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Sacra Romana Rota

Sacra Romana Rota

In the Constitution "Sapienti Consilio" (29 June, 1908), II, 2, Pins X re-established the Sacra Romana Rota, one of the three tribunals instituted by that Constitution. To it are assigned all contentious cases that must come before the Holy See and require a judicial investigation with proof, except the so-called major cases. The Rota therefore tries in the first instance the cases, including criminal cases, which the pope, either motu proprio or at the request of the contesting parties, calls up for his own judgment and commits to the Rota; it decides these cases even in the second and third instance. Moreover, it is the court of appeal for cases already tried judicially in the episcopal tribunals of first instance. Finally, it decides in the last instance cases tried by any inferior tribunal of second or further instance, as the cause has not then become res judicata. In addition to major cases, episcopal decisions which are given without judicial procedure are excluded from its authority, being under the jurisdiction of other congregations. The Rota is composed of the auditors, ranking as prelates, appointed by the pope; they must be priests who have obtained a doctorate in theology and canon law. When they reach the age of seventy their office ceases ipso facto, but they retain the title of "emeritus auditor". These form a college of which the oldest among them is dean. Each auditor chooses an assistant, who must be a doctor of canon law, and whose selection must be approved by the pope. Other officers are a promotor of justice, corresponding to the pubblico ministero in modern Italian civil courts, and, for cases relating to matrimony, religious profession and sacred ordination, a defender of the bond (defensor vinculi), who may have a substitute. These officers are appointed by the pope on the recommendation of the College of Auditors. There are also notaries (at present three in number) selected by the College of Auditors after a concursus, to draw up acts, etc. The auditors give their decision either through three of their number or in pleno; but sometimes the pope may in a particular case ordain otherwise. A case may also be submitted to the Rota not for a decision but for an opinion. The auditor who prepares the report is called the ponente or relator. An appeal may be made from one judicial commission to another. The contestants may plead personally or, as more ordinarily happens, may employ a procurator or advocate, whose selection must be confirmed. The complaint and the defence must be in writing or printed, and copies distributed among the judges, the assistants, the promotor, and others concerned. The written defence may be elucidated orally in presence of the judges. The auditors decide by a majority of votes. The sentence must contain not only the conclusion arrived at, but the reasons therefor.


The many and various ecclesiastical cases which were referred to the Holy See from every quarter of the Christian world were, till near the end of the twelfth century, discussed and decided by the pope, as a rule, in the Consistory, which from the presence of many bishops became like a council. From the end of the twelfth century, however, owing to the increasing number of these cases and to the more detailed and complicated procedure, the popes appointed for each case either a cardinal or one of their chaplains, and sometimes a bishop, to arrange for the suit, hear the evidence of the litigants (hence the term auditor), and then make a report to thc pope, who would give his decision personally or in a Consistory. Sometimes, too, the auditor was empowered to decide, but his judgment had to be confirmed by the pope. In the latter half of the thirteenth century we find the auditors as a class distinct from the chaplains, with the title of "Sacri palatii causarurn generales auditores". This innovation was made by Innocent IV, who entrusted to them cases relating to benefices (which had increased owing to the many expectative reservations granted by this pope) and other minor ones, while he employed the cardinals in the other cases. Gradually the various cases were almost always entrusted to them for decision, subject to the approval of the sovereign pontiff.

The auditors consequently did not as yet constitute a tribunal with definitive jurisdiction, but only a college from which the pope selected at pleasure judges for the cases he chose to entrust to them. Nicholas III and Martin IV temporarily appointed auditors general for civil suits in the papal dominions; Nicholas IV (1288) appointed them permanently for the various provinces of the pontifical states. Clement V (1307) instituted an auditor general with two others in the second instance for ecclesiastical beneficiary suits, and in 1309 an auditor general for contentious ecclesiastical cases, the litigant having the choice of going before the pope himself or the auditor general.

Thus arose an autonomous tribunal, but one in concurrence with the pope. From the year 1323 we have the first document of a transaction adjudicated collegialiter, and in a definitive way by that, tribunal; John XXII, by the Bull "Ratio Juris" (1331), laid down certain rules for it; but its sphere of competency was not marked out, so through all the fourteenth century the causes were referred in a special way to the pope. Sixtus IV fixed the number of auditors at twelve. Other popes, like Martin V ("Romani pontificis", 1422; "Statuta et ordinationes", 1414), Innocent VIII ("Finem litibus", 1487), Pius IV ("In throno justitiae", 1561), Paul V ("Universi agri", 1611), determined their competency more definitely. Civil appeals in the papal dominions were also entrusted to the tribunals of the auditors of the sacred palace, probably after the end of the Western Schism; but criminal eases were always excluded. With the institution of the Roman congregations the jurisdiction of the Rota in ecclesiastical matters was greatly curtailed, and it became, generally speaking, a civil tribunal, enjoying a world-wide reputation.


The civil character of the Rota was confirmed by the legislation of Gregory XVI, and mixed suits and purely ecclesiastical suits concerning economical matters, if the subject matter did not amount to over 500 scudi, were assigned to it. Leo XIII entrusted to the auditors part of the process of beatification and canonization, as well as the canonical suits of those employed in the Apostolic Palace. Formerly the auditors had many privileges. France, Austria, Spain, Venice, and Milan each had the right of proposing one of their subjects as an auditor. Austria still has the privilege, at present the auditors being two in number. From 1774 there has been a tribunal of the Rota at Madrid, the president of which is the Nuncio. The origin of the name Rota is uncertain and has been a matter of discussion; it occurs first in 1336.


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