Q: Our pastor is being attacked by the bishop…. Is it better to contact the Vatican directly, or do you think we should go through the papal nuncio? –Tess
A: An astonishing number of Catholics don’t seem to grasp the role of a papal nuncio, or understand how he fits into the Church’s hierarchy. Let’s take a look at what canon law tells us about the role and responsibilities of a nuncio, and then the answer to Tess’s question should be clear.
Canons 362-367 discuss the role of papal legates. The code doesn’t directly define this term, which is a fairly broad one; but it explains what a legate is in an indirect way in canon 362, where it asserts that the Pope has the right to appoint legates and send them (a) to “particular Churches in various countries/regions,” or (b) to “states and public authorities.” The same canon notes that the Pope can likewise recall or transfer his legates, in accord with international norms regarding “representatives accredited to states.”
The Pope occasionally might send a legate of type (a) if—to cite only one of many possible scenarios—he has been hearing confusing or conflicting information about what’s going on (or what’s not going on) in a diocese or a religious institute somewhere in the world. Here’s an example from 2015 in Peru, and here’s another from Medjugorje in 2018. This type of legate is given a specific mission by the Pope, which usually involves investigating and reporting back to Rome on what exactly is happening on the scene.
But the “papal nuncio” mentioned by Tess falls into type (b). It should be evident that this pertains primarily to diplomats, officially representing the Vatican in the various nations of the world. “Papal nuncios” are in fact papal legates (although not all papal legates are nuncios).
The political structure of different governments around the world can vary widely, as can the precise nature of their official diplomatic ties to the Vatican. For this reason, it can be risky to make across-the-board generalizations about papal nuncios; but in a nutshell, a nuncio is more or less the equivalent of an ambassador. In fact, here’s the website of the Vatican’s nunciature in the United States, defining the nuncio as an “Ambassador of the Holy See.” If international law and relations between states is your area of expertise, you know that at times it can be more complicated than that—but as a general rule, it’s fairly safe to say that whenever we see the term “papal nuncio,” we should immediately think “Pope’s ambassador” (see c. 363). Here’s a more nuanced explanation of the role of a papal nuncio, on the website of the Apostolic Nunciature to the Nordic Countries.
So if we want to know what a papal nuncio’s role is, we logically should think of what our various nations’ ambassadors do, in embassies all around the world. Country A has established diplomatic relations with Country B, and sends an Ambassador to Country B as a representative of the government of Country A. If the two nations get along famously, this Ambassador might have relatively little substantive work to do; but if Country B threatens Country A in some way, and/or if citizens of Country A living in Country B are somehow being mistreated, or any one of a million other issues involving relations between the two nations arises … the importance of the role of Country A’s Ambassador in dealing with the government of Country B quickly becomes evident. Now replace “Country A” with “Vatican” and you’ll see the fundamental role of a papal nuncio.
Canon 364 spells out the primary functions of any papal legate, which are entirely consistent with what an Ambassador does. The legate is to send info to Rome on all that is happening on the ground, if it “touches the life of the Church and the good of souls” (c. 364 n. 1), and he is to promote “peace, progress, and the united efforts of peoples” (n. 5), in addition to any specific tasks which the Pope may have entrusted to him (n. 8). At first glance, it certainly sounds like one could reasonably conclude that a papal nuncio should get involved in disputes between diocesan bishops and their priests, like the situation Tess mentions. After all, if some sort of acrimonious debate between the clergy has become publicly known, doesn’t it make sense that this constitutes a matter which “touches the life of the Church and the good of souls,” warranting the nuncio’s intervention?
But in actuality, it’s not that simple, and there’s one basic reason why this isn’t the role of a papal nuncio: hierarchically, he is not the superior of the diocesan bishops of the country where he’s been sent. The papal nuncio to Country X normally has no authority over the bishops of the dioceses in Country X. Nowadays, as a general rule, papal nuncios are titular archbishops (cf. c. 376, and see “Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals” for more on what an archbishop is). This puts them (hierarchically speaking) in the same basic position as the diocesan bishops/archbishops of the nation where the nuncio represents the Vatican: they have all been selected by the Pope, as per canon 377.1, and they all answer to him.
