Apostolic Chancery

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The Apostolic Chancery[1] (Latin: Cancellaria Apostolica;[2] also known as the Papal or Roman Chanc(ell)ery) was a dicastery of the Roman Curia. The chief official was the Cardinal Chancellor of Holy Roman Church[3] who was always Cardinal-Priest of San Lorenzo in Damaso.

The principal function of the Chancellor was founded originally to collect money to maintain the papal armies. Pope Pius VII reformed the office when Napoleon obviated the need for papal armies. In the early 20th century the office had the duties to collect money for missionary work. The office was abolished by the motu proprio Quo aptius of 27 February 1973 issued by Pope Paul VI. Its functions were transferred to the Secretariat of State.

History until 1908

It takes its name chancery from civil law and from the imperial chanceries, and is certainly of very ancient origin in its essence. The primacy of the Roman Pontiff made it necessary that the Pope should have in his service officers to write and to transmit his answers to the numerous petitions for favours and to the numerous consultations addressed to him. This office, in course of time, underwent many transformations, too many to treat in full.

After Pope Martin V had instituted a large number of offices in the Chancery, Pope Sixtus V placed many of them in the class of vacabili, as they were then called, i.e. venal (a practice also resorted to by secular court, e.g. in France even under the absolutist Louis XIV of France). The origin of this institution was as follows: The pope was often compelled, in defence of Christendom, to wage war, to fit out expeditions, or at least to give financial assistance to the princes who waged such wars at his exhortation. But the pontifical treasury was often without the means to defray even the expenses of the Pontifical States, so in order to raise funds. Accordingly, the popes resorted to the expedient of selling several lucrative offices of the Curia, as a rule to the highest bidder; however, that what was sold was not the office itself, but the receipts of the office, e.g., the taxes for the favours granted through the office in question. Some offices were sold with the right of succession by the heirs of the purchaser, but this could be done only in the case of an office of minor importance, in the exercise of which no special ability was required. Those offices which entailed grave responsibilities, and which could be filled only by pious and learned men, were sold on the condition that they should revert to the Curia at the death of the purchaser. An aleatory contract, therefore, was made, the uncertainties being the amount of the income of the office and the length of life of the purchaser. The prices of the offices, especially of the more desirable ones, were considerable: Lorenzo Corsini, afterwards Clement XII, bought the office of regent of the Chancery for 30,000 Roman scudi—a large fortune for those times. The hazard was not necessarily confined to the life of the purchaser; he was free to establish it upon the life of another expressly designated person, the so-called the intestatary. The purchaser was also allowed to change the life hazard from one person to another, providing this were done forty days before the death of the last preceding intestatary.

The offices of the Chancery which were transformed into vacabili by Sixtus V included the regent, the twenty-five solicitors, the twelve notaries and the auditors of the causes of the Holy Palace. Sixtus V assigned the proceeds of these sales to the vice-chancellor (see below) as part his emoluments; but this too liberal prescription in favour of the cardinal who presided over the Chancery was revoked by Pope Innocent XI, who assigned the revenue in question to the Apostolic Camera. Pope Alexander VIII restored these revenues to the vice-chancellor, at that time the pope's nephew, Pietro Ottoboni.

Under Napoleon I of France the Government redeemed many of the vacabili, and but few remained. Pius VII, after his return to Rome, undertook a reform of the Chancery, and wisely reduced the number of the offices. But as he himself granted to the vacabili the privilege that, by a legal fiction, time should be regarded as not having transpired (quod tempus et tempera non currant), and many proprietors of vacabili having obtained grants of what was called sopravivevza by which deceased intestataries were considered to be living, certain offices remained vacabili in name, but not in fact. Finally, Pope Leo XIII (1901) suppressed all the vacabili offices, ordering his pro-datary to redeem them, when necessary, the datary's office being substituted for the proprietors.

Modern history

By the Constitution "Sapienti consilio" of Pius X on 29 June 1908, the Chancery was reduced to a forwarding office (Ufficio di Spedizione) with a small personnel: besides the cardinal presiding over the Chancery, the regent, with the college of Apostolic prothonotaries, a notary, secretary and archivist, a protocolist and four amanuenses. It was only under Pope Pius X that the name of Chancellor of Holy Roman Church was restored. His cardinalitial title is always the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso as mandated by Pope Clement VII in the constitution Etsi ad singula issued on July 5, 1532.

