The Vatican

Vatican City State, Past and Present

From the Holy See the Pope governs the universal Church. To achieve this, he relies on the existence of a State, the Vatican City State, which guarantees him sufficient independence to carry out his work.

Ricardo Bazan-October 4, 2022-Reading time: 11 minutes
vatican city state

The breach of the Porta Pia on September 20, 1870, in the city of Rome, marked the loss of the Papal States, symbol of the temporal power of the Pope over the centuries. This historical fact can be approached from different points of view: political, historical, juridical, ecclesiastical. For the Catholic Church, and in particular for Pope Pius IX, it was a traumatic situation. It is logical to ask ourselves whether it was in the Church's interest to continue conserving territories and temporal power when its mission is supernatural. What is certain is that these territories were lost forever and this meant the unification of the Italian territory into the Kingdom of Italy. However, today we find that on Italian territory, in the city of Rome, there is one of the smallest states in the world, with only 0.49 km of territory.2: the Vatican City State.

– Supernatural Roman question

After the fall of the Papal States, there was a fracture in the relations between the Church and the new Kingdom of Italy, known as the "Papal War". Roman question. In this matter, Pius IX does not recognize the Italian kingdom and decides to consider himself a prisoner in the Vatican, some territories on the other side of the Tiber River, where St. Peter's Basilica stands. Until then, the Popes had lived in the Quirinal Palace, now the seat of the President of the Republic of Italy. 

The pressure exerted by Pius IX was so strong that he forbade Italian Catholics to participate in the elections. They could neither be elected nor be electors (nè eletti, nè elettori), as a means of protest, while at the same time seeking not to legitimize the existence of the Italian state. Thus, the Roman question remained open until its resolution with the Lateran Pacts of 1929, through which the Vatican City State was created.

Necessary independence

Why was the Church interested in maintaining a territory? Basically it is about independence in temporal things. This has been a lesson for centuries. Constantine's peace meant a respite for Christians from the bloody Roman persecutions. However, the price to pay seems to have been high, for from that moment on the Church had to submit to the power of the emperor, and later to the interests of the various kings or princes who sought to seize power after the fall of Charlemagne's empire. It became clear that it was desirable to have territories that guaranteed a certain independence from temporal power, even if that included having its own army and navy. However, for the then European Christendom, the true power of the Pope was a power in divine things.

The Popes who succeeded Pius IX were clear that it was necessary to put an end to the Roman questionThe Church, not only because of the lack of relations with Italy, but also so that the Church could exercise its mission. During the rest of the pontificate of Pius IX, the Church seemed to have closed itself to the world, and the efforts of Leo XIII were not enough, as long as this fracture was not resolved. Thus began the talks between the two parties, which culminated with the signing of the treaties in the Lateran Palace on February 11, 1929, which included the recognition of the independence and sovereignty of the Holy See and the creation of the Vatican City State. It also included the concordat that defined the civil and religious relations in Italy between the Church and the Italian government. All this under the baton of the then Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Gasparri, on the side of the Holy See, and Head of Government Prime Minister, Benito Mussolini, for the Kingdom of Italy.

These relations are very close, considering that we are talking about a territory within the Italian state. For this very reason, the Concordat establishes that Italy guarantees the sovereignty of the Vatican State, avoiding any kind of interference, even from possible occupants. For example, in the event that Italy should go to war, as happened in the Second World War. The Concordat goes down to details such as water supply, as well as the railway system; in fact, the Vatican has its own station, which is currently in operation, and allows visitors, departing from the old station, to go by train to Castel Gandolfo, a papal residence located in the town of the same name.

Functioning of the State

Although for most people the Vatican City State and the Holy See are one and the same, the truth is that they are two entities that should be differentiated in order to better understand how the government of the Church works. The Holy See is the body that directs the Church throughout the world. At its head is the Pope, who governs with the assistance of the dicasteries. The Vatican State, on the other hand, is the institution that gives material support to the entities that govern the Church. Although its highest authority is also the Pope, its functions are delegated to a commission for the government of Vatican City.

How does the Vatican City State function? First of all, it should be said that we are dealing with a very particular State, because technically it is a monarchy, in that the Pope is the highest hierarch, who holds all the powers, that is, the executive power, the legislative power and the judicial power. This is so because the state was created to guarantee the independence of the Holy See in carrying out its evangelizing mission. Therefore, the Pope resides there and has all the prerogatives that correspond to a monarch. This is strange in our times because the current kings or monarchs do not exercise real power as in the past, but are representative figures with some functions of heads of state. Today it is rather other bodies, such as parliaments that exercise power. However, the bodies that make up the Vatican State have been reduced to the minimum expression, according to the needs of the case and always in view of the mission of the Church. An example of this is that its population is 618 inhabitants, of which only 246 live within the Vatican walls, including members of the Swiss Guard.