This is why if there’s some kind of dispute concerning a diocesan bishop, and the injured party/ies wish to seek recourse, they petition not the papal nuncio, but Rome. True, the odds that their petition will actually end up on the Pope’s own desk are extremely slim, because as a rule such petitions are handled by the officials of the appropriate Vatican congregation; but those officials are employed at the behest of the Pope, and are acting on his behalf. That’s because in the structure of the Church, a bishop is not the hierarchical superior of another bishop; a bishop/archbishop’s hierarchical superior is the Pope.
Once we understand this, many of the other tasks allotted to papal nuncios, which are listed in the abovementioned canon 364, make perfect sense. For example, canon 364 n. 2 states that a papal legate is to assist bishops by action and by advice, “while leaving intact the exercise of their lawful power.” The nuncio to Country X has no authority to meddle in those diocesan affairs which are the responsibility of the bishops! Similarly, canon 364 n. 7 notes that a papal legate is to cooperate with bishops to safeguard that which pertains to the mission of the Church, vis-a-vis the rulers of the State. Once again, the papal nuncio cannot make the bishops’ decisions for them; he is expected to work with them, as hierarchical equals entrusted with different roles in the Church.
At the same time, of course, the diocesan bishop likewise isn’t the superior of a papal legate who happens to be working within the bishop’s territory. Canon 366 n. 1 tells us that a papal legate is exempt from the power of governance of the diocesan bishop. But note that the same canon also says a papal legate must abide by the rules/decisions of the diocesan bishop with regard to celebrating weddings. To cite an example, let’s imagine that a diocesan bishop has refused to grant a dispensation enabling two people to marry in a Catholic ceremony. A papal legate can’t just waltz into the diocese and marry this couple on his own volition—he has to defer to the bishop. That’s because the diocesan bishop, and not the legate, has responsibility for the spiritual welfare of that couple living in his diocese.
One especially important job of a papal nuncio (mentioned in canon 364 n. 4) is to scout out prospective candidates for the episcopate in that particular nation. As we saw in “How Are Priests Selected to be Bishops?” canon 377.2 provides a system that is designed to help the Pope make an informed decision. The bishops of each province are to compile a secret list of priests who they believe would make good bishops, and they are to send the list to Rome. So as to keep the list current, they are to update it at least once every three years. And as canon 377.3 notes, these bishops make their suggestions to the papal nuncio in their nation, who sends them on to Rome.
But the nuncio is expected to be more than just an errand-boy in this system! Canon 364 n. 4 tells us that he is to not only transmit these lists of names of prospective candidates to Rome; he is also to propose names himself. The same canon adds that the nuncio is to compile information concerning those priests who may be promoted to the episcopate—which should make clear that when the Pope selects new bishops, he doesn’t just blindly accept the recommendations of the bishops of the region. The Pope, with the assistance of the papal nuncio, ordinarily does his own homework; and since his nuncio is right there on the ground in the nation in question, it only stands to reason that the nuncio may best be able to find out who’s who and what’s really going on.
See here and here for a very interesting (to put it mildly!) story of a U.S. priest who had been suggested for promotion to the episcopate by existing diocesan bishops—but was blocked by the papal nuncio due to accusations of homosexual predation. The nuncio did his own research, and compiled alarming information about this priest, enabling him to warn the Vatican against the priest’s selection as a bishop. This evidently happened over 20 years ago, but it is still a good example of how canon 364 n. 4 is supposed to work.
So now that we’ve seen the differences between the roles of diocesan bishops and papal nuncios, and the need for them to avoid stepping on each other’s toes as they go about their business … it’s worth mentioning that there are plenty of times where they can and should both be involved together in a particular situation. A couple of imaginary examples should make this clearer.
