The Secretariat of State is the dicastery of the Roman Curia which works most closely with the Supreme Pontiff in the exercise of his universal mission (Pastor Bonus, Art. 39).
The origins of the Secretariat of State go back to the fifteenth century. The Apostolic Constitution Non Debet Reprehensibile of 31 December 1487 established the Secretaria Apostolica comprising twenty-four Apostolic Secretaries, one of whom bore the title Secretarius Domesticus and held a position of pre-eminence. One can also trace to this Secretaria Apostolica the Chancery of Briefs, the Secretariat of Briefs to Princes and the Secretariat of Latin Letters.
Leo X established another position, the Secretarius Intimus, to assist the Cardinal who had control of the affairs of State and to attend to correspondence in languages other than Latin, chiefly with the Apostolic Nuncios (who at that time were evolving into permanent diplomatic representatives). From these beginnings, the Secretariat of State developed, especially at the time of the Council of Trent.
For a long time, the Secretarius Intimus, also called Secretarius Papae or Secretarius Maior, was almost always a Prelate, often endowed with episcopal rank. It was only at the beginning of the Pontificate of Innocent X that someone already a Cardinal and not a member of the Pope’s family was called to this high office. Innocent XII definitively abolished the office of Cardinal Nephew, and the powers of that office were assigned to the Cardinal Secretary of State alone.
On 19 July 1814, Pius VII established the Sacred Congregation for the Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, expanding the Congregation Super Negotiis Ecclesiasticis Regni Galliarum established by Pius VI in 1793. With the Apostolic Constitution Sapienti Consilio of 29 June 1908, Saint Pius X divided the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs in the form fixed by the Codex Iuris Canonici of 1917 (Can. 263) and he specified the duties of each of the three sections: the first was concerned essentially with extraordinary affairs, while the second attended to the ordinary affairs, and the third, until then an independent body (the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs), had the duty of preparing and dispatching pontifical Briefs.
With the Apostolic Constitution Regimini Ecclesiae Universae of 15 August 1967, Paul VI reformed the Roman Curia, implementing the desire expressed by the Bishops in the Second Vatican Council. This gave a new face to the Secretariat of State, suppressing the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs, formerly the third section, and transforming the former first section, the Sacred Congregation for the Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, into a body distinct from the Secretariat of State, though closely related to it, which was to be known as the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church.
On 28 June 1988, John Paul II promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, which introduced a reform of the Roman Curia and divided the Secretariat of State into two sections: the Section for General Affairs and the Section for Relations with States, which incorporated the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church. This guaranteed both unity of purpose and the specificity required in the service which the Secretariat of State is called to offer the Pope.
The Secretariat of State is presided over by a Cardinal who assumes the title of Secretary of State. As the Pope’s first collaborator in the governance of the universal Church, the Cardinal Secretary of State is the one primarily responsible for the diplomatic and political activity of the Holy See, in some circumstances representing the person of the Supreme Pontiff himself.
The Section for General Affairs
In conformity with Arts. 41-44 of Pastor Bonus, the Section for General Affairs or the First Section is responsible for handling matters regarding the everyday service of the Supreme Pontiff, both in caring for the universal Church and in dealing with the dicasteries of the Roman Curia. It attends to the preparation of whatever documents the Holy Father entrusts to it. It enacts the provisions for appointments within the Roman Curia and keeps custody of the Lead Seal and the Fisherman’s Ring. It regulates the duties and activity of the Holy See’s Representatives, especially in relation to the local Churches. It attends to all that concerns the Embassies accredited to the Holy See. It supervises the Holy See’s official communication agencies and is responsible for publishing the “Acta Apostolicae Sedis” and the “Annuario Pontificio”.
The First Section of the Secretariat of State is headed by an Archbishop, the Substitute for General Affairs, assisted by a Prelate, the Assessor for General Affairs. The position of the Substitute first appeared in the hierarchical listing of the Secretariat of State in 1814.
The Section for Relations with States
On the basis of Arts. 45-47 of Pastor Bonus, the Section for Relations with States or Second Section has the specific duty of attending to matters which involve civil governments. It has responsibility for the Holy See’s diplomatic relations with States, including the establishment of Concordats or similar agreements; for the Holy See’s presence in international organizations and conferences; in special circumstances, by order of the Supreme Pontiff and in consultation with the competent dicasteries of the Curia, provides for appointments to particular Churches, and for their establishment or modification; in close collaboration with the Congregation for Bishops, it attends to the appointment of Bishops in countries which have entered into treaties or agreements with the Holy See in accordance with the norms of international law.
This Section began as the Congregation Super Negotiis Ecclesiasticis Regni Galliarum, set up by Pius VI with the Constitution Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum of 28 May 1793, in order to deal with the problems which the French Revolution posed for the Church. In 1814, Pius VII gave this office responsibility for the entire world and named it Congregatio Extraordinaria Praeposita Negotiis Ecclesiasticis Orbis Catholici. Some years later, Leo XII changed its name to Congregatio Pro Negotiis Ecclesiasticis Extraordinariis, which remained its title until 1967 when Paul VI separated this body from the Secretariat of State, calling it the Council for the Public Affairs of the Church. This Council was later replaced by the present Section for Relations with States.
The Second Section of the Secretariat of State is headed by an Archbishop, the Secretary for Relations with States, aided by a Prelate, the Under-Secretary for Relations with States, and assisted by Cardinals and Bishops.
Communiqué of the Secretariat of State, 21.11.2017
The Holy Father has established the Third Section of the Secretariat of State, with the denomination of Section for Diplomatic Staff of the Holy See, reinforcing the current office of the Delegate for Pontifical Representations.
The Section, which will be within the Secretariat of State, will be chaired by the Delegate for Pontifical Representations (currently H.E. Msgr. Jan Romeo Pawlowski).
It will have the aim of manifesting the attention and closeness of the Holy Father and the Superiors of the Secretariat of State to diplomatic personnel. To this end, the Delegate for Pontifical Representations may be expected to make regular visits to the offices of the Pontifical Representations.
The Third Section will deal exclusively with matters relating to the staff who work in the diplomatic service of the Holy See or who prepare to do so – such as, for example, selection, initial and continuing formation, conditions of life and service, promotions, permits, etc.
In the exercise of these functions it will be granted the just autonomy and, at the same time, will seek to establish close collaboration with the Section for General Affairs (which will continue to handle general matters of the Pontifical Representations), and with the Section for Relations with States (which will continue to deal with the political aspects of the work of the Pontifical Representations). In this sense, the Delegate for the Pontifical Representations will participate, along with His Excellency the Substitute for General Affairs and His Excellency the Secretary for Relations with States, in weekly coordination meetings chaired by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, he will convene and chair ad hoc meetings for the preparation of the appointments of Pontifical Representatives. Finally, he will be responsible, along with the President of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, for the selection and formation of candidates.