Vatican 101: Your Guide to How the Vatican Works

+ List of the Vatican Dicasteries

What is “the Vatican” and how does it work? Most Catholics are partially ignorant about what “the Vatican” is and how it works. The Vatican City State is a sovereign nation, but it is also the collection of dicasteries that oversee legal cases, liturgy, money, abuse, doctrine, religious orders, appointment of bishops…basically all the newsworthy and controversial elements of Catholicism.

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Over the last couple years I’ve been able to spend time in Rome and even some time with priests, bishops, and cardinals working within the Vatican. What was once a knotted mystery has become more clear to me and I wanted to share a basic outline so that you can also better understand how the Vatican works:

Understanding the Roman Curia as Dicasteries:

“The Vatican” is literally the geographic location of Saint Peter’s burial at the foot of the “Vatican Hill” outside the ancient boundaries of the city of Rome (See my book The Eternal City for thorough details about the geography and tradition of Peter’s burial). But a more accurate term for what most people mean by “the Vatican” is the “Roman Curia,” which is a collection of “dicasteries” or departments working for and under the Pope.

The word dicastery comes from the Greek word δικαστήριον meaning “place of justice.”

The Church is not a nation, but to use an analogy, you might think of the heads of each “dicasteries” as the “cabinent” of the United States President. I know, I know. It breaks down. You don’t need to leave a comment to me about how the Pope is not like a President. I’m only making an analogy.

So the Pope appoints leaders or prefects (usually cardinals) to each of the dicasteries to aid His Holiness in the governance of the Church:

List of the Vatican Dicasteries:

Here are the Vatican dicasteries organized into their six various species:

  1. Secretariats:
    The Secretariat of State (most powerful dicastery – headed by Cardinal Secretary of State)
    The Secretariat for the Economy (created by Pope Francis to oversee financials)
    The Secretariat for Communications (Vatican Radio, Osservatore Romano, Vatican Press, etc.)
  2. Congregations:
    The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (one might say this is the second most powerful dicastery, after the Secretary of State)
    The Congregation for the Eastern Churches
    The Congregation for Divine Worship (liturgy and sacraments)
    The Congregation for the Causes of Saints (the process of canonizing saints)
    The Congregation for Bishops (researches and selects bishops for dioceses)
    The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly named Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith)
    The Congregation for the Clergy (priests, deacons, seminaries)
    The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (religious life)
    The Congregation for Catholic Education (Catholic universities, but not seminaries)
  3. Dicasteries
    The Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life (created by Pope Francis)
    The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development (created by Pope Francis)
  4. Legal Tribunals (operate like courts):
    The Apostolic Penitentiary (excommunications, dispensations, indulgences)
    The Tribunal of the Roman Rota (highest appellate tribunal; usually handles contested marriage annulments)
    The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (Supreme court seeing appealed cases from Roman Rota and conflicts between Congregations)
  5. Pontifical Councils
    The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (handles ecumenical relations with non-Catholic Christians, and notably Jewish relations)
    The Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (interpreting canon law)
    The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (handles relations with non-Christian religions)
    The Pontifical Council for Culture
    The Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization (for re-evangelizing the West)
  6. Offices of the Holy See:
    The Apostolic Camera (the Papal Treasury)
    The Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (modified by Pope Francis; see  Secretariat for the Economy above; oversees property of the Holy See)
    The Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See (oversees finances)

*Note: The tendency of Pope Francis has been to close and collapse “Pontifical Councils” into what he calls “Dicasteries.” Pope Francis has closed down four “Pontifical Councils” and erected two new “Dicasteries” listed above.

My opinion is that a reduction in the number of dicasteries is a positive reform of the Church.

Each dicastery works at the pleasure of the Holy Father. The Pope appoints all offices and he can close and open new dicasteries according to his pleasure.

Other Departments in the Vatican

You also have other departments in the Vatican that are not technically dicasteries such as:

  • The Pontifical Swiss Guard
    • Approximately 130 soldiers that where colorful uniforms while protecting the Pope and providing border security for Vatican City.
    • Fun fact: the Swiss Guard makes use of the Glock 19 pistol and Heckler & Koch MP7 .
  • The Vatican Bank (Official Name is: Institute for the Works of Religion – I’ll do a future post on this.)
  • The Pontifical Commissions (3 of which fall under the CDF):
    • Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church (art, books, archives)
    • Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei
      • Oversees 1962 Extraordinary Form of Mass.
      • Answers to and is located within CDF.
    • Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology
    • Pontifical Biblical Commission (publishes articles on biblical studies; answers to CDF)
    • International Theological Commission (publishes theological articles; answers to CDF)
    • Pontifical Commission for Latin America (answers to Congregation for Bishops)
    • Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors (instituted by Pope Francis in 2014; headed by Cardinal O’Malley of Boston)
  • Temporary or Interdicasterial Commissions (temporary commissions for tasks, such as producing a Catechism of the Catholic Church)

How to Be Better Educated about the Catholic Church:

  • As the Church faces new issues, new dicasteries are created and some are closed. There is nothing of divine right with the Roman Curia. The Pope can open and close dicasteries to help him govern the Church. Technically speaking, he could close all the offices.
  • It’s worth following the current issues in the Catholic Church and having an understanding of how these issues flow into and out of the “Vatican” through the various dicasteries.
  • It’s also worth printing out on a piece of paper the dicasteries of the Catholic Church.
    • Print them out and place them in your Bible so that you can pray for their leaders and for their work. It’s worth following which Cardinals head which dicasteries.

Here are the current leaders/prefects of some of the important dicasteries:

The Secretariat of State: Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin
The Secretariat for the Economy: Australian Cardinal George Pell
The Secretariat for Communications: Monsignor Dario Edoardo Viganò

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller
The Congregation for the Eastern Churches: Cardinal Leonardo Sandri
The Congregation for Divine Worship: Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah
The Congregation for the Causes of Saints: Italian Cardinal Angelo Amato
The Congregation for Bishops: Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet
The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples: Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni
The Congregation for the Clergy: Italian Cardinal Beniamino Stella
The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life: Brazilian Cardinal João Braz de Aviz
The Congregation for Catholic Education: Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi

The Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life: American Cardinal Kevin Farrell
The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development: Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson

All the Cardinals that lead dicasteries are usually seen as papabile – unspoken candidates for the next papacy.

Holy Apostles, pray for the Cardinals.

Question: Do you have questions or comments about the Roman Curia? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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