Vatican Church and State: Whichever’s the more convenient?

Observing the kerfuffle down South about the closure of the Irish Embassy in Vatican City, my old joke came back to mind: Now you Holy See him, now you don’t.

One minute, Benedict XVI is a Head of State, like the emperor Akihito, Bashir Assad or George W. Obama.
Then, in an instant, shazam!, he’s the leader of a religion, on a par with the Dalai Lama, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Reverend Ron Johnstone.

Maybe he cannot be in two places at the one time, but he can be two personages in the one place.
How come? How did it come about that, uniquely among religious organisations, the Holy See can simultaneously bestride the world of diplomacy and politics?

The explanation commonly given is that the Pope has Head-of-State status in his capacity as ruler of Vatican City, the108.7-acre independent jurisdiction enclosed within Rome. This is a misconception.
If Vatican City were a State like any other, its internal regime would be a human rights scandal. The State might well be subject to sanctions.

It rigidly excludes non-Catholics and women from any formal or influential role in its affairs. The Head of State is chosen in secret by a tiny number of men from an unelected elite. Its laws are not open to democratic scrutiny or contestation. Saudi Arabia, China and, certainly, Iran are beacons of freedom and equality by comparison.

True, the numbers directly affected by this style of governance are small – fewer than 1,000 citizens. Nevertheless, the regime is in clear breach of the standards by which States are generally judged. But the Vatican is never cited for these violations at the UN or when the Pope meets with representatives of other States: one reason being that it’s not Vatican City which is recognised as a State at all but the Holy See, an altogether less corporeal affair.

The Holy See has existed in one form or another since the early days of Christianity, whereas Vatican City came into existence only in 1929, as a result of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Mussolini’s fascist regime. Whatever the confusions in the outside world, the two entities have always made their separate existences plain. They have different official languages – Vatican City Italian, the Holy See Latin – and issue different passports, for example.

The Holy See refers to the global government of the Church – the Pope, the curia, the radiance of cardinals and the bevies of bishops. It has no territorial expression.

One of the advantages of this elusive split personality is that the Church can switch from one alias to the other as needs arise. Responding to attempts by lawyers for victims of clerical child abuse to compel it to answer for its role in facilitating sex criminals who have done a runner from justice, the Church has been able to revert to its status as a State and to claim diplomatic immunity. In the US, Church lawyers cite the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA).

There are signs, however, that this stratagem might not wash much longer.

In Washington last year, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Church claiming immunity in the case of John V. Doe versus the Holy See. The ruling was on a matter of procedure, not on substance: but even so, it was a step on the way to removing the protection of the FSIA from the Church.

Among the first to welcome the ruling was attorney Daniel Shea, representing one of three boys who say they were seriously molested by seminarian Juan Carlos Patino-Aragano. The seminarian fled from Texas after being indicted. Shea argued that Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the relevant congregation within the Church, had been involved in “a conspiracy to hide Patino-Aragano’s crimes and to help him escape prosecution.” He quoted Ratzinger’s May 2001 letter to bishops warning that Church investigations of clerical sex abuse were to be reported directly to his office, not to the secular authorities.

The Church argued in reply that Ratzinger/Benedict could not be called to account by US courts because he represented in legal terms not the Church which employed Patino-Aragano but, rather, a State which has diplomatic relations with the US from which flowed an entitlement to immunity and which, anyway, was not Patino-Aragano’s employer.

The Church’s split personality suits its broader ambitions, too. It has used its status at the UN – which it simply assumed and which has never been endorsed by vote of the General Assembly or of any other expression of UN members’ will – to throw its weight around at international gathering like a minor super-power, making common cause with Protestant fundamentalist interests and Islamic States, particularly in relation to women’s rights.

The only sustained challenge to the Church’s devious behaviour appears to come from lay Catholic groups in the US – which tend to be led, interestingly enough, by Irish-Americans.

Meanwhile, the US and Western countries generally have reacted with fury to the acceptance of the representatives of Palestine into UNESCO.

Note: This article was first published in the Derry Journal

  • FuturePhysicist

    Well would you also prosecute retrospectively various Irish state leaders who allowed abuse to happen in public institutions as well?

  • Amnesty International cited the Holy See, in the AI Annual Report covering 2010, for its human rights failures.


    “…by the year’s end the Holy See had again failed to submit its second periodic report on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, due in 1997, and the initial report on the UN Convention against Torture, due in 2003.”

    “Increasing evidence of widespread child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy over the past decades, and of the enduring failure of the Catholic Church to address these crimes properly, continued to emerge in various countries. Such failures included not removing alleged perpetrators from their posts pending proper investigations, not co-operating with judicial authorities to bring them to justice and not ensuring proper reparation to victims.”

    “Amendments to the canon law promulgated in May introduced the “delicts” of paedophile pornography and abuse of mentally disabled people; the maximum punishment for these “delicts” is dismissal or deposition. Canon law does not include an obligation for Church authorities to report cases to civil authorities for criminal investigation. Secrecy is mandatory throughout the proceedings.”

  • Alias

    The Vatican now maintains diplomatic relations with in excess of 180 countries (which more than doubled under John Paul II), and has used its power as a force for good in the world, e.g. promoting human rights in poor countries, defense of peace worldwide, recognition of religious freedom as a fundamental principle in Communist countries. Indeed, it was instrumental in the collapse of communism (which may be why McCann doesn’t like it). It should, of course, be upgraded to full member status at the UN in recognition of its important diplomatic work throughout the world.

