I have often wondered just what the Papal Nuncio is and what the role of the Papal Nunciature is. I am even more confused when I read in the news that the Papal Nuncio would lead the traditional toast of the diplomatic corps, implying his position of honor among the different legates. Can you please clarify this matter to me?
A Brief History of the Institution
The practice of churches sending representatives to other communities or even to civil authorities can be traced to the earliest times of the Church. By the 5th Century, the Pope—who by that time had assumed responsibility both for the ecclesiastical and civil life of the city of Rome—began sending permanent representatives to the Imperial Court in Constantinople. This was the start of the current practice of nuncios who represent the Holy See both to local churches and to civil governments.
By the Middle Ages, the popes were granting certain residential bishops special powers over neighboring bishops, which went beyond the prerogatives of Metropolitans (e.g., Thessalonika in Illyricum, Arles in Gaul, Tarragona and Seville in Spain). They were called Apostolic Vicars, a title that by the 9th Century had gradually evolved to legatus natus—i.e., legates with the innate appointment to those particular sees. Eventually the persons occupying such positions became known as primates.
In contrast, a person sent on a more transitory mission was known as legatus missus—i.e., a legate sent for a specific purpose. When a cardinal was sent on such a mission, he was known as a legatus a latere—i.e., sent from beside the Pope. Better equipped for their tasks—and more closely allied to the Popes—legates of this type gradually took on more stable functions in the places where they were sent. At the same time, the legati nati slowly lost their significance, such that by the CIC 17, they lost their special rights as such.
Gregory XIII reorganized the system of legates in the 16th Century and established permanent nunciatures, originally with the principal task of implementing the Tridentine Reform. This system received further international recognition in the Congress of Vienna (1815), which gave special prerogatives to papal nuncios in consideration of their spiritual mission. In more recent times, the Vienna Convention (1961) modified such special status, but retained recognition of the right of the Holy See to send representatives under international law.
In the light of the Vatican II provision that the office of legates be more precisely defined (CD, 9), Paul VI issued the Motu Proprio Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum (24.VI.1969). Although this is the major source of the canons regulating papal legates in the present Code, the brevity with which the material is treated in the Code—coupled with the fact that the Code has not reordered the material ex integro (cf. c.6)— makes it still the main source of particular law for the institution (cf. c.20).
Justification of Papal Legates
Can.362 — The Roman Pontiff possesses the innate and independent right to appoint, send, transfer and recall his own legates to particular Churches in various nations or regions, to states and to public authorities; the norms of international law are to be observed concerning the sending and the recalling of legate appointed to states.
Before anything else, the legislator proclaims the right of legation of the Roman Pontiff as innate—i.e., not stemming from anything outside the juridic order of the Church, but rather arising from the very perfection of that order itself. The corollary claim of its being independent is just a consequence. What is noteworthy in the present canon is the apparent lack of justification of such a right of legation, which on the other hand we find in the ecclesiology of Vatican II and in the commentaries that have been written regarding this material since the publication of Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum.
1) Legation ad intra. This refers to the sending of legates to particular Churches, and finds its primary justification in the right-duty of the Roman Pontiff to nourish ecclesial communion through instruments that manifest his solicitude towards the particular Churches and all the faithful. On the other hand, the reference to various nations or regions allude to the advisability—in certain cases—that the Holy See not follow the geo-political division of a given territory. For example, given a low Catholic population, only one legate may be sent to take care of the particular Churches comprising several countries, with the seat of the legation in the country that offers more security for the same.
2) Legation ad extra. This refers to the sending of legates to states and to public authorities, which finds its constitutional foundation in the religious mission of the Church (cf. GS, n.42), understood as a duty “to be present in the community of peoples ... by means of its official channels” (GS, n.89).
It is noteworthy that in the present Code, the legislator has gone beyond the previous formula that limited such legation to States, to now include other public authorities—a formula more open to further development of political communities and the international community. It is also interesting to note at this point that the title by which papal legates to States are accredited is that of the Holy See—not Vatican City—underlining the unique identity of the Church in the international community.
Kinds of Papal Legates
Can.363 — §1. To legates of the Roman Pontiff is entrusted the responsibility of representing him in a stable manner to particular Churches and also to states and public authorities to which they are sent.
§2. They also represent the Apostolic See who are appointed to a pontifical mission as delegates or observers at International Councils or at conferences and meetings.
According to this canon, there are three basic types of legates, the first two mentioned in §1 and the third type mentioned in §2 of the present canon:
1) Apostolic Delegates—are the legates who represent the Pope to the particular Churches but not to the civil government.
2) Legates to both Particular Churches and Civil Governments — can in turn be of various types and dignities:
a) Nuncio—is a legate who holds the rank of ambassador and enjoys the privilege of being automatically the dean of the diplomatic corps in the capital where he serves.
b) Pro-Nuncio—is also an ambassador but without the special privilege of being automatically the dean of the diplomatic corp.
c) Inter-Nuncio—is an extraordinary envoy and minister plenipotentiary: a rank used in diplomatic norms when relations have not yet consolidated to the ambassadorial level.
d) Regents and Chargés d’affairs with Special Instructions—can also serve as permanent legates below ambassador level under certain circumstances.
Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum limits the aforementioned offices to ecclesiastical men—i.e., clerics—many of whom are bishops (actually archbishops in many cases).
3) Legates to International Organizations, Various Conferences or Meetings—which the aforementioned motu proprio allows to be laymen as well as clerics. They are of two kinds:
a) Delegates—are those with voting status.
b) Observers—are those without voting status. The Holy See maintains such legations at the United Nations, in various UN-related organizations, at the Organization of American States, etc.
The importance and priority of the ad intra—over the ad extra—functions of Papal Legates is acknowledged by the legislator not only by explicitly stating they constitute a principal duty, but by giving them a separate and prior treatment in the Code. Again reserving the matter of the ad extra functions for a later Lesson, we concentrate at the moment on c.364.
Can.364 — The principal duty of a pontifical legate is to work so that day by day the bonds of unity, which exist between the Apostolic See and the particular Churches, become stronger and more efficacious. Therefore, it belongs to the pontifical legate for his area:
1º to send information to the Apostolic See on the conditions of the particular Churches and all that touches the life of the Church and the good of souls;
2º to assist the bishops by action and counsel, while leaving intact the exercise of the bishops’ legitimate power;
3º to foster close relations with the Conference of Bishops, by offering it assistance in every way’
4º to transmit or propose the names of candidates to the Apostolic See in reference to the naming of bishops and to instruct the informative process concerning those to be promoted in accord with the norms given by the Apostolic See;
5º to strive for the promotion of matters which concern peace, progress and the cooperative efforts of peoples;
6º to cooperate with the bishops in fostering suitable relationships between the Catholic Church and other churches or ecclesial communities and non-Christian religions also;
7º in concerted action with the bishops to protect what pertains to the mission of the Church and the Apostolic See in relations with the leaders of the state;
8º to exercise the faculties and fulfill the other mandates committed to him by the Apostolic See.
As the opening line of the canon affirms, the principal ecclesial duty of the legates is to promote the unity of the Church, in keeping with the key role of the Petrine ministry in the Church as a service to unity. This principle, as it where, is the hermeneutic key to the proper interpretation of the provisions of this canon.