Strange Politics: What is “The Vatican” anyway?

St Peters Square image from Francois Malan

Last week, I reported on the historic resignation of the pope. I realized after the fact that I frequently referred to “The Vatican” without really explaining what that term meant. Since this is still one of the big news stories of the day, I figured now is as good a time as any to discuss it. Beware, though: we are about to get into some Strange Politics.

When ancient Rome was founded, it was built on seven hills along the Tiber River. Across the river, an eighth hill named the Vatican Hill was eventually used by the Romans for a racetrack and a cemetery. Over the centuries, the racetrack and cemetery have been replaced by some of the most important churches and buildings of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination with more than a billion followers. If Roman Catholics were a country, they would be just behind China and India in population! So, yeah, the Vatican is a very important hill to a lot of people.

In fact, for centuries, Vatican Hill has been something like a global headquarters for the Catholic Church. Just as today when we say “Hollywood” we usually aren’t really talking about the Los Angeles neighborhood, but rather the American movie and television industry, when most people talk about “The Vatican” they are talking about the leaders and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It was this meaning that I intended last week.

Pretty clear, right? Well, it’s about to get more complicated.

It turns out that part of Vatican Hill and the plain next to it are actually an independent country, called “The State of the Vatican City”. It is the world’s smallest country, at just over 100 acres in size:

It's that grey blotch smack in the middle of Rome.

It’s that grey blotch smack in the middle of Rome.

As small as it is, it has room for St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Gardens (which take up more than half of its tiny area), the Vatican Museums and Vatican Library, a train station and rail line, a heliport, a post office, a radio station, a phone company, a drugstore, military barracks, and not one but two colleges; all of it surrounded by a wall.

Why the heck would this tiny country even exist? Because: history.

Originally, Christianity was a small, persecuted religion in the ancient Roman Empire. But things changed when the Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire. Over time, the Roman Empire collapsed in the west and was transformed into the Byzantine Empire in the east, leaving the Pope as the only guy in central Italy with any real power, forced to defend Rome and the surrounding countryside from barbarian invaders knows as the Lombards. Eventually, another barbarian people known as the Franks came to the rescue, defeating the Lombards and “donating” most of central Italy to the Pope.

Throughout the Middle Ages and up into the beginning of the modern age, these “Papal States” were literally ruled by the Pope, putting them in the awkward position of being both the main religious headquarters of the Catholic Church and a physical country, with a population, taxes, and an army that sometimes fought wars against other Catholic countries. Then, in 1870, this was all brought to and end when the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy conquered the Papal States. This act united all of Italy for the first time in centuries, and let the new country move its capital to Rome, but it also meant that the Pope and the other Catholic leaders were now just ordinary Italian citizens – a status that they absolutely rejected. How could the vicar of Christ, responsible to God himself and leader of the faithful around the world, possibly submit to any authority made of mere flesh and blood? This dispute was finally settled by, of all people, Benito Mussolini.

The face of diplomacy and compromise.

The face of diplomacy and compromise.

In 1929, Mussolini gave the area that is now Vatican City to the Holy See. Thus, the world’s smallest country was born, and the Pope could now be free of any potential political interference by a non-religious leader.

But wait, Holy See? What is that?

The Holy See is the Pope’s religious domain as Bishop of Rome, his official title. While the Vatican City is a physical place ruled by the Pope and governed by a Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, the Holy See is more like an idea of “that stuff the Pope is responsible for”. Mostly, it’s just the central leadership of the Catholic Church, responsible for managing the affairs of such a huge organization.

What makes the Holy See significant, though, is that it is considered a “sovereign entity” by 180 countries, meaning they treat it as a “country” for legal purposes. The Holy See sends ambassadors, called “Apostolic Nuncios”, to countries around the world, with both the secular power to negotiate with that country like a normal ambassador, and a religious power to help the Pope pick the Catholic bishops in that country. It has a military, the Swiss Guard, that protects the Pope.

And looks fashionable while doing so!

And looks fashionable while doing so!

It is an observer (but not full member) of the United Nations, and controls several locations in Italy that are not a part of the Vatican City.

So, in summary, the Roman Catholic Church, a global religious organization with more than a billion followers, is led by an organization that is not a country, but acts like one, sort of. And this non-country made up of religious leaders has the world’s smallest country created just for it by Benito freakin’ Mussolini to call home, so it can exist free of any political interference.

Politics, and religion, are strange.

Information from Wikipedia, as usual.