Vatican City

By Julianne Castillo

I. Introduction


Flag of Vatican City

The Vatican, not being a formal country but rather a “city state,” has not been formally ranked nor rated in terms of free speech and free press by any organization. This essay will address where the Vatican lies in relation to the United States, in terms of their speech and press freedoms.  While some may think that the Vatican would have very strict regulations on speech and press, it can be argued that current events, to be discussed in later sections, involving the Vatican would suggest that their government is taking quick steps to make speech and press rights a near mirror image of that of which is found in the United States.

II. Historical Background

Vatican City, formally referred to as “The Holy See (State of the Vatican City),”[1] is located in Southern Europe, more specifically within the country of Italy. Prior to its established sovereignty, the Vatican and Italian government had been in constant dispute as to how each believed the people should be governed. Eventually, the Vatican gained its independence from Italy on Feb. 11, 1929, through the Lateran Treaty, signed by Pietro Cardinal Gasparri and Benito Mussolini. This treaty allowed The Vatican to have its sovereignty recognized not only by Italy, but also “in the international realm.”[2] Although the Treaty recognizes The Holy See as its own sovereign state as of 1929, “the origin of the Papal states… May be traced back to the 8th century.”[3]

While the type of government within the Vatican has changed, the current form of government is “Ecclesiastical.”[4] An ecclesiastical government is one that is “rule[d] by an ensconced institutional religious leader.”[5] The current active constitution that is followed by the 832 citizens (as of July 2011)[6] is the “Fundamental Law promulgated by Pope JOHN PAUL II,”[7] which was written on Nov. 26, 2000, and was put into effect Feb. 22, 2001. The city state’s legal system is based on the Code of Canon Law.[8]

The government of the Vatican, modeled after the United States, does contain executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Within the executive branch there is the chief of state, which is the pope at that time, currently Pope Francis as of 2013; the head of government, as of Oct. 1, 2011, Guiseppe Bertello, also known as the president of the Pontifical Commission for Vatican State; and the cabinet, which is the Pontifical Commission and is appointed by the pope.[9] The legislative branch only consists of the “unicameral Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State.”[10] Within the judicial branch, “there is a sole judge with limited jurisdiction, a tribunal with four members, a Court of Appeal with four members, and a Supreme Court with three members.”[11] So far, this layout of government branches has worked in the Vatican’s favor for the length of time it has existed.

III. Free Speech

While the United States’ laws on free speech are very definite by saying “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech,”[12] the speech laws in the Vatican are more implicit. While certain things are definite on what can or cannot be said, other laws simply imply free expression rights. One aspect of speech that is often argued in free speech trials within the United States is that of falsity. Within the Vatican, there are two laws that outline how, and when, falsity is important to consider for their citizens. The first is that in cases of lying under oath, or perjury. As of July 2013, lying under oath is a punishable crime; however, if you lie under oath because of “physical force, threats or intimidation,” by someone else, the person forcing you to lie is the one who receives a punishment of “five to ten years [of] imprisonment.”[13] In certain circumstances where falsity is involved, the falsity may not necessarily result in punishment. If you commit a “wrongdoing,” as they are referred to within the written laws, it is “punishable with an administrative sanction,” and “each person is held liable for his own actions.”[14] There is an exception to this article, stated directly after, in Section 2: “in case a violation is committed due to factual error, the actor is not held liable if that error was not the result of his own negligence.” The easiest application of this statement would be that of something such as a libel case. Where libel is concerned, if you know a statement is false, you are charged with libel, but under the Vatican’s law, if you say something that is unknowingly, but not negligibly, false then you cannot be held accountable for that statement.

While the Vatican City does have an “official religion,” and many of its citizens follow the Roman Catholic Church, laws have recently become more progressive by allowing more religious freedoms. Typically, religion would fall under “Freedom of Religion,” but the relevant parts to speech involve the ability to express their religion publicly. People of many different religions can live in the Vatican without worry of prosecution as long as the expression of their religion “do[es] not violate the just requirements of public order.”[15] Concurrently, people of other religions “also have the right to not be prevented from publicly teaching about or witnessing to their faith in speech or in writing.”[16] With that being said, the parents who do practice Catholicism do also hold the right “to choose with true freedom among schools or other means of education” if they feel that they do not want their children taught by a teacher who expresses another religion.[17]

