Vatican City Explained


Vatican City: capitol of the Catholic Church, home to the pope, owner of impressive collections of art and history all contained within the borders of the world's smallest country: conveniently circumnavigateable on foot in only 40 minutes.

Just how did the world end up with this tiny nation?

The short answer is: because Mussolini and the long answer is fiendishly complicated so here's a simplified medium version:

The popes used to rule a country called the Papal States that covered much of modern day Italy. It was during this 1,000+ year reign that the Popes constructed St. Peter's Basilica the largest church in the world -- and also built a wall around the base of a hill known as Vatican upon which St. Peter's Stood.

But the Kingdom of Italy next door thought Rome would be an awesome capital for their country and so conquered the Papal States.

His nation destroyed the Pope hid behind the walls of Vatican and conflictingly refused to acknowledge that the Kingdom of Italy existed, while simultaneously complaining about being a prisoner of the Kingdom of Italy -- which according to him didn't exist.

Rather than risk religious civil war by getting rid of the pope the Kingdom of Italy decided to wait him out assuming he'd eventually give up -- but religion is nothing if not obstinate -- and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 popes and sixty years later nothing had changed.

Which brings us to Benito Mussolini the then prime minister of Italy who was tired of listing to the Pope complain to Italian Catholics about his self-imposed imprisonment so Mussolini thought he could score some political points by striking a deal which looked like this:

1) Italy gave the land of Vatican to the Pope.


2) Italy gave the Pope a bunch of apology money

In return

1) The Pope acknowledged that Italy existed and


2) The Pope promised to remain neutral in politics and wars.

On the off chance that, you know, Mussolini thought this might be a thing.

The deal was signed and a new country, Vatican City was born.

And today the tiny nation on a hill has all the things you'd expect of a country: its own government that makes its own laws that are enforced by its own police, who put people who break them in its own jail.

It also has its own bank and prints its own stamps and issues its own license plates, though only its citizens can drive within its borders presumably because of terrible, terrible parking -- and as the true mark of any self-respecting nation: it has its own top-level domain: .VA

But, despite all these national trappings Vatican City is not really like any other country. Hold on to your fancy hat, because it's about to get weird:

To understand the Vatican: there are two people and two things that you need to know about: the famous pope, the incredibly confusing Holy See, The Country of Vatican City and along with that the almost completely unknown King of Vatican City.

But first the Pope: who gets a throne to sit upon and from which he acts as the Bishop for all the Catholics in Rome.

Actually all Bishops in the Catholic Church get their own thrones but because the Bishop of Rome is also the Pope his throne is special and has it's own special name: The Holy See.

Every time a Pope dies or retires there is a sort of game of thrones to see which of the bishops will next get to occupy the Holy See.

So while Popes come and go the throne is eternal. As such the name The Holy See not only refers to the throne but also all the rules that make the Catholic Church the Catholic Church.

When Mussolini crafted that aforementioned deal, technically he gave the land of Vatican City to The Holy See -- which, believe it or not, is a legal corporate person in international law. Basically every time you hear the words The Holy See think Catholic Church, Inc of which the Pope is the CEO.

Now back to the King. The King of Vatican City has absolute, unchecked power within the country's borders and his presence makes Vatican City one of only six remanning absolute monarchies in the world, including Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Swaziland. The King's absolute power is why Vatican City can't join the European Union because only democracies are allowed.

Through Vatican City does, strictly speaking, have a legislative brach of government -- staffed by cardinals, appointed by the pope -- the King of Vatican City can overrule their decisions and at any time for any reason.

So why do you never hear about the King of Vatican City? Because though King and Pope are two different roles, they just happen to be occupied by the same person at the same time -- which has the funny consequence that, because the Pope is elected and the King is all-powerful but they're the same guy it makes Vatican City the world's only elected, non-hereditary absolute monarchy.

It's this dual-role that makes untangling Vatican City so difficult because the Pope, depending on the situation either acts as The King of the country of Vatican City or the Pope of the Holy See.

Got it? No? OK, here's an analogy:

Imagine if a powerful international company, say Grey Industries, had a CEO who convinced the United States to give one of its islands to the Company which then made the island into a new country -- Greytropolis -- with an absolute monarchy as its government and the law that the King of Greytropolis is, by definition, the CEO of Grey Industries.

It's pretty obvious at that point that the CEO should move his corporate headquarters to the new nation -- so that the laws of the country can benefit the company and the company's global reach can benefit the country. As for the man in the middle sometimes it's good to the the CEO and sometimes it's good to be the king.

That is essentially Vatican City.

But if you're still confused, don't worry even other countries can't keep it straight. For example the United Nations has The Holy See the corporation as a member but not Vatican City the actual country. And The Holy See gives passports to Vatican City citizens that other countries accept even though those passports come from a company, not a country.

And speaking of Vatican City citizens, they are perhaps the strangest consequence of the Pope's dual role as religious leader and monarch.

While other countries mint new citizens with the ever popular process of human reproduction Vatican City does not. No one in Vatican City is born a citizen -- and that's not just because, within a rounding error, there are no female Vaticans.

The only way to become a citizen is for the King of Vatican City to appoint you as one. And the King only appoints you a citizen if you work for the Pope -- who is also the King.

And because the King is all-powerful your citizenship is at his whim. If you quit your job for the Pope, the King -- who is also the pope -- will revoke your citizenship.

These rules mean that Vatican City doesn't have a real permanent population to speak of: there are only about 500 full citizens -- which is fewer people that live in single skyscrapers in many countries -- and all these citizens work for The Holy See as either Cardinals or Diplomats or the Pope's bodyguards or other Catholic-related jobs.

So it's best to think of Vatican City as a kind of Sovereign Corporate Headquarters that grants temporary citizenship to its managers rather than a real city-state like Singapore: which has a self-reproducing population of citizens engaged in a variety of economic activities both of which Vatican City lacks.

But in the end, the reason the world cares about Vatican City is not because of the citizens within its walls but because of the billion members of its church outside those walls.


Images: Tony Perrottet, Marc Simonetti, chongeileen, Chris Wary, buzzwax, proimos (2), edwardlangley, duncanh1, sonofgroucho, phxdailyphotolady, antmoose, jetheriot, isa lias, kengz, joseag, erwin soo, jamiejohn, iamagenious, Toshio Kishiyama, Perrimoon, jeffd, gaspa, alecea, dgodin, & Mike Murphy

Music: Kevin MacLeod