The Holy See (Latin: Sancta Sedes) is the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, the episcopal see of the Pope. It is the central point of reference of the universal church and the focal point of communion due to its prominence. It traces its origin to the apostolic era, when Saint Peter arrived in Rome to evangelize and help the forming of a community of believers there which maintained a significant Christian presence. Today, it is responsible for the governance of the faithful, organized in their local Christian communities. The Holy See is viewed as analogous to a sovereign state, having a centralized government, called the Roman Curia, with the Cardinal Secretary of State as its chief administrator and various departments essential to administration comparable to ministries. It enters diplomatic relations with states, and has Vatican City as its sovereign territory.
Diplomatically, the Holy See acts and speaks for the whole church. It is also recognized by other subjects of international law as a sovereign entity, headed by the Pope, with which diplomatic relations can be maintained.
Often incorrectly referred to as “the Vatican”, the “Holy See” is not the same entity as the “Vatican City State”, which came into existence only in 1929 because of the Lateran Treaty; the Holy See, the episcopal see of Rome, dates back to early Christian times. Ambassadors are officially accredited not to the Vatican City State but to “the Holy See”, and papal representatives to states and international organizations are recognized as representing the Holy See, not the Vatican City State.
Though all episcopal sees may be considered “holy”, the expression “the Holy See” (without further specification) is normally used in international relations (and in the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church) to refer to the See of Rome viewed as the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. …
The Pope governs the Catholic Church through the Roman Curia. The Roman Curia consists of a complex of offices that administer church affairs at the highest level, including the Secretariat of State, nine Congregations, three Tribunals, eleven Pontifical Councils, and seven Pontifical Commissions. The Secretariat of State, under the Cardinal Secretary of State, directs and coordinates the Curia. The incumbent, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, is the See’s equivalent of a prime minister. Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary of the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State, acts as the Holy See’s minister of foreign affairs. Parolin was named in his role by Pope Francis On 31 August 2013. Mamberti was named in his role by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2006.
Vatican City, the Holy See’s sovereign territory
The Secretariat of State is the only body of the Curia that is situated within Vatican City. The others are in buildings in different parts of Rome that have extraterritorial rights similar to those of embassies.
Among the most active of the major Curial institutions are the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees the Catholic Church’s doctrine; the Congregation for Bishops, which coordinates the appointment of bishops worldwide; the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which oversees all missionary activities; and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which deals with international peace and social issues.
Three tribunals exercise judicial power. The Roman Rota handles normal judicial appeals, the most numerous being those that concern alleged nullity of marriage. The Apostolic Signatura is the supreme appellate and administrative court concerning decisions even of the Roman Rota and administrative decisions of ecclesiastical superiors (bishops and superiors of religious institutes), such as closing a parish or removing someone from office. It also oversees the work of other ecclesiastical tribunals at all levels. The Apostolic Penitentiary deals not with external judgments or decrees, but with matters of conscience, granting absolutions from censures, dispensations, commutations, validations, condonations, and other favors; it also grants indulgences.
The Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See coordinates the finances of the Holy See departments and supervises the administration of all offices, whatever be their degree of autonomy, that manage these finances. The most important of these is the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.
The Prefecture of the Papal Household is responsible for the organization of the papal household, audiences, and ceremonies (apart from the strictly liturgical part).
The Holy See does not dissolve upon a Pope’s death or resignation. It instead operates under a different set of laws sede vacante. During this interregnum, the heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia (such as the prefects of congregations) cease immediately to hold office, the only exceptions being the Major Penitentiary, who continues his important role regarding absolutions and dispensations, and the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, who administers the temporalities (i.e., properties and finances) of the See of St. Peter during this period. The government of the See, and therefore of the Catholic Church, then falls to the College of Cardinals. Canon law prohibits the College and the Camerlengo from introducing any innovations or novelties in the government of the Church during this period. …
Status in international law
The Holy See has been recognized, both in state practice and in the writing of modern legal scholars, as a subject of public international law, with rights and duties analogous to those of States. Although the Holy See, as distinct from the Vatican City State, does not fulfill the long-established criteria in international law of statehood—having a permanent population, a defined territory, a stable government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states—its possession of full legal personality in international law is shown by the fact that it maintains diplomatic relations with 180 states, that it is a member-state in various intergovernmental international organizations, and that it is: “respected by the international community of sovereign States and treated as a subject of international law having the capacity to engage in diplomatic relations and to enter into binding agreements with one, several, or many states under international law that are largely geared to establish and preserving peace in the world.”