Some other aspects of speech have been that of protesting within the Vatican. There are two prominent examples with two very different circumstances that led to two very different outcomes. The first is that which occurred in November 2014. Three women from a “radical feminist group, which originated in Ukraine,” [18] were protesting in St. Peter’s Square. The three women were “simulating anal sex with crucifixes in a protest against… Pope Francis’ planned visit to the European Parliament.”[19] While the obscene acts themselves did not make it clear what was being protested, the women had phrases painted on their nude chests that clarified their disapproval of the pope being seen as someone worthy of attending political events. These three women were arrested, not because of their protesting but because of the manner in which they chose to express their disapproval. In this case, their nudity and obscenity is what got the radical group arrested, not their message. The second example of protest occurred in December 2016. Pope Francis released a document that “reaffirm[ed] [the Vatican’s] opposition to gay priests”[20] which then angered many activists and caused a mass outcry. Many believed that Pope Francis was more progressive and thus were confused and disappointed by his decision to take a step back in the equal rights movement. The pope received much criticism, the biggest coming from “Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, which campaigns for LGBT rights in the church.”[21] These sources of criticism were peaceful, did not violate any other law, and were beneficial to a free flow of ideas; therefore, those who questioned and criticized the pope’s decision did not receive any kind of punishment or repercussion.

IV. Free Press

An interesting fact about the Holy See is that there is a press office that oversees all media within the Vatican. The Holy See Press Office Bulletin “publishes the official news of the activities of the Holy Father and of the various departments of the Holy See.”[22] While government distributed news seems convenient, it also raises questions on reliability of information. Surprisingly, the press office has been very ethical and honest with the citizens of the Holy See, so much so that at one point, during Vatican II circa 1962, the Holy Office threatened to shut down the press office. The reasoning for this was that two members of the press office, who were granted permission to sit in on council meetings, ended up sharing the unfinalized, confidential information through the bulletins. This, of course, upset the members of the Holy Office, but the “shut-down never happened, surely in part because somebody made clear to the Holy Office that it had no jurisdiction over a body regulated by the council.”[23] The media continued to do their job and continued to run into many obstacles. During the Third Period of Vatican II, circa 1964, journalists were told that “they were not to criticize the council… or communicate inside information about [the council].”[24] This would not be the end of restrictive laws and regulations on the media. Thankfully, the press office has progressed and transformed into a reliable source of news for the people of the Vatican. The press office being a government entity has not yet caused many known issues of prior restraint or manipulated stories.

As of September 2013, “whoever illicitly obtains or reveals information or documents whose disclosure is forbidden, is punished with six months to two years imprisonment or with a fine ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 euro.”[25] This very law was called into question when two journalists, Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, were “being prosecuted by The Vatican for revealing confidential information and could face up to eight years in prison.,”[26] in a case that was soon to be named “Vatileaks II.” Also on trial were the sources of the documents: “Lucio Vallejo Balda, secretary of Cosea, the commission that conducted the survey on the finances of the Vatican, and Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui, a member the commission” and “Nicola Maio, a former contributor to Cosea.”[27] Luckily for them, justice prevailed for Nuzzi, Fittipaldi, and Maio, as they were acquitted. The law was not in favor, however, of the “two other defendants,” who originally shared the confidential documents, as Chaouqui and Balda will be receiving “an 18-month jail sentence and a 10-month suspended sentence” respectively.[28] These charges, however, were not direct punishment for the media’s story, but rather indirectly for stealing government documents.

V. Critical Comparison

Through the Vatican’s brief history, there have been many parallels with the United States. These parallels have occurred not only in laws, governmental duties, but court cases as well. In terms of free speech, the similarities are noticeable. Both the United States and the Vatican consider perjury to be a crime, however in the United States, even if someone forces you to lie, you can still be punished by the law. Where libel is concerned, both the United States and the Vatican share the belief that you can be sued for libel if the you publish false, and possibly defamatory, information. The issue that arises, then, is having to prove that the publisher of such articles knowingly, and with negligence for the truth and with actual malice, shared this false information. Where religion is concerned, both governments allow their citizens to practice and publicly teach their religious beliefs, regardless of what they are. The difference in this specific part is that the United States government does not allow teachers to share their beliefs in public schools because of the separation of church and state. In terms of protests, both legal systems claim to allow those of which are peaceful and do not violate any other laws. This can be seen in the U.S. Supreme Court case of Snyder v. Phelps, and the instance of the three radical Ukrainian women protesting in the Vatican. Within Snyder v. Phelps, Phelps and his followers were not held responsible for emotional distress because their protest did not break any standing laws and was of public concern. Where the Vatican is concerned, the three women were not arrested for their message of public concern, but for their public nudity and obscenity, both of which would not likely, in many circumstances, be protected by the First Amendment in the United States. With concern to criticism of public officials, both countries welcome it as it helps in the market place of ideas; however United States officials have tended to try and claim defamation because they did not agree with it, whereas the Vatican officials have not often called for retribution.

