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Mote Prime > Atheism

Why is Vatican City a State?

The Pope holds a unique position as both head of the Catholic Church and the Head of State of Vatican City. How did this come about?

The Catholic Church has been in the news recently, and not in a good way. The Pope himself may be deposed in a lawsuit in Kentucky, alleging that he is responsible for the conduct of American clergy who abused children in the 1960s. One of the Vatican's responses is that, as a head of state, the Pope has immunity to this order.

Now that's an interesting position, especially since that state is both less populous and physically smaller than my former secondary school. This led me to research just why the Vatican is a state in the first place.

It all starts in 1861, when Rome was declared the capital of a newly united Italy. The Vatican was already in place, and the Pope at the time (Pius IX) was a vehement opponent of Italian unity. The Vatican controlled the Papal States, which covered much of what is now central Italy, sandwiched between the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the South, and Tuscany and Venetia in the North. With the military help of the French, Rome remained under the control of the Pope until September of 1870, when the Italian army laid siege to the city and captured the Vatican.

The Pope took great care not to recognize the authority of the Italian state, even after the state offered an official position as Chaplain to the King, and an annual payment. It was important that the Vatican not be seen to be beholden to any secular authority. (This seems to still be the case today.)

An uneasy truce lay over Rome for nearly six decades, until in 1929, the Lateran Treaty ceded control of its lands outside the Vatican to Italy (for a fee), and Italy recognized the sovereignty of Vatican City itself. Italy, at this time, being represented by its Prime Minister, one Benito Mussolini.

Vatican City can thus be regarded as a particularly stubborn pip, stuck in the teeth of Italy as it gobbled up the Papal States.

Like any pip stuck in your teeth, this can cause discomfort.

One of the conditions of statehood imposed by the Italian government was a pledge to remain neutral in international affairs, and not to intervene in conflicts unless requested to do so by all sides. This effectively neutered the Vatican as a direct force on the world stage. However, the Vatican still exerts influence through the proxy of the Holy See, which maintains embassies in most of the countries of the world, and the UK still maintains an embassy to the Holy See in Rome.

A spat with the Italian government over birth control in 2008 led to Vatican law diverging from Italian law, which it had up until then followed.

And, of course, back to today. The Vatican's statehood makes proper investigation of the current child abuse scandals much more difficult. Is it then time to pick our teeth of this troublesome pip?

I would argue that it is. The statehood of the Vatican is a historical accident, an anomaly. We can still recognise the unique cultural role of the Vatican as guardian of its stupendous treasure of art, and as the center of the Catholic Church.

But revoking our recognition of the Vatican as a separate state would send a message that being Pope of a Pip shouldn't act as a get out of jail free card when the police come knocking.