The presiding cardinal, prior to the Constitution, was called vice-chancellor. The authors writing on the Chancery gave many ingenious reasons why that dignitary should not have received the more obvious title of chancellor. Cardinal De Luca regarded these explanations as senseless (simplicitates et fabulae), proposing an explanation of his own, without insisting on its correctness. According to him, it was probable that the title of vice-chancellor arose in the same way as the title of pro-datary, the custom having been to call the head of the datary office (dataria) the datary (datario), if he were not a cardinal, and the pro-datary (pro datario), if he were a cardinal. The reason for this must be sought in the fact that the office of datary was really not that of a cardinal, but rather of minor dignity; wherefore it did not seem well to give the title of datary to a cardinal. The same custom still obtains in the case of a nuncio who is elevated to the cardinalate: he retains his position for a time, but with the title of pro-nuncio. This theory of De Luca's is not certain, but at least probable. The new Constitution establishes that the head of the Chancery be called chancellor, a very reasonable provision, seeing that this office has been filled for centuries by cardinals. For the rest, the office in question was always regarded as one of the most honourable and most important of the Curia, as may be seen from Moroni's account of the funeral of Cardinal Alexander Farnese, vice-chancellor and archpriest of the Vatican Basilica. The authority of the vice-chancellor was increased when, under Pope Alexander VIII in 1690, there was added to his office, in perpetuity, that of compiler (sommista).

The chancellor retains little of his former influence and attributes. He acts as notary in the consistories and directs the office of the chancery. The greatest splendour of the chancellor was under Pope Leo X, from whose successor, Clement VII, this functionary received as residence the Palazzo Riario, long known as the Cancelleria Apostolica, where he remained. His former residence was in the Palazzo Borgia, from which he moved to the Palazzo Sforza Cesarini, the latter palace being, on this account, known for a long time as the Cancelleria Vecchia. The removal of the vice-chancellor's residence and office to the majestic Palazzo Riario, in the Campo di Fiori, was due to the confiscation of the property of Cardinal Raffaele Riario for his share, with Cardinals Petrucci, Sacchi, Soderini and Castellesi, in a conspiracy against the life of Leo X.

Contiguous to the Cancelleria, in fact forming a part of it, is the Church of San Lorenzo in Damaso. When Clement VII assigned this palace as the perpetual residence of the vice-chancellor, he provided that the vice-chancellor should always have the title of that church; as the chancellors were not always of the same order in the Sacred College, being either cardinal-deacons, cardinal-priests, or cardinal-bishops, this church could not follow the rule of the other cardinalitial churches, which have a fixed grade, being either "titular" (churches over which cardinals of the order of priests are placed) or deaconries (churches over which are placed cardinal-deacons). San Lorenzo, on the contrary, became a titular for a chancellor of the order of priests, and a deaconry for a cardinal-deacon; when he is a suburbicarian bishop, the chancellor retains this church in commendam.

The Regency, the next office in the order of precedence in the Chancery after the chancellorship, was created in 1377, when Gregory XI returned from Avignon ('Baybylonian exile' of the papacy in France) to his see. Cardinal Pierre de Monteruc, the chancellor at that time, refused to follow the pope from Avignon to Rome; as it was necessary that someone should direct the office of the Chancery, the pope, leaving the title of vice-chancellor to Montéruc, appointed the Archbishop of Ban, Bartolommeo Prignano, 'regent' of this important office. At the death of Gregory XI, in 1378, Prignano was elected pope, and he appointed a successor to himself in the office of regent of the Chancery, which was thereafter maintained, even when the vice-chancellor re-established his residence at Rome.

There is not space here to refer in detail to the other, minor offices of the Chancery, the greater number of those offices which disappeared for good under Pius X's constitution, under which the Chancery is charged only with the expedition of Papal Bulls for Consistorial benefices, the establishment of new dioceses and new chapters, and other more important affairs of the Church requiring various forms of Apostolic Letters.

Formerly, there were four different ways of issuing Papal Bull -by way of the Curia (per viam Curiae), by way of the Chancery (per Cancellarium), secretly (per viam secretam), and by way of the Apostolic Camera (per viam Camerae)- because while some Bulls were taxed, there was no taxation on others, and it was necessary to determine upon what Bulls the proprietors of the vacabili offices had a right to receive taxes. Thus Bulls concerning the government of the Catholic world, being exempt from all taxation, were said to be issued by way of the Curia; those of which the expedition was by way of the Chancery were the common Bulls, which, after being reviewed by the abbreviators of the greater presidency, were signed by them and by the proprietors of the vacabili, the latter of whom received the established taxes; the Bulls said to be issued secretly were those in favour of some privileged persons—as the palatine prelates, the auditors of the Sacra Rota and the relatives of cardinals and were signed by the vice-chancellor, also exempt from taxation; finally, the Bulls of which the expedition was said to be by way of the Camera were those that concerned the Apostolic Camera. Since the style and the rules of the Chancery could not be adapted to these Bulls, they were issued by the sommista, whose office was created by Alexander VI and later, as was said above, united by Alexander VIII with that of the vice-chancellor.