  • Into the west

    absolute tosh alias
    fascist ideology inc nazism has been proven to be
    just the “catholic right ” at work.
    This pope is the most extreme, reactionary we’ve had since the 19th century.
    No wonder you love it,
    Selling it as you do under the fig-leaf of questionable goodies

  • sherdy

    Alias, I accept that the Church is capable of being a force for good in the world, but all of that is set at naught by the child abuse scandals which are still being perpetrated and being protected by the Church right to the highest levels, including the Vatican.

  • The relationship between the Holy See and the Vatican is probably best understood by analogy with colonialism: the Vatican is a dependent territory of the Holy See, which appoints its government but remains a separate legal entity. The Holy See itself is sovereign but stateless (a status it shares with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta).

    Where it gets murky is the Holy See’s relationship with the global Catholic church. Imagine if the British Crown (effectively, the PM) had the same control over the Anglican/Episcopalian church.

    On a tangential note, the Iain Banks novel “The Business” concerns a multinational corporation attempting to buy an impoverished (fictional) Himalayan kingdom in order to get a seat at the UN.

  • Well, if the Vatican is a state, then Ireland can declare war on it and confiscate all church assets.

  • Alias

    “Well, if the Vatican is a state, then Ireland can declare war on it and confiscate all church assets.”

    Actually, Ireland surrendered its sovereignty in regard to it’s former sovereign right to declare war. That power is now subject to what is called The Triple Lock. The third lock is a veto given by the state to the UN. So, for example, if Ireland wanted to invade NI then that would require the permission of the UN’s Security Council of which the UK is a permanent member. Ergo, Ireland would require the UK’s permission to invade the UK – and isn’t likely to acquire it. It’s a bit of a banana republic, really…

  • glenda lough

    Among its many claims to fame the Vatican has the world’s lowest birth rate.

  • abucs

    … and the lowest murder rate.

    The anti-catholics in the US tried to feed their fantasy of “Church protecting paedophiles” and Barack Obama stepped in to to legally change a lower court decision against the Vatican when the fantasy started to gain momentum. That sent a message to anti-
    catholics that they were not going to get anywhere through the US legal system.

    You actually have to have proof if you are going to condemn the Pope,Self induced bigotry is not enough.

    The anti Catholic fantasies of last century are unravelling now. Thank God.

  • FuturePhysicist

    It should, of course, be upgraded to full member status at the UN in recognition of its important diplomatic work throughout the world.

    Switzerland didn’t have full member status in the UN up until 2002. I think it was self-imposed out of a sense of neutrality.

    Anyway since South Sudan has been admitted, the “observer nations” the Vatican City State, Palestinian Territories and the European Union have been struggling to find chairs in the chamber as it is.

  • Newman

    Funny that the Church has withstood the onslaught of its enemies for 2000 years. When it imitates Christ it is the balm for a troubled and disfunctional world, when it does not, the damage is exponential. Thankfully it is the only institution in the world to have a guarantee of survival.

  • RJ

    well of course the vatican City has the lowest birth rate it is a small state in the middle of rome so therefore most people who live there are members of the Holy Catholic Church.

  • glenda lough

    Members of the Holy Catholic Church? Surely then the birthrate should be the word’s highest.

  • glenda lough

    Oh L. World’s

  • Shibboleth

    Wine consumption litres per capita 2009

    #1 Vatican 70.22
    #2 Luxembourg 54.29
    UK 20.72
    Ireland 19.7

    It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to take strong drink, Proverbs 31:4

    Maybe all that wine clouds their decision making about protecting children!

  • Greenflag

    Excellent informative piece by Eamonn McCann as usual . But what exactly is a ‘radiance of cardinals ‘ Would that be the plural form ? Ditto for bevy of bishops ?
    Bevy is almost always used to refer to a group of girls or young women. The plural form is a bench of bishops ,

    As for assets even if the RC business corporation in Ireland is going through hard times some of the evangelically inclined three times removed since reformation days are having it a lot worse, even in the land of the prosperity gospel . But who should come running to ‘help’ the bankrupt ‘evangelicals ‘ but the morally bankrupt RC Church . Fascinating story here as to how business , greed ,loss of market share ,overexpenditure by church leaders, family squabbles etc have led to this modern day Elmar Gantry like tale of suckering the poor members for as much as could be gouged from them before vamoosing for the hills with the loot.

    The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange (I kid you not) rides to the rescue for another broke again evangelical TV star . They still hope that God will deliver a miracle before they have to vacate the Crystal Cathedral .Seems that all that positive thinking and aura of faith and grace will provide fell on a deaf God’s ears . Perhaps God lost his job in this recession too or else we are witnessing another shift in the Californian values ethic ?

    I’m sure there are many decent clerics out there but the higher up the hierarchical tree they clim the more crooked they seem to become . Not unlike a multinational business corporation or a political party or a bank . They should all be taxed as businesses with a their product billed as coming with a scam warning along the lines of

    ‘Purchasing and use of this product may damage your mental health and prove corrosive of healthy inter human relations ‘!