The three powers

While it is true that the pope holds all power, for reasons of prudence and good government, this power is exercised permanently by certain bodies that have been designated for this purpose. Thus, judicial power resides in a single judge, a Court of Appeal and a Court of Cassation, which exercise their functions in the name of the Pope. Legislative power, on the other hand, is exercised both by the Roman Pontiff and by the Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State. Finally, executive power is exercised by the Cardinal President of the Pontifical Commission for the Vatican City State, whose simplified name is President of the Governatoratocurrently Msgr. Fernando Vérgez Alzaga.

Like every State, it needs a body or organism to protect its citizens, and of course, the Pope, for this reason, the Vatican City State has the Gendarmerie Corps. They are in charge of public order, security and the function of judicial police. This body is two centuries old, when it was called the Pontifical Carabinieri Corps. In fact, it was they who had to face the troops that took Rome in 1870. The Fire Brigade, whose function, in addition to extinguishing fires, is to provide security and care for life and property before various catastrophes, is attached to this corps. The work of these two corps is no small task because, although it is a very small territory, every day they have to deal with thousands of pilgrims who visit this original state, especially St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums.

In fact, the latter is something very peculiar, because we are talking about a state, therefore, it has its borders, despite being within another state. The Vatican State is surrounded by the ancient walls, which protect it and at the same time delimit it, however, there are some environments to which visitors can access, such as those already mentioned, the Basilica of St. Peter and the Vatican Museums, which every day receive thousands of people who come to pray or to visit the priceless works of art that are there.

St. Peter's Basilica

Many other monuments guard the Vatican walls. St. Peter's Basilica is one of the main ones, but within it we can visit the Vatican Grottoes, rooms under the basilica that house the bodies of the deceased pontiffs, not to mention the tomb of the prince of the apostles himself, St. Peter. Past the sacristy is the Treasury of St. Peter, where sacred vestments, statues, papal tiaras and other gifts from kings and princes are displayed. Of particular interest is the pre-Constantinian necropolis or better known as the scavi vaticaniThe burial of Peter, a pagan tomb from the second century B.C., was joined by Christian tombs, who sought to be buried near the place where Peter himself is believed to be buried.

But not everything is monuments and palaces. The Vatican City State has its own laws and regulations, as it is still a state, therefore, it has had to adapt to international standards, such as those relating to the prevention of illicit activities in financial, monetary, prevention of money laundering, etc.. Likewise, it has regulations on the protection of minors and vulnerable people, all of this in coherence with Pope Francis' policy of zero tolerance for the abuse of minors. Therefore, in recent years, this State has had to adapt its regulations and penal code to current requirements.

We have made an X-ray of the Vatican, which is nothing more than a human formula that allows the Roman Pontiffs and the Church to fulfill the mandate that Christ gave them: to evangelize all peoples. Is this whole structure of a state necessary to carry out this mission? Not necessarily, but it is very convenient, since history shows that the Church needs a minimum of temporal power that gives it a certain independence in the exercise of its function, free from the political vicissitudes of the moment, so that it does not oscillate between that extreme of caesaropapism, that is, the subordination of the Church to the State, or hierocracy, the subordination of the State to the Church. Proof of this is the way in which the Pope delegates his functions as monarch to organs whose responsibility it is to maintain a state at the service of the Church, and therefore of souls. n

The Vatican in depth

-text Javier García Herrería

Vatican City is a state at all levels. That is why it has an anthem, flag or courts; and it also issues passports, stamps, coins or car license plates. The Vatican flag is formed by two vertical stripes with the colors yellow and white. In the white area are the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven given by Christ to St. Peter, symbol of papal authority. The white color symbolizes heaven and Grace. 

Vatican Gendarmerie or Swiss Guard?

It has the usual services provided by a state, but with minimal proportions. One of its main areas is security. For this, the Vatican relies on the Swiss Guard, on the one hand, and the Vatican Gendarmerie on the other. As is well known, the little more than 100 Swiss guards are in charge of the Pope's security and the accesses to some points of the Vatican.

