New Fundamental Law Promulgated for Vatican City State

Author: LOR



Revision is meant to give systematic and organic form to the changes introduced into the original 1929 Law

In the Supplement to Acta Apostolicae Sedis, where the laws of Vatican City State are regularly published, the text of a new Fundamental Law of Vatican City State appeared on 1 February, replacing the preceding one (the first) promulgated in 1929 by Pope Pius X1 of venerable memory.

The Supreme Pontiff has "taken note of the need to give a systematic and organic form to the changes introduced by successive stages into the legal system of Vatican City State". Therefore, in order to "make it correspond ever more closely to the institutional aims of this State, which exists as a suitable guarantee for the freedom of the Apostolic See and as a way to ensure the real and visible independence of the Roman Pontiff in the exercise of his mission in the world", the Supreme Pontiff has promulgated this law, motu proprio and with certain knowledge, by the fullness of his sovereign authority. The following is an explanation of the new Fundamental Law of Vatican City State.

On 7 June 1929, the day of the exchange of the ratification instruments for the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy—which had been signed on the preceding 11 February, thus putting an end to the long-standing "Roman question" and creating Vatican City State—Pope Pius XI promulgated six laws intended as the core of the State's legal system. The first of them (N. 1), having to serve as the foundation of this system, was called the Fundamental Law of Vatican City and held the place, at least from the technical standpoint, generally reserved in States for the Constitution. It identified the specific elements which distinguished the new State, determined the bodies responsible for the various governmental functions and defined the reciprocal institutional relations, especially relations with the Supreme Pontiff.

Much has changed in the past 70 years. Obviously, the needs of a modern State, even if it entirely serves the freedom of the Apostolic See, as does Vatican City, call for adequate juridical instruments that can meet the demands caused by social change.

However, this is not the only aspect to be kept in mind. With the growing concerns of the universal Church, it was becoming more and more difficult,in fact, for the Supreme Pontiffs to deal with matters concerning Vatican City State—which, moreover, were becoming ever more numerous and complex—with the personal and almost daily attention that had marked the first period of its existence. We know that during the Pontificate of Pius XI the government of the State was exercised directly by the Pope with the collaboration of the Governor, whom he received each day. But in 1939 Pius XII, without changing the Fundamental Law or derogating from it, established a Commission of Cardinals, initially consisting of three Cardinals, with the task of presiding over the Governorate in his name and stead. Along the same lines, although more recently, the Holy Father John Paul II, in his chirograph of 6 April 1984, conferred on Cardinal Agostino Casaroli in his capacity as Secretary of State, "a high and special mandate to represent Us in the civil government of Vatican City State, and to exercise, in Our name and in Our place—while always reporting to Us, especially in cases of particular importance—the powers and responsibilities inherent in Our temporal sovereignty over Vatican City State".

Taking into account, then, the modifications made to the governmental structure of Vatican City State at both the practical and the legal level (cf. e.g., the Law on the Governance of Vatican City State,n. LI, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 24 June 1969), and because of other subsequent interventions which have affected it, after careful reflection and lengthy study the conclusion was reached that it was indispensable to update the Fundamental Law of 1929 in order to bring it into line with the actual governmental structure that had now taken shape, by clarifying the legal status of the different subjects.

These ideas appear in the preamble to the new Fundamental Law, where it is said that the latter results from the "need to give a systematic and organic form to the changes introduced by successive stages into the legal system of Vatican City State" and in order to "make it correspond ever more closely to [its] institutional aims". Thus the reforms introduced into the State's governmental organization in the last century have been consolidated, and other equally important ones have been added.

The new text of the Fundamental Law was prepared by an ad hoc Legal Commission set up by the Holy Father and chaired by Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, S.D.B. It was initially composed of Archbishop Mario F. Pompedda, Prefectof the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura as President Vicar, and the following members: Archbishop Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education; Mons. Celestino Migliore, Undersecretary for Relations with States, representing the Secretariat of State; and Mons. Giorgio Corbellini, Deputy General Secretary of the Governorate, representing the Governorate. The following were later added to the previously named ecclesiastics: Bishop Bruno Bertagna, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, and the Hon. Gianluigi Marrone, Sole Judge of Vatican City State. The Commission held 14 working sessions over 10 months from February to November 2000.

