16 March, 2013

What is Vatican City?

This week, the Catholic Church chose a new leader, Pope Francis. The selection and announcement of the new pope took place in Vatican City, the Church's sovereign territory within Rome. Is Vatican City really "the world's smallest country", or a country at all?  And what's the difference between Vatican City and the Holy See? Read all about it!


Large scale (close-up) map of Vatican City
Map of Vatican City (click to enlarge). By Francesco Piraneo G./Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SAsource).
What is Vatican City?

Vatican City was created by the Lateran Treaty in 1929 to ensure the Catholic Church's independence from the control of other countries, and has an area of only about 0.17 sq mi (0.44 sq km), or about one-eighth the size of Central Park in New York. In addition to the Pope, the state said to have a population of about 800, most of whom are either clergy or members of the Swiss Guard.

Located within the city of Rome, Vatican City is surrounded on all sides by Italy, and nearly encircled by a stone city wall except for in St. Peter's Square, where it is separated from Italy only by a white line drawn on the ground. Various religious and administrative buildings are located within Vatican City's confines, but more than half of its area is taken up by the green space of the Vatican Gardens.


Flag of Vatican City Country Name:  
• Vatican City (English)
• Città del Vaticano (Italian)
Official Name:  
• Vatican City State (English)
• Stato della Città del Vaticano (Italian)
Capital: Vatican City
Is Vatican City really a country?

Yes, technically. Although it doesn't really have the kind of population and national cultural identity we would expect from a genuine "country", it is recognized worldwide as a "sovereign state", which means it rules itself and answers to no one else. This makes it by far the world's smallest independent "country", more than four times smaller than the runner-up, Monaco.

Vatican City's supreme leader is the Bishop of Rome, a.k.a. the Pope, who is also head of the worldwide Catholic Church. And not only is its independence undisputed by the international community, but it actually maintains diplomatic relations with the U.N. and many countries - sort of. Vatican diplomacy is conducted not in the name of Vatican City itself, but directly by the Catholic Church in the name of the "Holy See".

What's the difference between Vatican City and the Holy See?

In short, Vatican City is a state (i.e. country), while the Holy See is a religious organization which happens to govern Vatican City, but has a broader purpose. In Catholic Church terminology, a "see" is the seat of authority of a particular bishop, and the "Holy See" refers to the authority of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope).

So the Holy See is the religious authority presiding over Catholic churches all across Rome (and by extension, the entire Catholic world), but it has normal government authority only in Vatican City and its "extraterritorial properties". These properties, mostly churches or historical palaces located elsewhere in Rome, have a status similar to foreign embassies: they are technically part of Italy, but are under the legal jurisdiction of the Holy See.

Map showing location of Vatican City within Rome
Vatican City's location within Rome (click to enlarge). By Evan Centanni. Background map by Dr. Blofeld. License: CC BY-SAsource).
The term "the Vatican" can mean either Vatican City itself, or the Holy See, sort of like how "Washington" or "Beijing" can refer to the U.S. or Chinese governments rather than just the cities.

Bonus Facts

• Vatican City is the only undisputed country in the world which is not a member of the U.N. However, the Holy See does have status as a "permanent observer state" in the U.N. General Assembly The only other U.N. observer state is Palestine, which just gained that status last November.

• Although Vatican City was created only in 1929, the Holy See has existed for many hundreds of years. It was often recognized as a "sovereign entity" even when it had no territory, though at many points in history it did control territories much larger than today's Vatican City.

• The Holy See's official language is Latin, but Vatican City uses Italian as its state language. The Vatican's only military force, the Swiss Guard, gives orders in German.


Graphic of the Vatican City flag is in the public domain (source).

2 comments:

  1. so is it technically correct to say that the vatican city and the papacy that existed until the unification of italy are the same thing just in different centuries? or is there some different government structure

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    Replies
    1. Do you mean the Papal States? Vatican City is based on the same basic premise as the Papal States (a limited region under sovereign political control of the pope/church), but is technically a separate institution. It was created under a separate treaty, and its day-to-day administration is conducted under a different set of laws.

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