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Diplomacy in Action

Holy See, The (02/03)


For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


The Holy See (State of the Vatican City)

Geography and People
Area: 0.44 sq. km. (109 acres).
Population: 790.
Ethnic groups: Italian, Swiss, other.
Languages: Italian, Latin, various others.
Literacy: 100%.
Work force: 3,000 lay workers (reside outside the Vatican).

Type: Papacy; ecclesiastical governmental and administrative capital of the Roman Catholic Church.
Independence: Lateran Pacts regulating independence and sovereignty of the Holy See signed with Italy on February 11, 1929.
Suffrage: Limited to Cardinals less than 80 years old.

Budget: Revenues (1999)--$175.5 million; expenditures (1999)--$175 million.
Industries: Printing and production of mosaics and staff uniforms; worldwide banking and financial activities. Other sources of income include contributions (known as Peter's Pence) from Roman Catholics throughout the world, the sale of postage stamps and tourist mementos, fees for admission to museums, and the sale of publications.

Some 790 citizens of the Holy See reside in Vatican City. The Vatican includes high dignitaries, priests, nuns, and guards as well as about 3,000 lay workers who comprise the majority of the work force.

The Holy See's diplomatic history began in the fourth century, but the boundaries of the papacy's temporal power have shifted over the centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the Popes held sway over the Papal States, including a broad band of territory across central Italy. In 1860, after prolonged civil and regional unrest, Victor Immanuel's army seized much of the Papal States, leaving only Rome and surrounding coastal regions under papal control.

In 1870, Victor Immanuel captured Rome and declared it the new capital of Italy, ending papal claims to temporal power. Pope Pius and his successors disputed the legitimacy of these acts and proclaimed themselves to be "prisoners" in the Vatican. Finally, in 1929, the Italian Government and the Holy See signed three agreements resolving the dispute:

  • A treaty recognizing the independence and sovereignty of the Holy See and creating the State of the Vatican City.
  • A concordat defining the relations between the government and the church within Italy; and
  • A financial convention providing the Holy See with compensation for its losses in 1870.

A revised concordat, altering the terms of church-state relations, was signed in 1984.

The Pope exercises supreme legislative, executive, and judicial power over the Holy See and the State of the Vatican City. Pope John Paul II, born in Poland, is the first non-Italian Pope in nearly five centuries. Elected on October 16, 1978, he succeeded John Paul I, whose reign was limited by his untimely death to only 34 days.

The term "Holy See" refers to the composite of the authority, jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his advisers to direct the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. As the "central government" of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See has a legal personality that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal of a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives. The Holy See has formal diplomatic relations with 173 nations, including the United States. The Holy See also maintains relations of a special nature with the Russian Federation and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Created in 1929 to administer properties belonging to the Holy See in Rome, the State of the Vatican City is recognized under international law and enters into international agreements. Unlike the Holy See, it does not receive or send diplomatic representatives.

Administration of the Vatican City
The Pope delegates the internal administration of the Vatican City to the Pontifical Commission for the State of the Vatican City. The legal system is based on canon, or ecclesiastical, law; if canon law is not applicable, the laws of the city of Rome apply. The Vatican City maintains the Swiss Guards, a voluntary military force, as well as a modern security corps. It has its own post office, commissary, bank, railway station, electrical generating plant, and publishing house. The Vatican also issues its own coins, stamps, and passports. Radio Vatican, the official radio station, is one of the most influential in Europe. L'Osservatore Romano is the semiofficial newspaper, published daily in Italian, and weekly in English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and French (plus a monthly edition in Polish). It is published by Catholic laymen but carries official information.

Administration of the Holy See
The Pope rules the Holy See through the Roman Curia and the Papal Civil Service. The Roman Curia consists of the Secretariat of State, six Congregations, three Tribunals, 11 Pontifical Councils, and a complex of offices that administer church affairs at the highest level. The Secretariat of State, under the Cardinal Secretary of State, directs and coordinates the Curia. The incumbent, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, is the Holy See's equivalent of a prime minister. Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary of the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State, is the Vatican's foreign minister.