Firstly, let’s pretend that a different political party has now taken control of the government of Country X, and its hostility to the Catholic Church is well known. Let’s say that many of the best hospitals in Country X happen to be owned and operated by Catholic religious institutes; and the new government decides to seize control of them, by raising some legal technicalities and claiming that private entities have no right in Country X to own health-care institutions.
Naturally, the religious institutes which own/run these hospitals will immediately protest! Their own interest in the hospitals is of course a direct one. At the same time, the bishops in whose dioceses these hospitals are located will protest too—because (among other things) the Catholics of their dioceses are physically cared for in these hospitals.
But since the new rulers of Country X are trying to do this nationwide, it is only logical for the papal nuncio (assuming that there is one in Country X) to get involved too. He represents the interests of the Holy See, and thus will be interested in the wellbeing of Catholics, and of Catholic institutions, in Country X. We could reasonably expect the nuncio to be paying a call on the political leaders, to express his concern/disappointment in diplomatic terms, and to seek a way to avoid the seizure of the hospitals. In this situation, religious institutes, diocesan bishops, and the papal nuncio would all end up getting directly involved, but in different ways that reflect the different natures of their own missions in Country X.
Here’s another fictitious example. Let’s say that in Country Y, a diocesan bishop has been collecting funds to build schools/orphanages for poor children in his diocese. But after the diocese has taken millions from the citizens of Country Y for this purpose, someone discovers that most of the money isn’t being used to build schools or orphanages at all. Instead, the top leadership of the diocese, along with senior lay employees, are living lavishly on the donations they’ve collected. Investigators also find that much of the money has been diverted to other, private bank accounts.
This isn’t “just” an enormous violation of canon law (as discussed in “Canon Law and Donations to the Church”); it’s also a crime in Country Y, which now wants to arrest these clergy and lay employees and charge them with fraud. It’s easy to imagine that this quickly becomes a major news story nationwide; and many furious, non-Catholic citizens of Country Y are beginning to threaten Catholics—even if they had absolutely nothing to do with this mess.
Naturally, the diocesan bishop himself will be directly involved in all this, whether he was personally involved in the scam or not! But simultaneously, the papal nuncio to Country Y will undoubtedly want to weigh in on the situation in his conversations with government officials, because he will of course be concerned not just about the reputation of the Catholic Church in Country Y, but also about the physical safety and freedom of innocent Catholics who happen to live there. Once again, we can see that both the diocesan bishop and the papal nuncio can be involved in the same situation, although not in the same way.
Note that in this scenario, even if the papal nuncio concludes that the diocesan bishop merits canonical punishment in this situation, he himself has no power to sanction him. What the nuncio can do is forward a report on the situation to the Pope, explaining what is actually happening there in Country Y—and then the Pope can, if he sees fit, request the resignation of the bishop, impose canonical penalties (after following appropriate procedures and hearing the bishop’s side of the story), or take other actions which are the prerogative of the bishop’s hierarchical superior.
Let’s return now to Tess’s question. It should be clear by this point that if there’s a dispute in her diocese between the bishop and a priest of the diocese, and the priest wishes to make recourse up the hierarchical ladder, the papal nuncio is not the one he or his parishioners should turn to. As a general rule, all the nuncio will presumably do is either (a) forward the priest’s/parishioners’ letter to the Vatican, or (b) respond to them with an apologetically polite “there’s nothing I can do,” and invite them to appeal to the appropriate Vatican congregation themselves. In so doing, of course, Tess’s priest and fellow parishioners will waste a lot of time, which in their situation may be in short supply already. It won’t be because the nuncio is irresponsible, or taking the bishop’s side! Rather, the nuncio can’t go outside the bounds of his own authority, which is where a diocesan clergy-dispute really lies.
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