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Subject: Referendary
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Roman Curia
Secretariat of State

The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura is the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church (apart from the Pope himself, who as the supreme ecclesiastical judge, is the final point of appeal for any ecclesiastical judgment).[1] In addition, it oversees the administration of justice in the Church.[2]

The current Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (since June 27, 2008) is Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, previously Archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri and Bishop of La Crosse, Wisconsin. The current Secretary (since April 12, 2008) is Archbishop Frans Daneels, O. Praem.

The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura is housed in the Italian Renaissance-era Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, Italy, which also is the headquarters and meeting place of the Roman Catholic Church's other two Tribunals. The Apostolic Signatura only hears appeals from these two tribunals, who normally have final and universal (worldwide Church) appellate jurisdiction over their respective areas of competence, if some process was in error or there is an inter-agency conflict, and not usually in regards to the judgment which was made or the merits of the case. The two other Tribunals located there are the Sacred Roman Rota (which is normally the final appellate tribunal of the Church for most court cases, especially regarding marriage nullity, decisions of Bishops, and ecclesiastical trials and disciplinary procedures), and the Apostolic Penitentiary (which is normally the Church's final appellate tribunal regarding all matters having to do with the forgiveness of sins and the proper celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation- Confession, or Penance).

Field of competence

The Roman Rota is the ordinary appellate tribunal of the Apostolic See.[3][4] The Signatura's competence covers instead:

  1. complaints of nullity and petitions for total reinstatement against sentences of the Roman Rota;
  2. recourses, in cases concerning the status of persons, when the Roman Rota has denied a new examination of the case;
  3. exceptions of suspicion and other proceedings against judges of the Roman Rota arising from the exercise of their functions;
  4. conflicts of competence between tribunals which are not subject to the same appellate tribunal.[2][5]

Apart from these judicial matters, the Signatura has competence as an administrative tribunal to deal with controversies over administrative decisions made by or approved by departments of the Roman Curia, if it is contended that the decision violated some law either in the decision-making process or in the procedure used; it can also deal with administrative controversies referred to it by the Pope or those departments, and with conflicts of competence between the departments.[2][6]

A third field of competence for the Signatura is that of overseeing all the tribunals of the Catholic Church, with power to extend the jurisdiction of tribunals, to grant dispensations from procedural laws, to establish interdiocesan tribunals, and to discipline canonical advocates.[2][7]

The Cardinal Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura serves ex officio as the President of the Supreme Court of Vatican City (Corte di Cassazione). The two other members of the Supreme Court are also Cardinals of the Apostolic Signatura and are chosen by the Cardinal Prefect on a yearly basis.[8]


In the thirteenth century the Popes made use of "referendarii" to investigate and prepare the signing - hence the name signatura - of petitions and other cases presented to the Holy See. Pope Eugene IV (1431-1447) entrusted these referendaries with authority to sign certain petitions and thereby established a permanent office for this purpose. Under Popes Alexander VI, Sixtus IV and Julius II this office was divided into two, the Signatura gratiae for examining petitions for favours, and the Signatura iustitiae for contentious cases. The honourable office of referendary came to be conferred frequently as a merely honorary title, but Pope Sixtus V put a limit on their number, and Pope Alexander VII combined the limited number of voting referendaries into a college, assisted by the simple referendaries, who had only a consultative position. The Signatura gratiae gradually lost its functions to other bodies, and the growth of the work of the Roman Rota, the foundation of the Congregations of Cardinals resulted in the Signatura iustitiae becoming mainly a Supreme Court of the Papal States.

On 29 June 1909, Pope Pius X reestablished a single Apostolic Signatura, consisting of six cardinals, one of whom acted as its prefect. On 28 June 1915, Pope Benedict XV reconstituted the college of the voting referendaries and simple referendaries with consultative functions and the 1917 Code of Canon Law removed the limitation of the number of cardinals members of this Supreme Tribunal.

The present competence of the Apostolic Signatura is that laid down in the apostolic constitution Pastor Bonus of 28 June 1988.[9][10]

Prefects of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura since 1908

Current Membership

The following are the present members of the Apostolic Signatura:


External links

  • Giga-Catholic Information
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