

The temporal power of the Pope over a state, however small, should not be confused with the power that the pope, as Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ, exercises over kingdoms and nations. This second power is denied by the popes of the Council, supporters of the secularism of the State and of religious freedom, and the “fundamental law” promulgated by Francis is silent on this power.

If the temporal and spiritual societies remain distinct in their origin and their ends, this does not mean that they are equal or that they are not ordered to each other. The Church teaches that the terrestrial society must be subject to ecclesiastical society, by virtue of the only true end of man, the supernatural end.

Not only should the two societies not be separated (cf. Vehementer by St. Pius X), but they are subject to each other, to the point that the power of the Church over the states is not simply directive, but constitutes a genuine jurisdiction: cf. the condemnation of Gallicanism and Innocent XI’s brief of April 11, 1682; the August 4, 1690 Inter multiplices constitution by Alexander VIII; and a condemnation taken up by Pius VI in Auctorem fidei.

This jurisdiction can be extended to the deposition of bad sovereigns: see for example the Dictatus Papae of St. Gregory VII, or the bull Regnans in excelsis of St. Pius V.

This doctrine is expressed by Boniface VIII in the bull Unam Sanctam: “We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal. Both, therefore, are in the power of the Church, that is to say, the spiritual and the material sword, but the former is to be administered for the Church but the latter by the Church; the former in the hands of the priest; the latter by the hands of kings and soldiers, but at the will and sufferance of the priest. However, one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power.”

This indirect submission, the existence of which is undeniable, stems from the authority that the Church exercises over all the baptized, including princes, and from her duty to provide for their welfare. In this way, in all that touches faith or morals, the Church has the right to intervene, ratione peccati, (on account of sin) according to the expression of Innocent III. [2]

In addition to St. Robert Bellarmine, who amply explained the existence and nature of this power, let us quote the words of St. Thomas: “Secular power is subject to spiritual power as the body is subject to the soul. Therefore, there is no usurpation when the spiritual superior intervenes in the temporal with regard to the things in which the secular power is subject to him. [3]”

Therefore, would any pontiff have gone so far as to deduce a temporal power from the pontificate? In fact, if Pope Francis is speaking about something quite different, and believes in the error of the independence of temporal realities, there are very explicit expressions among medieval popes.

Innocent III, in his letter to John Lackland, King of England, who had offered him his kingdom as a fiefdom, declared: “The King of kings and Lord of lords Jesus Christ, Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek, has established the kingdom and the priesthood in the Church so that the kingdom be priestly and the priesthood royal, as Peter testifies in his Epistle and Moses in the Law, placing at the head of all those whom He has ordained as His Vicar on earth…”

Without continuing the quotation, it suffices to point out the real errors of Francis and his predecessors with regard to relations with temporal power.

As for the new “fundamental law” of Vatican City, it briefly resumes a correct principle on the independence of the pontiff and the means of obtaining it: an expression which nevertheless contrasts sharply with the convictions formerly expressed by Cardinal Bergoglio.

[1] Jorge Bergoglio; Abraham Skorka. On Heaven and Earth (Robert Laffont Group, Kindle edition).

[2] See in particular the letter to the French bishops Novit ille of 1204, and the letter to the Emperor Alexis III.

[3] Summa Theologica, II-II, 60, 6, ad 3m.