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Papacy, Curia and the Vatican

Historical Changes in the Papacy and Curia

When studying the Papacy and Vatican as it exists today, it is important to understand that the current organization of the Roman Curia and Vatican City is a recent development. The primacy of the Bishop of Rome among Christian leaders was recognized by the first century, but the duties of the Pope and organization of the Holy See have evolved over time. For most of Church history, the office of the Bishop of Rome was in the Lateran Palace in central Rome and the Basilica of John Lateran (Named for both John the Apostle and John the Baptist) was the Cathedral. At this time the Pope is the sovereign leader of Vatican City, an independent country completely within the city of Rome, but until the late 19th century, he was the sovereign prince of all of the 'Papal States' including most of central Italy.

The prestige of the Papacy and its influence on political affairs has varied over the years. In some ages, the Pope held sway over kings and emperors throughout Christendom, and in other times Popes were entirely overpowered by local princes and wielded little influence outside of Italy. Likewise, certain popes have been extremely influential in Church affairs, especially in times of doctrinal confusion and reform, while at other times local patriarch and bishops governed almost independently from Rome. For over a millennium, however, the Pope held sway over much territory surrounding Rome and the region was ruled as a theocracy.

A great change to Papal government occurred in 1870 when forces hostile to the Church annexed the Papal States and occupied the City of Rome. Much of Italy had already been "unified" (by force) under a liberal government based in Turin, and the nationalist forces wanted to strip the Papacy of its historical dominions so it could make Rome the capital of a Unified Kingdom of Italy. Pius IX and subsequent Popes refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Nationalist government and remained as 'Prisoners in the Vatican' for sixty years until the Vatican City was established as an independent city-state in 1929.

From that time, the mission and organization of the Papal Curia fundamentally changed. The Pope was still bishop of Rome but was no longer responsible for administration of secular government. During the 20th century, the Roman Curia turned its attention to international and ecclesiastical concerns and many of its institutions are relatively new. The efforts of Vatican II to "modernize" the Church accelerated these changes.

Papacy and Magisterium — Terms and Definitions

  • Hierarchy — The word comes from the Greek, meaning Sacred (hieros) Ruler (archon). In Catholic usage, the term is used to refer collectively to the bishops and leaders of the Church. It can also refer however, to all those who are ordained including deacons and priests as well as bishops.
  • Magisterium — Refers to the Church's teaching authority, instituted by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, which seeks to safeguard and explain the truths of the faith. The Magisterium can be exercised when the Pope and ecumenical councils pronounce definitively on a doctrine or interpretation of the eternal truths of the faith. From "Magister", Latin for teacher, chief, or head.
  • Holy See — Refers to the Diocese of Rome, as the chief diocese of Catholic Christendom and to the pope and Roman Curia in their role of authority over the Catholic Church around the world. The Diocese of Rome includes the Vatican, but also the city and suburbs of Roman.
  • Roman Curia — The personnel and offices through which the pope administers the affairs of the universal church. The organization of the Roman Curia has varied greatly over time. The current Vatican administration is
  • Dicastery — A church term for major departments of the Roman Curia, including offices, congregations, tribunals, and councils. Only a few of the organizations have 'Dicastery' in their name. Most are referred to by their full names, which include a description of their mission. A few prominent dicasteries include.
    • Vatican Secretary of State
    • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (see below)
    • Congregation for the Cause of Saints
    • Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments
    • Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life
    • Tribunal of the Roman Rota (see below).
    • Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Texts
    • Prefecture for Economic Affairs
  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — One of the oldest and most important congregations of the Roman Curia, founded to defend the Church from heresy and safeguard Catholic doctrine. Formerly the Office of the Inquisition.
  • Roman Rota — Highest appeals court in the Roman Catholic Church the highest ecclesiastical court constituted by the Holy See, established in 13th century. The Pope can sit on the court as a judge and only appeals can be made directly to the Pope. Called Rota (Latin for wheel) because the judges originally met in a round room to hear cases.
  • Ecumenical — Literally "universal", used to describe general councils of the Church called to settle doctrinal matters. In modern times it is used in the context of interfaith events and efforts towards unification among separated Christian Churches.
  • Ecumenical Council — (Also called a General Council). Conference of prelates and theologians from throughout Christendom who meet to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and discipline. Twenty-one Ecumenical Councils are recognized between the Council of Nicaea in 325 and Vatican II in 1963.
  • Synod — A church council or assembly of clergy and faithful gathered together under appropriate Church authority to discuss matters relating to doctrine and discipline. A Synod is a general term that can refer to Diocesan meetings of clergy and laity, to an Ecumenical Council of bishops.
  • Papal Legate — Personal representative of the Pope to foreign nations, empowered with full legal power to make decisions in the place of the Pope. Legates are always Cardinals. Papal Legates can be "Legatus natus", meaning they have permanent powers, or "Legatusmissus" meaning they are empowered only for a specific mission.
  • Apostolic Nuncio — (also Papal Nuncio, Apostolic Delegate) Vatican ambassador to another country and the papal liaison with the church in that country. An apostolic nuncio is always an archbishop.
  • Collegiality — In the Catholic sense, this refers to the collaboration and shared authority between the Pope and the college of Bishops, for the teaching of Church doctrine and government of the Church.
  • Apostolic Succession — Since the time of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, are successors to the Apostles by ordination carry on the mission entrusted by Christ to the Apostles as guardians and teachers of the faith and as spiritual leaders of the faithful.
  • Nepotism — Nepotism now means favor and offices granted to relatives but the term originated to describe the practice of bishops and cardinals assigning important offices and benefices of the church to their nephews. (In Italian, "nepote"="nephew".
  • Cardinal Nephew — Refers to the elevation to the rank of Cardinal of the nephew of a Pope. This unfortunate practice was especially common from the 14th to 17th centuries.
  • Infallibility — Freedom from error in teaching the universal Church in matters of faith or morals. Usually refers to the doctrine of Papal infallibility, when he speaks "ex cathedra", in an official capacity on a matter of faith and morals.
  • Interregnum — This refers to an unusually long period between the death or resignation of a pope and the valid election of a new one.

