We all know that the Roman Catholic Church is a “church” and that it is headquartered in the Vatican, which is a “state” – all 110 acres with a current population of 842. You know that right?
It is the smallest internationally recognized state in the world both by area and population; an ecclesiastical “monarchial” state ruled by the Pope. It’s highest state functionaries are all Roman Catholic clergy of various ranks from around the world.
Vatican city is kind of separate from the “Holy See”, which stretches back to early Christianity – the “See” represents the leadership of the world’s Roman Catholic and Eastern adherents which recognize the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, as the spiritual leader of the faith.
The Vatican as a state came into being in 1929 via the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy; it was signed at the Lateran Palace and it spoke of a new creation – a new “nation”. It was signed by a representative of Pius XI and the King, represented by Benito Mussolini.
So how did all of this come about?
Well prior to 1870 central Italy was ruled by the Pope, his temporal power wielded in the “Papal States” – at is zenith the states included most of the modern regions of Lazio (including Rome), Marche, Romagna, Umbria and portions of Emilia.
The temporal power of the Pope over territory began in the 700s A.D. The church, through the Pope was the largest landowner on the peninsula and with the weakening of Byzantine power began to exercise temporal power in the political vacuum. In 781, Charlemagne codified the regions over which the pope would be temporal sovereign: Rome was key, but the territory was expanded to include Ravenna, the Duchy of the Pentapolis, Benevento, Tuscany, Corsica, Lombardy and a number of Italian cities.
The cooperation between the papacy and the Carolingian dynasty climaxed in 800, when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor.
The Papal States stretched from coast to coast, dividing the Italian peninsula.
With the coming of the unification of Italy in 1861 the Papacy’s temporal power was restricted to Rome itself. The French were guarding Rome and Garibaldi’s troops could not take the city. A unified Kingdom of Italy was declared and in March 1861, the first Italian parliament, which met in Turin, the old capital of Piedmont, declared Rome the capital of the new Kingdom. However, the Italian government could not take possession of the city while a French garrison in Rome protected Pope Pius IX.
The opportunity for the Kingdom of Italy to eliminate the Papal States came in 1870; the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July prompted Napoleon III to recall his garrison from Rome and the collapse of the Second French Empire at the Battle of Sedan deprived Rome of its French protector.
Italian troops took the city and the Pope declared himself a “prisoner of the Vatican” as none of the traditional Catholic powers came to his aid. He confined himself to the Apostolic Palace and adjacent buildings in the loop of the ancient fortifications known as the Leonine City, on Vatican Hill.
In 1871 Italy was finally unified by absorbing the Papal States. The Pope, now deposed as King of Rome, confined behind the walls of the Vatican, continued to fight the Italian state with every means at his disposal.
He refused to set foot on Italian territory.
He refused to leave his enclave, as “the prisoner of the Vatican”. From his new home he excommunicated all who had been involved in the capture of Rome, forbade Catholics to vote in Italian elections and refused the subsidy offered by the Italian government in reparations. Pius resorted to “vittimismo”, playing the victim and blaming others for preying on the Church, which “had the effect of raising the devotion to the Pope.”
He excommunicated the King of Italy. He had long railed against the secular values of the Italian kingdom. In his 1864 Syllabus of Errors he had already condemned more than eighty “errors and perverse doctrines” including separation of church and state, a free press and secular education. Most Italians understood such “errors” to be a none too oblique condemnation of the Italian Kingdom. Pope Pius IX also directly forbade Catholics to participate by way of voting or any political involvement in the workings of the “godless” Italian state.
So it stayed until Mussolini came to power. For sixty years, relations between the Papacy and the Italian government were hostile and the status of the Pope became known as the “Roman Question”
By the 1920s the Pope Pius XI was nervous. The Bolsheviks were in Russia; more “godless” Communists. In Italy the “red years” of socialist radicals brought strikes, occupation of factories and land seizures. In the mid 1920s the Fascists came to power, supported by industrialists, land owners middle classes, the military and the King. Fascist strength lay in it’s strident nationalism and implacable opposition to socialism. It didn’t operate through the voting box; the black shirts bashed heads in the streets.
