What Is the Holy See’s ‘Sovereignty’?

A Crucial, Often Misunderstood, Attribute

Pope Paul VI addresses to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Oct. 4, 1965. Seated behind him, from left are: U.N. Secretary General U Thant; General Assembly President Amintore Fanfani and C.V. Narasimhan, U.N. Undersecretary for General Assembly Affairs.
Pope Paul VI addresses to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Oct. 4, 1965. Seated behind him, from left are: U.N. Secretary General U Thant; General Assembly President Amintore Fanfani and C.V. Narasimhan, U.N. Undersecretary for General Assembly Affairs. (photo: Associated Press)

In modern Vatican history, Msgr. Achille Ratti is well remembered for exemplifying the humble heroism expected of its diplomats. Pope Benedict XV named Msgr. Ratti apostolic visitor to Poland in April 1918, before the country was independent. A year later, Benedict named him apostolic nuncio to the newly founded Republic of Poland.

As the Red Army marched on Warsaw in August 1920, now-Archbishop Ratti was the only diplomat who did not flee; most foreigners were convinced the Russians would crush Poland. The nuncio called for universal prayers, and all the churches were filled as the battle shaped up just outside the city limits.

On the verge of defeat, Polish forces ousted the Soviets in the Battle of Warsaw, known locally as the Miracle on the Vistula. The triumph occurred on Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, so the Blessed Virgin was credited. (Another key factor was faithful sabotage of the Red Army’s radio communication: The Poles interrupted enemy messages by using Morse code to transmit the Book of Genesis, in Latin and Polish, on the Soviet frequency). 

The victory prevented the advance of communism further west and protected Poland’s independence — for 25 more years.

Archbishop Ratti left Poland in 1921 with a sterling reputation. A year later, he was elected pope, taking the name Pius XI.


World’s Smallest Country

Pope Pius XI’s diplomatic skills were especially valuable to engineer a breakthrough on the “Roman Question” — the vexing stalemate between Church and the Italian state over the status of Rome.

In the culminating act of the Risorgimento, a movement to unify Italy, soldiers broke through Michelangelo’s Porta Pia in September 1870 and declared Rome (the only territory of the Papal States still controlled by the Vatican) capital of the Kingdom of Italy. First Pope Pius IX, then his four successors (Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, and Pius XI), declared themselves “prisoners” of the Apostolic Palace to protest what the Church perceived as territorial theft.

The Vatican was literally backed into a corner for six decades. In the late 1920s, Pius XI seized an opening when Italian political conditions were ripe.

Achieving agreement compelled the Pope to cut the Gordian knot with Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, a figure few in Church leadership liked or trusted. Mussolini was eager for Church affirmation and willing to write a big check as part of the deal. Secret negotiations to settle the issue of Holy See sovereignty, and church-state relations, began in earnest in 1926 and yielded the Lateran Accords three years later. 

The Lateran Accords (a treaty, financial settlement and concordat rolled into one) created the world’s smallest country: Vatican City State (VCS), a 100-acre land island, surrounded by Rome. Italian police had authority right up to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

On June 7, an Italian delegation headed by Mussolini drove to the Apostolic Palace to deliver parliament’s ratification of the accords. They also brought a check for 750 million liras (equivalent today to $1.4 billion). To mark the event Pius XI, a devotee of science, used a new symbol of independence, the telegraph service. He dispatched the first telegram to King Victor Emmanuel III, blessing his family, the Italian people and the world. 

Vatican City promptly exercised its status as a country like any other by joining the International Telegraph Union (ITU) and the Universal Postal Union (UPU).


Sovereign by Tradition and Mission

Article 2 of the Lateran Treaty includes a pithy definition: “Italy recognizes the sovereignty of the Holy See in the international realm as an attribute inherent in its nature in conformity with its tradition and with the requirements of its mission to the world.”

In other words, the Holy See is sovereign because it was historically embedded in the interstate system. It was the Church that developed Europe’s first system of diplomacy, when the pope deployed representatives to communicate with political leaders — and crucially, to promote peace between them — in the medieval era.