Cardinals and Conclaves — Terms and Definitions

  • Cardinal — Highest-ranking Catholic clergy below the pope. By church law cardinals are regarded as the pope's closest advisors, and when a pope dies those who are not yet 80 years old meet in a conclave in Rome to elect a new pope. Most cardinals are archbishops; canon law since 1983 says they must at least be bishops.
  • College of Cardinals — A group of men chosen by the pope as his chief advisers. Most are heads of major dioceses around the world or of the major departments of the Vatican, or are retired from such posts. In the interregnum following the death of the pope, the College of Cardinals administers the church, and those under 80 meet in a conclave to elect a new pope.
  • Conclave — The gathering of the world's Catholic cardinals, after the death of a pope, to elect a new pope. Only cardinals under the age of 80 are allowed into a conclave under current church rules.
  • Consistory — A meeting of cardinals in Rome. It can be an ordinary consistory, attended only by cardinals in Rome at the time of the meeting, or an extraordinary consistory, to which all cardinals around the world are summoned.
  • Titular see — If a bishop does not have his own diocese, he is given a titular see: that is, a place that once was the seat of a diocese but no longer is. Auxiliary bishops and bishops in Vatican service are examples of those given titular sees. Many titular sees are ancient cities of the Middle East or Northern Africa.
  • Periti — The word in Italian means 'experts', and it refers to theological advisors who accompany bishops to an Ecumenical council. During Vatican II, the periti had a great deal of influence and wrote many of the documents of the Council, which were then used to justify dramatic changes in Church worship and discipline.

Names for the Bishop of Rome

  • Pope — Derived from the Greek 'papa' meaning father and used to refer to Bishops in the Eastern Church. Used exclusively to describe the Bishop of Rome in the Western Church.
  • Vicar of Christ — "Vicar" has Latin root meaning deputy or substitute. It is used in the Church as a title for a representative or proxy. "Viceroy" has similar root, means "deputy of the king".
  • Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church — Pontiff is Latin for Priest. "Pontifex Maximus" was the high priest of the Roman state religion.
  • Servant of the Servants of God — The Latin term "Servus Servorum Dei", was first used by Pope Gregory the Great and has traditionally been used at the beginning of Papal Bulls.
  • Primate of Italy — A Primate is an Archbishop who has authority over other regional diocese. The Pope, being the Bishop of Rome, has precedence over all other Bishops of Italy.
  • Sovereign of the State of Vatican City — The Pope is recognized as the monarch of the sovereign city state of Vatican City, since it was established as an independent state in 1929.
  • Holy Father — Sancti Patri

