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It is complicated…

Date:10 May 2022
Author:Louisa Thomas 
It is complicated…
It is complicated…

The pope, the Holy See, Vatican City, and the catholic church are all intrinsically linked to each other. One cannot exist without the other and some just came to existence because of the other. That the pope is the head of the catholic church is well known, that he is also the bishop of Rome is not surprising and it seems logical that he at least in some capacity has a governing role in the state (depending on one’s opinion towards the status) of Vatican City.

However, the pope is not only an important decision-maker, he is the supreme leader of the Vatican City. The city-state is an example of an entity only coming into existence because of the existence of the Holy See. However, this makes the pope not only the religious leader of the catholic church and therefore the Holy See which is not bound by borders, but also the supreme leader of the limited landmass of Vatican City, which is surrounded by the Italian city of Rome, which is governed by the Italian President. Some even argue that Vatican City is a vassal state to the Holy See, because of the Holy See’s ability to grant citizenship and the pope’s double role as not only the religious leader but also the king of Vatican City.

Therefore, the city-state is an elected absolute monarchy. Even though, this fact is highly interesting I will not further go into detail about the royal status of the pope as this would warrant a whole paper in itself. The only thing to keep in mind is that the pope has full power over Vatican City. While, this in itself may not be negative perse and can be understood if one looks at the history of Vatican City and the Lateran Pacts in 1929, which effectively ended the animosities between Italy and the pope and signed Vatican City into existence as its own sovereign country, there are even more parts that make the relationship between the Holy See and Vatican City complicated and in turn muddy the waters on the international stage.                                                                                                               

As it has already been stated, Vatican City is a sovereign state, but it is the Holy See which concludes agreements, signs conventions, and has the status of a permanent observer state in the United Nations. The Holy See has the power to make agreements also called concords on its behalf but it also has the power to make decisions on the behalf of Vatican City, such as conventions concerning customs, radio, and television for example.         

Furthermore, to make this blog and the whole situation between the two entities even more confusing is that the terms Vatican City and the Holy See are often used interchangeably on the global stage, in academia, and in everyday speech and it is often unclear who is doing what and what is even going on. Adding on, it is the Holy See which maintains diplomatic relationships with other countries, sends diplomats to meetings, and also has embassies. However, again there is another special characteristic in regards to embassies and the Holy See. Because of the size of the city-state, all embassies to the Holy See are located in Rome, Italy (yes, also the Italian embassy to the Holy See). This in turn led to the interesting diplomatic moment of Italy having the Republic of China’s (also commonly called Taiwan) embassy to the Holy See in their country, while officially not recognizing Taiwan. Furthermore, the embassies to the Holy See, in general, do not own a consular section, and all services and problems of passport holders issued by the Holy See (not the city-state) are dealt with by the Italian-based embassies most of the time.                                                              

What we have, hopefully, learned up to this point is that Vatican City is a city-state but that the Holy See, which is not a state, but the governing organ of the Vatican City and the Catholic Church is taking over the responsibilities of the Vatican City and the Church simultaneously without any distinction in name and that the Holy See is a member of the United Nations, instead of the Vatican City. The UN’s membership is based on the importance of the Holy See in international Human Rights issues and its focus on a peaceful world. In 2004 the UN General Assembly has cemented the Holy See’s membership as an Observer State with the rights to participate in debates, have their documents included in official UNGA papers, and always taking the first place from the observer states in the seating plan right after the last full member of the UN. That the Holy See is the only religious organization with such extensive participation rights should not only raise eyebrows but also many questions why then other religious organizations do not get the same status. It is important to note as well that even in official UN correspondence the terms Holy See and Vatican City are used interchangeably, which muddies the understanding of the status of these two entities even more, as one is a city-state and the other is the representative of a religious organization, as well as, governing body of a city-state. However, it is not only everybody else who is unclear about the state status of the Holy See, but the Holy See is unclear about it as well.

One example of this is the participation of the Holy See in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Holy See highlighting its status as an Observer State was insistent during the meetings that it had all rights to demand changes in regards to the Rights of the Child, involving contraceptives and the right to abortion, but simultaneously arguing that the Holy See had only moral obligations to keep in line with the convention and the parts that were acceptable to canonical law. This moral obligation is weakening the Holy See’s claim to statehood as all states need to implement the agreements laid out in the convention regardless.                         

So, in conclusion, the Holy See is the supreme decision-maker in the catholic church and Vatican City, one being a religious organization and the other being a city-state and the pope is the supreme leader for all. The Holy See has representative powers for both and can sign agreements under its name for both entities simultaneously or only one. Lastly, the Holy See is a member of the UN instead of the Vatican City-State and uses its ambiguous status as a state-like construct to be given almost full membership status which allows it, for example, to propose changes to conventions and agreements. But the moment it comes to the implementation of these agreements only those parts that are agreeable with canonical law are supposed to be implemented, because of the “particular nature of the Holy See which, although it had an international legal status, was not a State and therefore occupied a unique position in the community of nations.” So, what is the Holy See on the international relations stage? Is it a state? Is it a faith-based organization? Is it the representative organ of a state? It is all and nothing at the same time and it depends on individual opinions in the church at the time. To keep it short let’s just say it is complicated.

About the author

Louisa Thomas 

Student East Asian Studies and History Today (RUG)