There is a widespread legend that the emblematic uniform of the Swiss Guard was designed by Michelangelo himself. However, the reality in this case is much less poetic. It is known for certain that the clothing was designed by Major Jules Repond, who eliminated the hats and introduced the current black berets. The uniform for daily wear is entirely blue. The dress uniform, for which they are known worldwide, consists of the colorful white collar, gloves and light helmet with an ostrich feather of different colors according to the rank of the officers. The colors are the traditional Medici colors: blue, red and yellow, which go well with the white gloves and the white collar.

The Gendarmerie is also responsible for the Pope's protection. It is a police force also in charge of public order, border control, traffic control, criminal investigation, and the Pope's security outside the Vatican. The Gendarmerie has 130 members and is part of the Department of Security Services and Civil Defense, which also includes the Vatican Fire Brigade. It is important not to confuse the Gendarmerie with the Vatican Service of the Italian Police, which is made up of the Italian policemen who guard St. Peter's Square and its surroundings.

Pharmacy, post office and observatory

Vatican City is financially independent from the Italian State, so it establishes its own tax laws. For example, the pharmacy and supermarket located within its walls do not have VAT tax, so their products are worth 25 % less than in Italy. These prices are a boon for Vatican employees, as their salaries are not particularly high. Incidentally, the Vatican pharmacy recently completed 400 years of service to the See of Peter. From its beginnings it offered a cutting-edge service as its products came from plants from all over the world provided by ambassadors and missionaries going to Rome.

Another of the best-known services is the postal service. In a world that has stopped communicating by letter, the Vatican numismatics are still attractive to many pilgrims. Everyone likes to receive letters and even more so if they come from such an emblematic place as St. Peter's Square. For this reason, its spacious premises, which is just outside the Basilica, is often crowded. This is the reason why, for some years now, a truck-shop from the Vatican Post is installed in St. Peter's Square at the times of greatest influx of pilgrims. 

From Governatorato also depends on the management of the Vatican Museums. In addition to preserving a valuable artistic heritage, they are an important source of income for the Vatican. To get an idea of how big they are, it is enough to consider that they have 700 employees, 300 of them dedicated to security alone. 

Since the arrival of Pope Francis to the pontificate, the summer residence of the Popes in Castel Gandolfo has ceased to be used. The Pope works in summer and, if he rests, he does so in Rome. Pope Francis therefore decided that the palace and gardens of Castel Gandolfo could be visited by tourists. Among the curiosities housed in the Castel Gandolfo residence is the papal room in which Jewish refugee children were born there during the Nazi persecution in World War II.

The Vatican Astronomical Observatory. Cultural clichés often set faith and science against each other, but anyone who has studied the history of the Church knows that this has not been the case at all. Science was born in a Christian cultural context and many believers have dedicated themselves to this noble activity. A proof of the Church's interest in scientific development is the existence of this observatory. It was created in 1578 and is one of the oldest in the world. Its contributions to the history of astronomy have been numerous and as light pollution in the area has been increasing, the new headquarters of the observatory has been located in Arizona (USA), no less.

Accounts of the Vatican State and the Holy See

The Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), better known as the Vatican bank, was created in 1942, in the middle of the World War, to safeguard the patrimony of dioceses and Church institutions that were under siege in some parts of the world. The IOR has been the protagonist of many headlines and scandals over the last decade, although its numbers are quite discreet compared to those of an average bank. There is no doubt that it is quite sad that a Vatican institution of this level is not maximally exemplary, although fortunately both Benedict XVI and Francis have notably boosted the control and transparency of all the economic bodies of the Holy See and the Vatican State. One of the fruits of this process was the publication in 2021 of the patrimony of both entities for the first time in history. 

In 2020 the Holy See had revenues of 248 million euros and expenses of 315 million euros. Its total net assets amounted to some 1,379 million. Roman offices and nunciatures account for 36 % of the total budget, while 14 % is accounted for by Vatican City State, the IOR 18 %, other foundations and funds 24 %, the St. Peter's Obolus is 5 % and other funds related to the Secretariat of State, 3 %. The expenditures of the Vatican State are somewhat lower than those of the Holy See. When the two amounts are added together, the sum amounts to about 600 million euros per year. This may seem a very large amount, but it is not so large when compared to the budget of German dioceses such as Cologne (which exceeds 900 million), or other dioceses in the United States. 

Income in 2021 came 58 % from rents, investments, visitors and provision of services; 23 % was external donations (from dioceses or other institutions); and 19 % comes from related entities (such as IOR or from the Governatorato). It should be noted that the Holy See has more than 5,000 real estate properties spread throughout the world: 4,051 in Italy and 1,120 abroad, not including its embassies around the world. Many of these properties are rented and provide this income.

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