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Pope Francis wants to make the Vatican a “model state”

The statue of St. Peter in St. Peter's square with part of the façade of the basilica visible behind

mdanek / Shutterstock

Camille Dalmas - published on 06/12/23

Behind this new reform lies Pope Francis' desire to take control of the world's smallest state and make it a credible instrument of his mission.

In 2020, the title of “Sovereign of the Vatican City State”’ was downgraded in the papal directory to the rank of “historic titles” of popes. Some had seen this as evidence of the Pontiff’s lack of interest in the 44 hectares of territory over which he reigns. However, this interpretation is wrong.

After having completed the great task of reforming the Roman Curia with the publication of Praedicate Evangelium in March 2022, and then having thoroughly renovated the structures of his Diocese of Rome last January, the Pontiff has decided to tackle the “constitution” of the Vatican City State. The last version of the Fundamental Law dated from 2000, and replaced the one drawn up in 1929 after the signing of the Lateran Treaty.

The Vatican City State

Created to resolve the Roman question and the loss of the Papal States, the Vatican is a “patrimonial state” owned by the Holy See. Headed by the pope, it maintains relations only with Italy. At the same time, the pontiff heads the Holy See, the principal subject of international law recognized by other countries and the spiritual center of the Catholic Church. It is also a legal entity that includes the Roman Curia.

Aerial view of part of Vatican City

This mission of the Vatican remains unchanged in the new Fundamental Law promulgated by Francis, although the “service” dimension — of the Church and of the pope’s mission — is particularly reinforced, as was already the case in Praedicate Evangelium.

As absolute monarch of the Vatican State, the pope confirms that he holds all powers, but no longer delegates them. In fact, the text states that he delegates only the “function,” whether to the Governorate (for executive powers), the Commission (for legislative powers), or the Tribunals (for judicial powers). At the same time, the Fundamental Law clearly reinforces the autonomy of these three entities — notably vis-à-vis the Secretariat of State, once again marginalized.

A greater role for laity

Another dynamic confirmed by the new Fundamental Law is the opening up of leadership positions to lay people — even though Vatican City had already been led by a lay governor, Marquis Camillo Serafini, from 1929 to 1952. From now on, the members of the Commission, who are responsible for writing and interpreting Vatican laws, can be lay men and women, whereas these functions had previously been reserved for cardinals.

“A question of credibility”

Francis’ new Fundamental Law, which is longer than that of John Paul II, is also more precise on the missions pursued by the Papal State. The aim is to clarify its position on the international stage. It emphasizes the Vatican’s exclusive authority over issues relating to security and public order, health, the environment, the functioning of its economy and infrastructure, and in particular the Vatican Museums, its main source of revenue.

“It’s a question of credibility,” says French canonist Msgr. Patrick Valdrini, for whom this reform is part of the general dynamic of “purification of the Holy See” desired by Francis. “His aim is to make the Vatican a model state,” he adds.

Fr. Valdrini notes in particular the extent to which the new text is particularly demanding in terms of budgetary ethics, a critical subject in the face of the financial scandals that greatly discredit the mission of the universal Church. He also stresses the “modernity” of the principles required of Vatican judges, imposing the principles of “restorative justice,” which gives importance to rehabilitation and does not focus solely on punishment.

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