Among the most active of the major Curial institutions are the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees church doctrine; the Congregation for Bishops, which coordinates the appointment of bishops worldwide; the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which oversees all missionary activities; and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which deals with international peace and social issues.

Three tribunals are responsible for judicial power. The Apostolic Penitentiary deals with matters of conscience; the Roman Rota is responsible for appeals, including annulments of marriage; and the Apostolic Signatura is the final court of appeal.

The Prefecture for Economic Affairs coordinates the finances of the Holy See departments and supervises the administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, an investment fund dating back to the Lateran Pacts. A committee of 15 cardinals, chaired by the Secretary of State, has final oversight authority over all financial matters of the Holy See, including those of the Institute for Works of Religion, the Vatican bank.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State--Pope John Paul II
Secretary of State (Prime Minister)--Angelo Cardinal Sodano
Deputy Secretary of State--Archbishop Leonardo Sandri
Secretary of Section for Relations with States (Foreign
Minister)--Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo
Apostolic Nuncio (equivalent to Ambassador) to the United
States--Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo

The Holy See maintains an Apostolic Nunciature, the equivalent of an embassy, in the U.S. at 3339 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008, tel. (202) 333-7121.

Papal Audiences
The North American College in Rome, owned and operated by the U.S. Catholic hierarchy for training American priests, handles requests for papal audiences. The address is Casa Santa Maria dell'Umilta, Via dell'Umilta 30, 00187, Rome, Italy (tel. 39-06-690-0189).

The Holy See conducts an active diplomacy. As noted, it maintains formal diplomatic relations with 173 nations; 67 of these, plus the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Russian Federation, maintain permanent resident diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See in Rome. The rest have missions located outside Italy with dual accreditation. The Holy See maintains 104 permanent diplomatic missions to nation-states, plus one to the European Union.

The Holy See is especially active in international organizations. The Holy See has diplomatic relations with the European Union (EU) in Brussels and is a permanent observer of the United Nations (UN); the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington; the African Union (AU); the World Tourist Organization (WToO); the World Trade Organization (WTO); the World Health Organization (WHO); the World Food Program (WFP); the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the UN Environment Program (UNEP); the UN International Drug Control Program (UNDCP); the UN Center for Human Settlements (UNCHS); the Latin Union (LU); the International Organization for Migration (IOM); the International Labor Organization (ILO); the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The Holy See also is an observer on an informal basis of the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva (WMO), UN Committee of Peaceful Use of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), International Maritime Organization (IMO), African Asian Legal Consultative Committee (AALCC) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

The Holy See is a member of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), International Telecommunication Satellite Organization (ITSO), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Universal Postal Union (UPU), International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), International Grains Council (IGC), and the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

In 1971, the Holy See announced the decision to adhere to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to "give its moral support to the principles that form the base of the treaty itself." The Holy See also is a participating state in the OSCE; a guest of honor to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe; and has a delegate to the Arab League (AL) in Cairo.

The United States maintained consular relations with the Papal States from 1797 to 1870 and diplomatic relations with the Pope, in his capacity as head of the Papal States, from 1848 to 1868. These relations lapsed with the loss of all papal territories in 1870.

From 1870 to 1984, the United States did not have diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Several recent presidents, however, designated personal envoys to visit the Holy See periodically for discussions of international humanitarian and political issues. Myron C. Taylor was the first of these representatives, serving from 1939 to 1950. Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan also appointed personal envoys to the Pope.

The United States and the Holy See announced the establishment of diplomatic relations on January 10, 1984. On March 7, 1984, the Senate confirmed William A. Wilson as the first U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See. Ambassador Wilson had been President Reagan's personal envoy to the Pope since 1981. The Holy See named Archbishop Pio Laghi as the first Apostolic Nuncio (equivalent to ambassador) of the Holy See to the United States.

Establishment of diplomatic relations has bolstered the frequent contact and consultation between the United States and the Holy See on many important international issues of mutual interest. The United States values the Holy See's significant contributions to international peace and human rights.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Jim Nicholson
Deputy Chief of Mission--Brent Hardt

The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See is located in Rome in the Villa Domiziana, Via delle Terme Deciane 26, 00153 Rome, Italy, Tel: (396) 46741-3428.

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