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Andorra has a prince-bishop. Is that about to change?

Before Pope Francis’ election, it was common to hear cardinals described as “princes of the Church.” 

But the term seemed to fall out of fashion after 2017, when Francis firmly told new cardinals that Jesus had not called them “to become ‘princes’ of the Church.”

Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicília, Co-Prince of Andorra. Screenshot from Bisbat Urgell YouTube channel.

And yet, there is one Church leader who is accurately described as a prince — or, at least, a “co-prince” — Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicília, who heads the Diocese of Urgell.

The Urgell diocese, mostly in the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia, also includes Andorra, the tiny principality nestled in the mountains between France and Spain. The prosperous micro-country has, by law, two heads of state — the Bishop of Urgell and the President of France — who are known as co-princes.

But with Archbishop Vives nearing the customary retirement age of 75, speculation is now growing that the Catholic Church’s last remaining example of a “prince-bishop” could be consigned to history.

So why does Andorra have a Catholic churchman as a head of state? And what’s behind the recent chatter about his status? The Pillar takes a look.

A map showing Andorra’s location in Europe. Bosonic dressing via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0). 

Why does Andorra have a prince-bishop?

To appreciate just how minuscule Andorra is, consider that it would fit almost seven times into Rhode Island, the smallest U.S. state. 

The country, whose official language is Catalan, has a population of around 80,000 people — 20,000 fewer than Davenport, Iowa.

Around 92% of Andorrans are said to be Catholic.

Tradition holds that the territory of Andorra was formed in 805 A.D. by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. It was ruled by the counts of Urgell until it was transferred to the Catholic Diocese of Urgell. An agreement in 1278 established that the bishops of Urgell and the counts of Foix would exercise joint sovereignty over the territory. 

Other prince-bishops — prelates who exercised not only spiritual but also civil authority within a principality — existed within the Holy Roman Empire, especially in present-day Germany. But they faded with the empire’s dissolution in 1806. 

In 1951, the Vatican issued the decree Attentis dispositionibus, which prohibited bishops from using civil titles in their letters, seals, and coats of arms. 

While the move was seen as erasing the last vestiges of prince-bishops, in Andorra the Bishop of Urgell retained his status, perhaps because the position was seen as integral to the country’s identity. 

But the office has faced challenges from other quarters. In a bizarre episode in the early 1930s, a Russian adventurer named Boris Skossyreff claimed that he was the true monarch of Andorra. His attempt to establish himself as King Boris I of Andorra reportedly culminated with a declaration of war on the Bishop of Urgell. 

The bishop sought help from the Spanish authorities and members of the country’s Civil Guard arrested Skossyreff, who continued to pursue improbable adventures until his death in Germany in 1989.

Boris Skossyreff, who proclaimed himself ‘Boris I, Prince of the Valleys of Andorra ... Sovereign of Andorra and Defender of the Faith.’ Public domain. 

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Andorra’s 1993 constitution defined the country as a sovereign parliamentary democracy. But it also confirmed the historic arrangement in which the bishop and the French president (seen as the count of Foix’s successor) are co-princes and joint heads of state.

“The Co-princes are the symbol and guarantee of the permanence and continuity of Andorra as well as of its independence and the maintenance of the spirit of parity in the traditional balanced relation with the neighboring states,” the constitution says.

The constitution carefully outlines the scope of the co-princes’ powers. It says that they can together exercise the power to pardon, as well as asking for preliminary judgments on the constitutionality of proposed laws.

Other powers can only be accessed together with the head of Andorra’s government (currently Xavier Espot Zamora). These include calling for elections or referendums, and the sanctioning and enacting laws.

Both co-princes act through personal representatives. The Bishop of Urgell is represented by the Spanish priest Fr. Josep Maria Mauri i Prior. French President Emmanuel Macron’s representative is senior civil servant Patrick Strzoda.

Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicília receives Jan Versteeg, Dutch ambassador to Andorra, at the episcopal palace in La Seu d’Urgell on March 13, 2023. Screenshot from Bisbat Urgell YouTube channel.

