Would an American pope lose his U.S. citizenship?

NCC Staff

As the papal conclave starts in Vatican City, there has been some talk that two cardinals from the United States could be contenders. But what happens to their U.S. citizenship if they become pope?

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer, in part because of the unique nature of the Vatican, and the historic unlikelihood of an American becoming pope.

But this time, two Americans have generated a lot of talk in Rome in the days leading up to the conclave.

The charismatic Timothy M. Dolan, the archbishop of New York, garnered his fair share of attention in the past week, but another American was seen as a more viable contender.

Sean P. O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, was named the favorite in a newspaper poll in Milan, and not just by readers. (They picked O’Malley over Milan’saArchbishop Angelo Scola, by 36 percent to 18 percent.) A panel of eight experts pegged O’Malley, with five votes, as their favorite.

Most observers see Scola, Cardinal Odilo Scherer of Brazil, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, and Cardinal Tarcisio Bersone of Italy as the top candidates.

The fact that an American is listed among the contenders is a noteworthy event. But if they were actually chosen, what would happen to their U.S. citizenship?

The Constitution does prescribe rules on titles of nobility, but that mostly deals with the case of the U.S. government and states granting noble titles (which it can’t do).

Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, says:

“No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States: and no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

That doesn’t apply to the pope, who functions as an international head of state for the Vatican.

Title 8, Section 14881 of the United States Code does talk specifically about how Americans can lose their citizenship if they serve in a foreign government.

A person loses American citizenship if “an oath, affirmation, or declaration of allegiance is required” to serve in a foreign government, or if a person “acquires the nationality of such foreign state.”

The State Department also has a list of requirements about citizenship that explains potential expatriating acts and the appeals process.

The Vatican’s unique nature and the pope’s dual role as a head of state and head of the Roman Catholic Church muddles the picture.

The Vatican City State was formed in 1929 after the Lateran Treaty was signed by the Holy See and Italy. The Vatican City State became an independent nation under the pact.

As of 2012, the Holy See said there were 594 people who had Vatican citizenship; 238 of those people had dual citizenship.

A Library of Congress blog post in 2012 analyzed the Vatican’s system for determining citizenship and says it is unique in several ways.

“Due to the special nature of the Vatican City State, the traditional factors utilized to acquire citizenship (ius sanguinis, ius loci, or ius soli) are not applicable and are not found in its regulations. In lieu of them, the Vatican City State has opted for other factors that are more appropriate for its structure and political organization,” said Dante Figueroa, a senior legal information analyst at the Law Library of Congress.

The law states that citizenship can be granted to cardinals who live in the Vatican City State or persons who reside there by reason of their office or service.

Pope Benedict XVI retained his German citizenship along with his Vatican citizenship.

According to a press release from the city of Regensberg, where he resided in Germany, the pope emeritus is a citizen of Pentling in the Upper Palatinate, as well as the Vatican.

The officials from Germany explained that since Pope Benedict XVI didn’t apply for Vatican citizenship (it was granted instead), he didn’t lose his German citizenship and could vote in German elections.

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