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Holy See

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Politics of Vatican City takes place in a framework of an absolute theocratic monarchy, in which the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope, exercises ex officio supreme legislative, executive, and judicial power over the State of the Vatican City (an entity distinct from the Holy See), a rare case of non-hereditary monarchy.

The pope is elected in the Conclave, composed of all the cardinal electors (now limited to all the cardinals below the age of 80), after the death or resignation of the previous Pope. The Conclave is held in the Sistine Chapel, where all the electors are locked in (Latin cum clave) until the election for which a two-thirds majority is required. The faithful can follow the results of the polls (usually two in the morning and two in the evening, until election) by a chimney-top, visible from St. Peter's Square: in a stove attached to the chimney are burnt the voting papers, and additives make the resulting smoke black (fumata nera) in case of no election, white (fumata bianca) when the new pope is finally elected. The Dean of the Sacred College (Cardinale Decano) will then ask the freshly elected pope to choose his pastoral name, and as soon as the pope is dressed with the white habit, the Senior Cardinal-Deacon (Cardinale Protodiacono) appears on the major balcony of St. Peter's façade to introduce the new pope with the famous Latin sentence Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: habemus papam.(I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope).

Pope John Paul II, born in Poland, was the first non-Italian Pope in nearly five centuries. Elected on October 16, 1978, he succeeded Pope John Paul I, whose reign was limited by his untimely death to only 34 days. Pope John Paul II died after 26 years in the pontificate on April 2, 2005. The next papal election began on April 18, 2005, and concluded on April 19, 2005, with the election of Pope Benedict XVI, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from Germany.

The term "Holy See" refers to the composite of the authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his advisers to direct the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. It is therefore quite distinct from the Vatican City state, which came into existence only in 1929. As the "central government" of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See has a legal personality that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal of a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives. The Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 166 nations.

As formally re-defined in 1929, after the Lateran treaties between the Holy See and Italy, to administer properties belonging to the Holy See in Rome, the State of Vatican City is recognized under international law as a sovereign territory. Unlike the Holy See, it does not receive or send diplomatic representatives and the Holy See acts on its behalf in international affairs.


Administration of Vatican City

The Pope commonly delegates the internal administration of Vatican City to various bodies and officials. However, according to the Law of Vatican City, the pope retains supreme legislative, executive, and judicial authority for Vatican City.

The pope delegates legislative authority for the state to the unicameral Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. This commission was established in 1939 by Pope Pius XII. It consists of seven Cardinals appointed by the pope for five year terms. Laws passed by the Commission must be approved by the pope through the Secretariat of State prior to being published and taking effect.

The President of the Pontifical Commission is also the President of the Governorate of Vatican City, to whom the pope delegates executive authority for the state. The president is assisted by a Secretary General and a Vice Secretary General. Each of these officers is appointed by the pope for a five year term. Actions of the President must be approved by the Commission. Various departments and offices report to the Governorate, handling such issues as communications, internal security, fire protection, and the Vatican Museums. The Corpo della Gendarmeria is the state's security and police force, not the Pontifical Swiss Guard, which is an organ of the Holy See, not Vatican City.

Papal audiences

The Pope's weekly general audience is normally held on Wednesday morning, and applications for admission should be sent directly to the Prefecture of the Papal Household (address: Vatican City; Fax + 39 06 6988 5863).

Tickets (which are completely free of charge) can be collected after 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon preceding the audience from the Prefecture's office at the Bronze Door. This is in St Peter’s Square, at the Basilica end of the right-hand colonnade. Tickets can usually be collected also in the early morning of the day of the audience, before the audience begins.

Requests to attend other papal ceremonies should also be sent to the Prefecture.

On Sundays at noon the Pope addresses the people gathered in St Peter's Square or, during the summer, at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, and gives his blessing. No ticket is necessary.

Governmental power

As with almost all monarchies, the executive, legislative and judicial power of government reside in the crown, in this case in the office of pope. However, as with many monarchies, the pope exercises this power through other organs which act on his behalf and in his name.


Palace of the Governorate
Main office holders
Office Name Party Since
Sovereign Benedict XVI (Joseph Alois Ratzinger) 19 April 2005
President of the Governorate Giovanni Lajolo 15 September 2006

The Pope is ex officio Sovereign of the Vatican City State. He delegates executive authority to the President of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, who is ex officio President of the Governorate. The president is appointed by the Pope for a five-year term, but may be removed at any time by the pope or by a vacancy of the Holy See. The president reports all important matters to the Secretariat of State, the Pope's chief everyday advisory body, which is consulted on all matters, even if they belong to the specific competence of the Commission for Vatican City State or, for instance, that of the Congregation for Catholic Education. The Secretariat of State is not thereby considered to hold responsibility for such matters, and the Cardinal Secretary of State is not seen as heading the Vatican City State or the various departments of the Roman Curia, other than the Secretariat of State itself.

Vatican City does not have direct diplomatic relations with other states. Its foreign relations are managed by the Holy See. See Holy See#Relationship with the Vatican City and other territories.

Legislative branch

A unicameral Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, appointed by the pope, operates as legislative branch, proposing law and policy to the pope. Prior to taking effect, laws and policies passed by the commission must be approved by the pope, through the Secretariat of State, and be published in the Italian-language supplement of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis that deals with Vatican City State matters.

Judicial branch

The pope's judicial authority is exercised through the Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, as he customarily serves as President of the Cassation Court of Vatican City, and the Dean of the Sacra Rota as President of the Appellate Court of Vatican City. In fact, most crimes are prosecuted by and handled in the courts of by the Republic of Italy, by agreement between the Vatican and the Italian government.

International organization participation

Vatican City is a member of CEPT, Eutelsat, International Grains Council, Intelsat, ITU and UPU.

The Holy See, which some confuse with the Vatican City state, participates as an observer in AU, Arab League, Council of Europe, OAS, IOM, and in the UN and its agencies FAO, ILO, UNCTAD, UNEP, UNESCO, UN-HABITAT, UNHCR, UNIDO, UNWTO, WFP, WHO, WIPO. It participates as a guest in NAM, and as a full member in IAEA, OPCW, OSCE.


See also



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