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Why are people talking about Archbishop Vives?

The recent upsurge in media interest in Andorra’s prince-bishop seems to be driven by three factors. 

The first is that Archbishop Vives will turn 75 on July 24 next year and will be expected to submit his resignation to Pope Francis in line with canon law. The pope could ask Vives to remain in post for several more years, but the approaching milestone is prompting the media to ask questions about the Diocese of Urgell’s future.

The second factor is that the pope is due to meet with Andorra’s other co-prince, Emmanuel Macron, in Marseilles Saturday. There is no indication that Andorra will be on the agenda, but it could always crop up given that it’s an area of common interest.

The third factor is that Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin visited Andorra earlier this month. He was there for the 150th anniversary celebrations of the proclamation of Our Lady of Meritxell as Andorra’s patron saint. But a visit by the Holy See’s top diplomat inevitably focused attention on the Vatican’s view of Andorra’s unique political structure.

La Valira, a Catalan online newspaper, ran a headline Sept. 6 saying: “The Vatican plans to create a diocese proper in Andorra, as a first step to extinguish the co-principality.”

It cited what it said was a well-informed blog claiming that the Vatican had decided that a co-principality was a “feudal anachronism” and had drawn up plans to eliminate it gradually, while respecting the constitution and the French president’s prerogatives.

“The first step would be the creation of a diocese of Andorra, which would be segregated from that of Urgell and which would depend directly on the Vatican,” it said, citing the precedent of the Archdiocese of Monaco in 1887.

A map highlighting in red the Diocese of Urgell, which covers part of Spain and the whole of Andorra. Ansunando via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The Church would then be steadily disentangled from state affairs, the blog said, adding that lurking in the background was “the problem of abortion and the constant pressure the Andorran government is under to decriminalize it.” 

It argued that this was “a problem that the Holy See intends to avoid” by ensuring that the bishop of Urgell cannot be put in the position where he is asked to sanction a change in the law. 

Abortion is is illegal in all cases in Andorra. A flurry of reports in 2018 suggested that Vives would have to abdicate if the principality legalized abortion, likely prompting a constitutional crisis. 

But the La Valira article did not convince Pius Pujadas Lladó, a writer for the Catalan newspaper El Punt Avui. 

The Vatican could have decided that the constitutional arrangement was anachronistic at any point between the French Revolution and 1993, he wrote.

“But now? When Andorra has become a democratic state, with a constitution and separation of powers, it seems absurd to me,” he said.

“No, the alleged news from La Valira can only be a trial balloon or a warning,” he went on. “It turns out that the current prince-bishop, Joan-Enric Vives, who is approaching retirement age, would like a coadjutor to be appointed, whom he would choose and prepare, and Rome does not. Maybe there are nerves at Palau [the Bishop of Urgell’s residence]. Go find out.”

Parolin directly addressed the tensions around the decriminalization of abortion during his trip. 

At a joint press conference with Andorra’s head of government, the cardinal described abortion as a “very delicate and complex” issue that needed to be addressed with constant dialogue.

Felix Neumann, the editor of the German Catholic news website, noted that Parolin also sought to quash speculation that the Vatican wanted to overhaul the Church’s position in Andorra.

“Parolin was not averse to the idea of ​​providing Archbishop Vives, who is approaching the age limit, with a coadjutor archbishop with the right to succession — this is how Vives had also come into office [in 2001],” Neumann wrote.

“Parolin was supported by Prime Minister Xavier Espot, who also floated the idea of ​​a new coadjutor archbishop: The speculation about a diocese of Andorra’s own did not correspond to reality and his government would never have pursued such goals.”

These points were confirmed by both the Andorran government’s account of the press conference and local media reports

So, Neumann concluded, barring a sudden collapse in Church-state relations over abortion, the world’s last prince-bishop is likely to be followed by… another last prince-bishop. And Andorra will continue to occupy its unique place in the Catholic world. 

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