In 1929 the long wait finally paid off when Mussolini proved willing to enter an alliance with the Vatican. A precondition of the negotiations was destruction of the parliamentary center-right Catholic Italian Popular Party. Pius XI disliked political Catholicism because he could not control it. Like his predecessors, he believed that Catholic party politics brought democracy into the church by the back door. The demise of the Popular Party caused a wholesale shift of Catholics into the Fascist Party, the destruction of socialism and the collapse of democracy in Italy.
A few years later the Pope would follow the same strategy with Hitler to disband the democratic Catholic party there. Eliminating the Catholic Center-right party helped give Hitler the majority he needed in the last free election before he shut down German democracy.
The Lateran Pacts signed by Mussolini on 11 February 1929, had three parts: a political treaty (giving the Vatican its own micro-state), a financial convention (giving the Vatican reparations) and a concordat (giving privileges within Italy, for instance by letting the Church influence public education). In return for all of this Mussolini received Vatican recognition of the Kingdom of Italy — of which he happened to be the dictator. Through the Lateran Pacts, as a contemporary account noted, “Mussolini has achieved a great diplomatic success, perhaps the greatest of his career.” Four years later the Vatican would legitimize another dictator, Hitler, also for the price of a legal pact.
A national holiday was proclaimed to celebrate this propaganda coup. With the Lateran Pacts the divided allegiance of many Italians between church and state became a thing of the past.
This is a souvenir of the creation of the Vatican State by the Lateran Pacts. Its “trinity” of King Victor Emanuel III, Pope Pius XI and Benito Mussolini celebrates the new unity of temporal and spiritual authority. This accomodation between church and state was called the “peace of Laetitia” (pax Laetitia) after the Roman Goddess of Joy. However, it helped legitimize a police state regime that by 1929 had already spread terror through military tribunals, political assassination and raids by Blackshirts.
Henceforth the two powers would present a united front, at least in public. Although Pius XII had moral doubts about Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia, he didn’t voice them, even to the dictator. Instead, the Vatican fostered this valuable alliance and on the “Day of Faith” in 1935, the Italian Church actively supported the war effort by helping Mussolini in his nation-wide drive to collect gold wedding rings.
In an audience with professors and students from the Catholic University in Milan shortly after the signing of the accords, Pius praised both Mussolini and the settlement in words widely quoted in Italy and abroad: “The times called for a man such as he whom Providence has ordained that We should meet…. It is with profound satisfaction that We express the belief that We have given God to Italy and Italy to God.”
Mussolini received a kind of moral recognition that the Pope’s predecessors had always denied to democratic Italian governments.
Today the effects of the Lateran Pacts extend far beyond Italy. In the end, the Popes’ strategy of staying stubbornly within the walls of the Vatican for 59 years has paid off handsomely. It is thanks to the Lateran Pacts that the Pope can now travel round the world as a head of state and even speak at the United Nations.
Mussolini believed he had buried the temporal power of the Pope. He was wrong. But then again, he was wrong about lots of things.
Although there have been revisions, the Lateran Pacts remain in effect today. Italians are still bound by them, as an Italian comedienne discovered in 2008 after she made a joke about the Pope for his anti-gay stance. She found that she had unwittingly contravened Article 8 of the 1929 Treaty, an offence which can bring five years in prison for public insults against the Pope “whether by means of speeches, acts, or writings”.
Eventually she was exonerated in a way which avoided challenging the Treaty. The Italian Minister of Justice decided not to proceed with the prosecution, “knowing the depth of the Pope’s capacity for forgiveness”. This managed to defuse the situation while, at the same time, retaining the threat. After all, intimidation is the real aim of charging people with offences such as “blasphemy”, “religious defamation” and “offending the honor of the sacred and inviolable person” of the Pope