Promulgated by Pope John Paul II on 26 November 2000, the Solemnity of Christ the King, the new Fundamental Law will take effect on 22 February 2001, the Feast of St Peter's Chair.

Like the earlier Law, it begins by stating that the fullness of the legislative, executive and judicial powers resides in the Supreme Pontiff as Sovereign and Head of State; representation in international relations, which he exercises through the Secretariat of State, is also reserved to him (Art. 1-2). The Law then describes the bodies in charge of exercising the State's powers.

Legislative authority is entrusted permanently, in delegated and collegial form, to a Commission of Cardinals appointed to a five-year term by the Pope and chaired by a Cardinal President (Art. 3-4). As mentioned above, the Commission of Cardinals had existed de facto since 1939 under the name Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. After 30 years of actual existence and activity, Paul VI determined its areas of competence for the governance of Vatican City State with the Law on the Governance of Vatican City State cited above.

In the new Fundamental Law, legislative power belongs to the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. Executive authority is delegated by the Supreme Pontiff to the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Commission, but he must submit questions of greater importance to this Commission for examination. He is assisted by a General Secretary and by a Deputy General Secretary (Art. 5-12). Judicial power is referred in vicarious form to the civil tribunals of Vatican City State, following an overall reform completed in 1987 and repeated here in its essential details (Art. 15-19). Lastly, provision is still made for the consultative role of the office of the General State Counselor, which has been vacant for some time, as well as for several State Counselors who can be consulted either individually or collegially (Art. 13).

In addition to ordering the powers of State in the way indicated, the new Fundamental Law—as noted—has also incorporated several new and significant aspects. The most important is that a more adequate distinction has been made between the legislative and executive powers, both of which are delegated. On the one hand, the power of the Commission of Cardinals is related once again to the legislative sphere (Art. 3, §1), with the power to issue general regulations being also reserved to it (Art. 7, §3). On the other hand, the Cardinal President exercises the executive function; furthermore, it is his task to issue ordinances for the implementation of the Laws, as well as regulations having the force of law in cases of urgent need. These regulations, however, lose their effect if they are not confirmed within three months by the Commission of Cardinals (Art. 7, §§1-2).

Another innovation in this Fundamental Law is the abolition of the office of Governor, to whom it was possible, according to the Fundamental Law of 1929, to delegate legislative authority, though with many reservations, and executive authority, which was habitually delegated. The office has been vacant since 1952 following the death of Marquis Camillo Serafini, the first and only Governor, who had worked since 1939 along with the Pontifical Commission. From 1952 on, this Commission had exercised all powers de facto, since no Governor had been appointed.

Moreover, the Law now promulgated spells out the institutional relationship to be maintained with the Secretariat of State, the body that "closely assists thePope in the exercise of his supreme mission" (Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia PastorBonus, n. 39). For this reason, the Secretariat of State, in addition to representing Vatican City State to foreign States and other subjects of international law, is the ordinary channel of communication with the Pope for presenting draft legislation (Art. 4, §3), budgets and balance sheets (Art. 12), while in "matters of greater importance" the Governorate must proceed in accord with the Secretariat of State (Art. 6). The guiding principle, formulated in the Lateran Treaty of 1929, is that the Holy See has "full ownership, exclusive and absolute power and sovereignjurisdiction" overVatican City State (AAS 1929, pp. 209-210).

These, in short, are the principal changes and innovations in the new Fundamental Law, other than terminological and lexical modifications in the general terms. The text represents a concrete result of long experience in governing this particular State, which exists for no other reason than to ensure the freedom of the Apostolic See and the independence of the Roman Pontiff in carrying out his mission.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 February 2001, page 5

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