Reorganisation of the courts of the Vatican City

On 16 March, Pope Francis announced a reorganisation of the courts of the Vatican City. In a guest post, Neil Addison explains further…

Understandably perhaps, in view of the other matters obsessing the news media at present, there has been little comment on the reorganisation of the courts of the Vatican State which came into effect on April 16 2020. The reorganisation took place through a motu proprio (ie law) promulgated by Pope Francis which is only available in Italian at present, but Google can provide an English translation

The Catholic Church runs two separate legal systems: Canon Law and the Law of the Vatican State. Canon Law deals with purely religious matters and applies to all Catholics throughout the world, whilst the Law of the Vatican State is a ‘normal’ system of secular law that only applies within the territory of the Vatican State and over Vatican citizens abroad, such as Papal Nuncios (Ambassadors).

For example, in 2015 Archbishop Józef Wesołowski was alleged to have abused children in the Dominican Republic whilst he was Papal Nuncio there. Because he was a Papal Nuncio, he was covered by diplomatic immunity and so could not be prosecuted in the Dominican Republic. However, when he was recalled to the Vatican he was put on trial before the Vatican City Courts and separately put on trial under Canon Law. Under Canon law, the maximum penalty is excommunication and, in the case of a priest laicisation, whilst under the law of the Vatican State it is possible to be sentenced to imprisonment.

The purpose of the reorganisation is described in the motu proprio as being part of  “regulatory reforms in economic, financial and criminal matters, … as a consequence of the adhesion [by the Vatican] to important international conventions”.The main effect of the reorganisation is to emphasise the independence of the Vatican judiciary. This is done in two ways set out in Article 2:

  1. Magistrates are hierarchically dependent on the Supreme Pontiff. In the exercise of their functions, they are subject only to the law.
  2. Magistrates exercise their powers impartially, on the basis and within the limits of the competences established by law.

Being “dependent on the Supreme Pontiff” – ie the Pope – might look like it limits judicial independence but what it does is to make it clear that judges do not answer to any other person: no bishop, no cardinal can give them orders or direct how they are to carry out their functions

The Vatican courts operate within the civil law tradition and, in accordance with this, Article 3 gives the judges control over the “Judicial Police”, which is basically the Detective Branch of the Vatican Police Force, the Gendarmerie, and also gives the court control over its own budget.

Article 8 prevents Vatican employees or most clergy from being appointed as judges who are

“preferably chosen from tenured or retired university professors, and in any case from well-known jurists who have gained proven experience in judicial or forensic, civil, criminal or administrative matters.”

Finally, the motu proprio provides for the appointment of a “Promoter of Justice” – in effect, a Public Prosecutor – and for qualified lawyers to be authorised to defend before the Vatican courts.

The Vatican has a small population and a somewhat claustrophobic atmosphere. With the inevitable intimate knowledge that everyone within this small world has about everyone else, the Vatican is particularly prone to the evils of cronyism and bullying. In view of a number of scandals that have rocked the Vatican – in particular, scandals involving the Vatican Bank – these reforms, in particular those ensuring that Vatican judges have to be objectively and independently qualified as jurists and not merely be high-ranking prelates, should go some way towards restoring confidence in the judicial system of the Vatican State.

Neill Addison

Cite this article as: Neil Addison, “Reorganisation of the courts of the Vatican City” in Law & Religion UK, 17 April 2020,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *