For over 900 years concordats have been central to the Vatican's attempt to wrest power from the state. The pope made three bids to control England. After he failed to get William the Conqueror to swear fealty to him, and his legate got chased out for trying to assume rule over the country, in 1107 the pope finally managed to get the Henry I to sign the first concordat. These agreements with the Vatican, giving it political and financial privileges, have now been concluded with dozens of countries, with more appearing every year.
These church-state accords often give the Catholic Church massive state subsidies and other privileges. They can also permit Church employees to be hounded about their private lives. Yet as “international treaties”, concordats bypass the democratic process, making parliaments powerless to modify, let alone revoke them. They are traditionally concluded under various names with the Vatican, but can also be made with the Order of Malta.
“The Vatican is inserted into the international community because it is a state; once there, it behaves like a church.” By setting up three legal identities and then adroitly switching from one to another, the Vatican has obtained unprecedented legal rights and international influence. This brilliant video sums it up: “Vatican City explained”.
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta has concluded more than 70 concordats with countries worldwide. Called “cooperation agreements”, these treaties let it deliver state-funded social services in accordance with Catholic doctrine. This religious order is “sovereign” when it deals with nation states, but not when it deals with the Vatican. It is firmly controlled by the pope.
Concordats are no longer agreements between the pope and a Catholic king, as they were when they began. Now they are being extended to countries without a Catholic majority, or even a Christian majority.
The Vatican alliance with the US Evangelicals to outlaw contraception has worldwide repercussions. It solidifies domestic opposition to US contributions to health clinics in developing countries and the UN population Fund. It also helps cut off funding for contraception on a global scale. This alliance has now been extended to include the large Russian Orthodox Church and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Now the Vatican — doubtless with its eye on China — is making overtures to the Buddhists.
The Vatican makes concordats with rightwing governments, whether absolute monarchies or fascist dictatorships. However, it snubs equally authoritarian governments on the left. It only makes quiet working arrangements with communist countries, since their regimes compete with the Church ideologically, rather than complementing it.
Canon (or church) law is the Christian counterpart of Hindu law, (Jewish) halakha and (Muslim) sharia. Roman Catholic canon law often gets entrenched by Vatican concordats. When they legitimise Catholic canon law within Church institutions in a country, they enable it to exercise widespread influence through Church-run social services, even when these are overwhelmingly funded by the state. Numerous polls show that most Catholics do not agree with many of these Church rules.
Quotes from popes, prelates, lawyers and historians give a lively look at Vatican concordats from many different points of view.
This “most remarkable of forgeries for its practical effect on world-history” was used to justify the pope owning his own kingdom. In fact, this forged “Donation of Constantine” even let the pope claim to be the overlord of emperors and kings, the supreme ruler in former Western Roman Empire. The book that finally exposed the document as fraudulent was banned by the Vatican.
This internal Vatican memo dictated by Gregory VII sets his agenda for increasing papal power, and underlies his demand that William the Conqueror pay him fealty. The English king's refusal helped shift the power struggle from outright Vatican sovereignty of Christian nations to Vatican control over their bishops, (the “investiture controversy”), and led to the earliest concordats.
A century ago the Vatican denied that concordats were treaties and claimed that popes were not bound by them. It was said to be theologically impossible for the Church, the highest society of all, to be placed under an obligation by a lower one, such as the state. Has this conviction really changed, or is the U-turn due to improved marketing?
Authoritarianism concentrates power in one man or group. This pattern of subordination tends to replicate itself to create a hierarchy. Blind obedience comes to be seen as the necessary glue for keeping society together, and it is applauded by the mini-dictators throughout such a society. However, as recent research shows, a lack of power is deeply damaging to the individual.