But even before that, the Church was incarnated as a transnational authority, an invisible kingdom of God, with a valued mission to proclaim peace and neighborly love.

Article 3 creates a new microstate to guarantee the Holy See’s independence. The language explicitly describes Vatican City as dependent on the Holy See: “Italy recognizes the full ownership and the exclusive and absolute power and jurisdiction of the Holy See over the Vatican as it is presently constituted ... creating in this matter Vatican City for the special purposes and conditions given in this treaty.”

It’s as though the treaty created a kind of physical pedestal for the government of the Catholic Church (which is what the “Holy See” is), with an implied caveat that if, God forbid, the Catholic Church ceased to exist, the beautiful park would revert back to Italy, since the conditions giving rise to the treaty would no longer obtain.

The practical value of Vatican City’s independence became clear during World War II when Germany occupied Rome. Because Vatican City was sovereign, German tanks could only surround its perimeter. Independence also protected the Vatican’s ability to harbor thousands of Jewish civilians inside religious properties and palaces and to hide Allied soldiers on the run


Common Ground

Although his name did not appear on the treaty, a Pius XI “signature element” was the inclusion of a concordat with Italy. A concordat is an agreement concluded between a Church authority (especially a pope) and secular authority with the force of international law.

The 1929 concordat affirmed Catholicism as Italy’s state religion. It allowed religious instruction in public schools and gave bishops the power to select instructors and textbooks, but it required bishops to swear an oath of loyalty to the king. 

A principle that satisfied both parties (for different reasons) was Article 1, describing Rome as the “center of the Catholic world and place of pilgrimage.” Mussolini hoped to use the Church in his pitch for Italian global greatness; the Vatican saw in the language a recognition of the reality it had long defended.

In fact, evidence that the Holy See’s sovereignty preceded the Lateran Treaty can be seen in the concordats con­cluded during Pius XI’s papacy before and after the pact: the governments of Latvia (1922), Poland (1925), Romania (1927) and Lithuania (1927) signed formal agreements with the Holy See before the Lateran Accords, while concordats were signed with Prussia (1929), Austria (1933) and Germany (1933) after. They all have the same legal standing regardless of when the Holy See got the formal keys to its own kingdom.


Treated as a State

Between 1870 and 1929, the period when the Holy See had no independent territory, something extraordinary happened: respect for Vatican diplomacy increased. When Pope Pius IX took the throne in 1846, the Holy See had bilateral relations with 18 countries. That number climbed to 27 by 1929, a 50% increase in accredited ambassadors.

During the interregnum, while the “Roman Question” remained an unsolved puzzle, the Holy See negotiated 62 concordats with foreign governments regarding various aspects of church-state relations. 

Why? Mainly because the “captive popes” did a brilliant job of redefining Church power, centralizing it in the figure of the pope, and forging new roles valued by other sovereign actors.

The very act of recognizing the Holy See and engaging the Church diplomatically, regardless of her lack of physical territory, confirmed her sovereignty under mainstream legal definitions.


A Sovereign That Is Useful

Another thing the Vatican demonstrated while it was landless was usefulness.

Less than a month after World War I’s outbreak, Pope Pius X died of a heart attack. The conclave selected a pope with international experience, a graduate of the Church’s diplomatic school, Giacomo della Chiesa. As Benedict XV, he spent most of the war trying to end it.

Benedict XV protected Church neutrality and saw the war from the viewpoint of soldiers and civilians. He and his diplomats mainly focused on activities no one else prioritized. The Vatican managed an international postal system for POWs and their families that eventually processed more than 600,000 pieces of correspondence.

The Church arranged medical care for POWs with tuberculosis in Switzerland, which helped 26,000 thousand POWs and 3,000 civilian detainees. Benedict XV ran down the Holy See’s treasury as a result of its humanitarian commitments at a time when the war caused a great reduction in donations, but the Church’s selflessness contributed immeasurably to restoring the Vatican’s prestige.

Pope Benedict XV’s charity created new fields of intervention embraced by the Church ever since.