Documents Issued by the Pope

Adapted from www.law.edu/res/docs/library/reference/Church Documents.doc
  • Papal Bull — A Papal Bull is a letter addressed to the Public and promulgated by the Pope. In past times bulls would be posted and read aloud to communicate to the faithful, and at times suppressed by sovereigns who opposed the pope. Papal Bulls could address serious matters of Doctrine or Canon Law, but could also be used to grant property or charters to religious congregations, or to address political concerns. Papal documents that address the public are now commonly referred to by their technical names (as follows) rather than as bulls.
  • Apostolic Constitution — Apostolic Constitutions are the most serious and binding decrees issued by a Pope. They can define dogmas but also alter canon law or erect new ecclesiastical structures. An example is Ex Corde Ecclesiae, defining the role and responsibility of Catholic institutions of higher education.
  • Encyclical — This term means 'circulating letter' and they are the second most important papal documents after Apostolic Constitutions. They are addressed to bishops, but are intended for instruction of all the faithful and frequently address doctrinal issues and interpretation of Church teachings. Encyclicals are a relatively modern form of Papal document, originating in the 18th century, but used extensively by 19th and 20th century pontiffs. A famous example of recent times is Paul VI's Humanae Vitae addressing artificial contraception.
  • Motu Proprio — A Motu Proprio is a issued by the Pope on his own initiative, not dependent on any council or commission. They are generally used to enact administrative decisions, or make minor alterations in Canon law and don't touch on doctrinal issues. A recent example is Benedict XVI's Summorum Pontificum, which relaxed restrictions on celebrating the Tridentine mass.
  • Apostolic Exhortation — Apostolic Exhortations encourage Christians to undertake a particular activity but are usually not intended to touch on doctrinal issues. They are often issued in response to a Synod of Bishops. For example, Pope Francis issued the controversial exhortation Amoris Laetitia, following the 2015 Synod on the Family. They are less important than an encyclical, but more authoritative than an Apostolic letter.
  • Apostolic Letter — Apostolic letters address administrative issues and often address a particular religious institution, country, or individual rather than the faithful at large. They may advise or exhort but do not address doctrinal issues or make changes to canon law.

History of the Vatican

For most of Christian history, the "Vatican" referred to "Mons Vaticanus" a hill located across the Tiber river from the center of Rome said to be the burial site of St. Peter after his martyrdom during the reign of Nero.

In about 320 A.D. Emperor Constantine undertook to build a church on the site of St. Peter's tomb. This church stood for over 1000 years, and was a major pilgrimage destination in Rome. The "Old St. Peter's Basilica" was used for Papal coronations, and sometimes imperial coronations.

From 313 until 1307 the Lateran Palace in Rome was the official Papal residence, but it was destroyed by fire during the Avignon Papacy, and could not be rebuilt. When the Papacy returned from Avignon another Basilica in Rome (Santa Maria Maggiore) became the Pope's residence but by the 15th century, the decision to move the Papacy and Curia to the Vatican was made.

Many of the famous buildings in the Vatican were built during the 15th and 16th centuries, including the Sistine Chapel and the Basilica of St. Peter. This was during the High Renaissance, and the Popes of the era were renowned for their generous patronage of art and music. Some of the famous buildings built or renovated during the Renaissance period (in addition to the Basilica and Sistine Chapel), include the Vatican Library, Vatican Museum, and Vatican Palace.

During the Napoleonic Wars the Vatican was occupied and much of the Church's artwork was stolen and taken to France. Two different Popes (Pius VI and Pius VII) were also kidnapped and taken to France. Some of the Church's property was restored after the Napoleonic Wars but much of it was lost forever. Thousands of priets, religious, and bishops had been exiled or displaced, and the finances of the church were in a terrible state. Eventually the papacy was forced to accept loans from the very banks that had profited from the confication of Church property throughout Europe. And when Rome was over-run by radicals in 1848 more property was lost, and more loans were required.

Finally, in 1870, forces hostile to the church occupied Rome, took over the Lateran Palace, and insisted the Pope cede his rights to the government of Rome. Pius IX and later popes refused to recognize the authority of the invading government and lived as 'prisoners in the Vatican' until 1929 when the treaty of Lateran established the Vatican City as an "independent" city-state. However, the financial system of the Vatican was already under the control of secular bankers and papacy has never had independent control of its finances.

Vatican II accelerated the changes in Church administration. Since the council, Bishops and Cardinals still hold most important offices in the Vatican, but secular academics and other laymen play an important role as well.