Why is the Vatican a State?

Covering an area of less than 0.5km sq and having a population of around 800 persons (mostly clerics) the Vatican, or to be precise the Holy See, is officially a state and enjoys the status of a Permanent Observer to the UN (without voting rights). It has diplomatic relations with most of the nation states and various international bodies, including the EU, and is signatory to various international treaties. Why is this so? Doesn’t the Church advocate separation between the State and Herself?

International law, in defining statehood, provides four necessary characteristics for statehood. The Montevideo Convention (1933) holds that “[t]he state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.”

Ian Brownlie, considered to be one of the major authorities in Public International Law holds that the Vatican City “in terms of its territorial and administrative organisation … is proximate to a state. Nonetheless the lack of a permanent population – as is intended by the convention, apart from the resident functionaries and its purpose of supporting the Holy See, are peculiarities which make its statehood doubtful”. Having said this he acknowledges that “it is widely recognized as a legal person with treaty-making capacity” thus fulfilling the fourth element required by the Montevideo Convention.

One of the first, in modern era, to make a reference to the distinction between Church and State was Leo XIII in 1882. It is the first official pronouncement on the politico-religious debate (specifically referring to Spain) and on the hype of secularisation of states which subsequently reached its climax during the 20th Century – a process which had started earlier during the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th Century. Leo XIII suggested that there should be an inter-dependence between politics and religion as opposed to the two polarizations which he condemned; that is, the separation and complete isolation of religion and politics, and the affiliation of religion with a political party (Cum Multa Sint, 6-7).

Although the Papal States had existed since medieval times, the Holy See lost its territorial sovereignty over these states in 1870, thus raising the question whether the international status it had could be maintained or not. Following the signing of the Lateran Pacts of 1929, between the Holy See and Italy, Italy recognized ‘the Sovereignty of the Holy See in the international domain and sovereignty over the Vatican State although its territorial boundaries have been reduced to the minimum possible.

The territory over which the Pope is completely sovereign is in fact very small, yet as held by Douglas Woodruff in Church and State in History (1962), providentially it served as a neutral soil during WWII. By way of this agreement the Vatican City State could once again be considered as a sovereign state with which other states could have diplomatic relations, thus acquiring again an officially recognized legal personality.

Jacques Maritain, on the separation between Church and State, proposed a shift from the medieval concept of this relationship that considered temporal structures as a vehicle for spirituality, to a more ‘profane’ model that safeguarded the autonomy of temporal powers. Hence the Church should not be interested in the creation of a ‘Christian State’ but rather in a ‘Christianly secular conception of the temporal order’.

In line with this Gaudium et Spesholds that the Church has been entrusted with “no proper mission in the political, economic or social order.” It is however the nature and mission of the Church to be “a light and an energy which can serve to structure and consolidate the human community according to the divine law.” It continues by stressing the idea of autonomy and independence between Church and the political community; at the same time it encourages cooperation for the sake of man’s common good while respecting and fostering “political freedom and responsibility of citizens.”Later on Paul VI stated that “the Church … has no desire to be involved in the political activities of any nation,” (Populorum Progressio, 13) and John Paul II declared that it is neither the intention nor the role of the Church to offer technical political solutions “provided that human dignity is properly respected and promoted, and provided she herself is allowed the room she needs to exercise her ministry in the world” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 41).So what is the scope of such sovereignty? It has been considered by John Paul II (1979) as a “need for the papacy to exercise its mission in full freedom” being an interlocutor with nations and governments “without dependence on other sovereignties.” Moreover as Paul VI and John Paul II held in their addresses to the UN General Assembly in 1956 and 1979 respectively, the Church does not consider herself as a state in the political and temporal sense of the word, but rather as having a ‘symbolic’ temporal sovereignty.

During the past two centuries the Church has interpreted her role as one which forms consciences and promotes human dignity not just on a national level but also on regional and international levels. The Church is not interested in participating in the political debate on a party level. Its main concern is to push forward Christ’s message and Truth and not to be “identified in any way with the political community, nor bound to any political system”(Gaudium et Spes, 76).


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