UN Membership 

The story of the Vatican’s status as a permanent observer at the United Nations brings us back to Vatican City State.

The Holy See’s sovereignty was clinched with the Lateran Treaty, but some actors in the world system were not keen to accept a new peer. Diplomats at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State asked the U.S. government about U.N. membership in 1944. Secretary of State Cordell Hull said No. 

But the Church gained entrée through its territorial identity: The U.N. invited the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to become its first “special agency” in 1947. As an ITU member, Vatican City State thus became part of the system. A year later, the U.N. added the Universal Postal Union and its membership roster to the list of special agencies, again including Vatican City State. 

Because the Holy See and Vatican City State were active in different arenas within the U.N. — sprawling as it was from the start — a moment of confusion emerged in 1957 over which entity was primary. U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld settled the matter with the observation, “When I request an audience from the Vatican, I do not go to see the King of Vatican City but the head of the Catholic Church.”  


U-Thant and Pope Paul VI 

U.N. Secretary General U Thant (1961-71) admired Pope John XXIII’s discreet role at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, diffusing tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union through a radio address calling on both nations to act for peace. The practicing Buddhist from Burma believed communities of faith should be U.N. allies. 

Thant visited Rome to meet Pope Paul VI less than a month after his 1963 election. One specific issue they discussed was shared opposition to war in Vietnam. When the Holy See followed up with a letter requesting “more stable relations” with the U.N., Thant responded quickly, offering the Holy See permanent observer status, a role five countries had at the time (Monaco, South Korea, South Vietnam, Switzerland and West Germany). 

Next, Thant invited Paul VI to address the U.N. General Assembly, which he did in October 1965, giving what his biographer called “the speech of his life,” declaring in French, “Jamais plus la guerre! (Never again war!)” — inspiring a 10-minute standing ovation from an audience of 4,000.


John Paul II Makes it Formal

Swiss voters elected to make their country a full member of the U.N. in 2002, when the Holy See was the only other permanent observer. Secretary General Kofi Annan asked the Vatican representative if Rome would consider applying for full membership.

After extensive consultation and reflection, Pope John Paul II concluded that full membership would put the Holy See’s impartiality at risk and plunge the Vatican into the competition and horse trading found in every legislative body. However, he decided it was time to formalize the permanent observer role, premised for decades on Thant’s letter of welcome.

On July 1, 2004, the General Assembly took 10 minutes to unanimously approve a resolution outlining Rome’s contributions while expanding its privileges — effectively full membership without the obligation to vote. The Holy See’s representative in New York at the time, Cardinal Celestino Migliore, explained, “We have no vote because this is our choice.”

The Vatican’s acceptance as a high-functioning member of the U.N. network and its integration in the transnational system turns on respect from other diplomats and a wide perception that the Church plays a constructive role, described by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Manuel de Oliveira Gutterres as “renewing the moral dimension in international relations.”


Discreet Diplomacy

Discretion is one of the hallmarks of international diplomacy.

Prudence has a downside, though: The Holy See is involved in many admirable initiatives for which it gets little credit. Who knows that under Pope Francis, Vatican diplomats have questioned the ethics of weaponized drones, challenged pharmaceutical companies for claiming intellectual property rights that prevent the poor from accessing medicine or defended indigenous people in Amazonia losing land and resources to extractive industries such as mining?

The Holy See’s presence in the United Nations system is premised on its sovereign status, which is rooted in Catholic history, tradition, unique contributions and a 1929 treaty negotiated by a Pope who once said, “When there is a question of saving souls, or preventing greater harm to souls, we feel the courage to treat with the devil in person” — a task that any diplomat in this sinful world must be willing to tackle.

NOTE: The Holy See, which governs the Catholic Church, is considered “sovereign” under international law, allowing the Church to exchange ambassadors and enter into treaties with 183 countries. Senior correspondent Victor Gaetan explores how the Church became sovereign in an essay drawn from his book God’s Diplomats: Pope Francis, Vatican Diplomacy, and America’s Armageddon (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).