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Ask the Register: Is the Vatican really a sovereign state?

Q. Is the Vatican really a sovereign state?


A. The Vatican City State is a sovereign entity in Rome, consisting of about 100 acres of buildings and gardens, and a population of less than 1,000 people. The Vatican City State came into creation in 1929, as a result of treaty between the Holy See and Italy.

The Vatican City State is a sovereign state. But its governance is complex.  It is the territory governed by a separate sovereign international entity, the Holy See, which is the legal recognition of the Catholic Church in international law and foreign relations. 

In the United Nations, for example, the Catholic Church is represented by the Holy See, and the Holy See, not the Vatican City State, sends diplomats, called “nuncios” to countries around the world. 

The Holy See has been recognized as a sovereign legal entity since at least the Middle Ages.  It is a subject of international law, and, in fact, across Europe, the Holy See helped to develop the concepts of international law as the idea of a nation emerged in law.  The Holy See is recognized as a sovereign state because of the Church’s current and historical importance in the political, economic, and cultural life of the world.

Between the 8th century and 1870, the pope directly controlled territories on the Italian peninsula known as the Papal States. The political history of the Papal States is complicated, but it laid the groundwork for the continued recognition of the Holy See— the Church— in international law and diplomatic relations.

We’re called to be emissaries to the entire world on behalf of the Gospel. The Church witnesses this call in the Holy See’s diplomatic and international work to bring justice and truth to the international community of nations.

Write to Ask the Register using our online form, or write to P.O. Box 80328, Lincoln, NE 68501-0328. All questions are subject to editing. Editors decide which questions to publish. Personal questions cannot be answered. People with such questions are urged to take them to their nearest Catholic priest.

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