After all the vacabili were abolished, these various forms of expedition ceased, Pius X's Constitution providing that all Bulls be issued by way of the Chancery, on order of the Congregation of the Consistory for all matters of its competency, and by order of the pope for all others, in keeping with the new organization of the Chancery as a merely issuing office. The Constitution "Sapienti consilio" provided that the ancient formulae of Bulls should be changed, and the duty of preparing new ones was given to a commission of cardinals composed of the chancellor, the datary and the secretary of the Consistorial Congregation.

This commission having reformed the Bulls for the Consistorial benefices, Pius X's Motu Proprio of 8 December 1910, approved the new formula; and ordered them to be used exclusively after 1 January 1911. The college of the abbreviators of the greater presidency having been suppressed, and the abbreviators of the lesser presidency having become extinct in fact, the Apostolic prothonotaries in actual office were appointed to sign the Bulls.

Another reasonable change was made in regard to the dating of Bulls. Formerly Bulls were dated according to the year of the Incarnation, which begins on 25 March. This medieval style of dating remained peculiar to papal Bulls, and in time gave rise to much confusion. Pius X ordered these documents to be dated in future according to common custom, by the year which begins on 1 January.

Mention should here be made of what are known as the Rules of the Chancery. This name was given to certain Apostolic Constitutions which the popes were in the habit of promulgating at the beginning of their pontificate, in regard to judicial causes and those concerning benefices. In many cases the pope merely confirmed the provisions of his predecessor; in others he made additions or suppressions. The result was an ancient collection of standing rules which remained unmodified even in Pius X's reorganization of the Curia. These Rules are usually divided into three classes: rules of direction or expedition, concerning the expedition of Bulls; beneficial or reservatory rules, relating to benefices and reservations; lastly, judicial rules, concerning certain prescriptions to be observed in judicial matters, especially with relation to appeals. The Rules of the Chancery have the force of law, and are binding wherever exceptions have not been made to them by a concordat (treaty with a state). In ancient times, these rules ceased to be in force at the death of the sovereign pontiff, and were revived only upon the express confirmation of the succeeding pope, but Urban VIII declared that, without an express confirmation, the Rules of the Chancery should be in force on the day after the creation of the new pope. The commission of cardinals charged with the reformation of the formulae of Bulls had also charge of revising the Rules of the Chancery.

Chancellors of the Holy Roman Church 1088–1187

Note: Some chancellors before 1144 used the ancient title bibliothecarius instead of cancellarius. This office should not confused with the Cardinal Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church which is a cardinal that deals with the vacancy of the Apostolic See.

Vice-Chancellors of the Holy Roman Church 1187–1908

Chancellors of Holy Roman Church 1908–1973

See also


  1. Canon 260, 1917 Code of Canon Law (Edward N. Peters translation, Ignatius Press, 2001)
  2. Regimini Ecclesiæ Universæ Archived July 23, 2015, at the Wayback Machine. §114, §116; Vatican.va; accessed 3 August 2015
  3. Canon 260, 1917 Code of Canon Law (Edward N. Peters translation, Ignatius Press, 2001)
  4. He was sent as legate to England in 1312. During his absence, Cardinal Jacques d'Euse (future Pope John XXII) acted as his substitute.
  5. He adhered to the obedience of Avignon in 1378 but was not formally deposed by Pope Urban VI. "Roman" Chancery was directed by Regents of the Apostolic Chancery: Renoul de Monteruc (1378–1382) and Francesco Moricotti Prignani (1382–1385). The latter was named Vice-Chancellor after the death of Pierre Monteruc in 1385. In the obedience of Avignon the successors of Monteruc were: Jacques de Mantenay (1385–1391) and Jean de Brogny (1391–1408).
  6. Bartolomeo Francesco de la Capra, papal notary, acted in the capacity of Vice-Chancellor. S. Miranda indicates that Cardinal Marino Bulcani was named Vice-Chancellor in February 1394 and occupied the post until his death on August 8 of that same year, but Bresslau, Klewitz, Handbuch..., p. 262 make no reference to him and indicate that Bartolomeo Francesco de la Capra became director of the Chancery no later than on May 2, 1394
  7. Gerard Faidit (1426–1431) and Blasius Molino (1431–1436) acted as regents of the Chancery
  8. Jean almost certainly was vice-chancellow by 1433, when he attended the Council of Basel
  9. Berardo Eroli (1453–1457) and Juan de Mella(1455–1457) acted as regents of the Chancery
  10. Cardinal Juan de Borja Lanzol de Romani el mayor was acting Vice-Chancellor 1500–1503, during the absence of Cardinal Sforza.
  11. He was excommunicated by Pope Clement VII in November 1526 and reinstated few months later. During this time Francesco Armellini Pantalassi de' Medici was acting Vice-Chancellor.
  12. Cardinal Cesare Facchinetti was acting Vice-Chancellor 1679–1683, but without the title.


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