Where the press is concerned, the parallels are uncanny. The biggest parallel is that between the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times Co. v. United States, and the “Vatileaks II” case in the Vatican. In the Pentagon Papers, the majority of the Supreme Court voted in favor of New York Times and the Washington Post, believing that it was their journalistic duty to report any corruption going on within the government, even if the documents were confidential. While the Vatican has a distinct law denouncing the disclosure of such documents, a new precedent has been created by the two brave Italian journalists, seeking to expose the corruption of financial misconduct. In both cases, the act of disclosing confidential files was illegal, however the freedom of the press prevailed for the good of the people.

VI. Conclusion

After analyzing the laws, precedents, and instances of free speech and press, it can be concluded that The Holy See is on par with the United States of America. The Vatican, in the brief time since it became its own sovereign state, has managed to progress very quickly to guarantee almost the same speech and press rights one would have in the United States. The only section that the Vatican would be falling behind in is that of equal rights, mainly for the LGBT community; this is an area that could use improvement. As far as the future is concerned, that of the Vatican is very bright, potentially even brighter than that of the United States.

This essay was last updated on April 30, 2017.


[1] “Holy See (Vatican City).” CIA World Fact Book 2011. N.p.: Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. N. pag.Print.

[2] Lateran Treaty of 1929 – Art. 2

[3] “Holy See (Vatican City).” CIA World Fact Book 2011. N.p.: Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. N. pag.Print.

[4] Ibid

[5] “Theocracy vs. Ecclesiocracy: There Is a Difference.” The American Vision. N.p., 09 Aug. 2006. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

[6]  “Holy See (Vatican City).” CIA World Fact Book 2011. N.p.: Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. N. pag.Print.

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] “Legge che approva l’ordinamento giudiziario dello Stato della Città del Vaticano (Suppl. 12)”. Acta Apostolicae Sedis (AAS) 79. Holy See. 1987.

[11] Giuseppe Dalla Torre (2009). “L’Ordinamento Giudiziario”. Ottanta anni dello Stato della Città del Vaticano. Governatorato dello Stato della Città del Vaticano. pp. 135–144.

[12] Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America (15 December 1791).

[13] Law N. IX (Art. 23): Amendments to the Criminal Code (11 July 2013)

[14] Law N. X (Art. 3, Sec. 1): General Norms on Administrative Sanctions (11 July 2013)

[15] Healy, Nicholas J., and Schindler, David L.. Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom; a New Translation, Redaction History, and Interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. Print. pg. 9

[16] Ibid

[17] Healy, Nicholas J., and Schindler, David L.. Freedom, Truth, and Human Dignity: The Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom; a New Translation, Redaction History, and Interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015. Print. pg. 11

[18] Dean, Lewis. “Vatican: Topless Femen Protestors Simulate Sex With Crucifixes While Decrying Pope Francis.” International Business Times UK. N.p., 14 Nov. 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

[19] Ibid

[20] McKenna, Josephine. “Outcry Greets Vatican Decision to Reaffirm Ban on Gay Priests.”Religion News Service. N.p., 08 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

[21] Ibid

[22] The Holy See (Vatican City State). News Services. Press Office of the Holy See. Press Office of the Holy See. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Mar. 2017.

[23] O’Malley, John W. What Happened at Vatican II. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap of Harvard U, 2010. Print. pg 152

[24] O’Malley, John W. What Happened at Vatican II. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap of Harvard U, 2010. Print. pg 205-206

[25] Law N. IX (Art. 10): Amendments to the Criminal Code (11 July 2013).

[26] Ricchiuti, Rossella. “Vatican: Italian Journalists Face Eight Years in Prison.” Index on Censorship. N.p., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

[27] Ibid

[28] “”Vatileaks” Verdict: Journalists Acquitted, Priest Found Guilty.” IFEX. International Publishers Association, 8 July 2016. Web. 2 Mar. 2017.

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