The Vatican Reforms Its Judicial System

Source: FSSPX News

The Judiciary Offices of the Vatican

Through a new motu proprio made public on April 19, 2024, the Supreme Pontiff has modified many laws regulating the judicial system of the Holy See, harmonizing it with the neighboring Italian system. This is one way to draw lessons from numerous questions born in the wake of the “trial of the century,” the shock wave of which continues to shake the walls of the Leonine enclosure.

69 is the number of Apostolic Letters in the form of motu proprio promulgated under the current pontificate. 

This legal document document is a motu proprio which, in six articles, modifies the judicial norms of the Papal State. The document concerns in part the activity of ordinary magistrates until the age of 75, and to age 80 for Cardinal Judges. It also keeps open the possibility of the Supreme Pontiff prolonging the mandate of magistrates on a case-by-case basis, along with specified methods of remuneration, severance pay, and pensions.

Other measures have provoked a bigger reaction from the Italian jurists, such as those concerning the civil liability of magistrates as well as the power given to the Pope to intervene in the course of a trial by appointing a deputy president or terminating the service of a magistrate who, “due to proven incapacity,” would no longer be able to exercise his duties.

From now on, those who believe they have suffered harm will be able to  initiate legal proceedings against the Vatican City State, which will in turn can extend to a magistrate if it is proven that he caused harm.

This is one way to align the system of the micro-State with what is happening in Italy, where the responsibility of the magistrate is indirect, to ensure that a citizen cannot bring an action directly against a judge who had wronged him in the course of a trial. It is a measure meant to guarantee the freedom, independence, and protection of magistrates against potential external pressures.

To motivate this evolution, Francis evokes “the years of experience which have made the necessity of a series of changes felt.” It is difficult not to see in this an aftershock of the earthquake caused by the trial of the century provisionally completed in December 2023. Provisionally, because, apart from the Secretariat of State and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), all the other actors, accused and civil parties, appealed the judges’ decision.

Many Italian jurists point out that the current pontificate rewrote the rules four times during the investigation phase of the recent landmark trial as both a way of filling a normative void for some and a way for the Roman Pontiff to maintain control over the conduct of the trial.

Moreover, the Vatican Tribunal--which has been the scene of several reforms in recent years--remains mainly composed of lawyers and prosecutors who have held or still hold office in Italy and who, consequently, do not always have a perfect knowledge of the habits and customs of the Holy See, nor of the law of the Church.

In a contribution written after the verdict, one of the lawyers of the accused in the trial of the century, Cataldo Intrieri, denounced the “contradictions” of the Vatican judicial system and the “exorbitant powers” granted to prosecutors who, according to him, had led to a judiciary procedure “very far removed from the criteria adopted in a rule of law.”

It is a criticism that the new motu proprio is perhaps attempting to disarm, even if it is not realistic to demand from the papacy--which remains monarchical in essence--an absolute separation of powers.