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. First he failed to get William the Conqueror to swear fealty to him, then his legate got chased out for trying to assume rule over the country, but in 1107 the pope finally managed to get the Henry I to sign the world's first concordat. These agreements with the Vatican, which give it political and financial privileges, have now been concluded with dozens of countries, with more appearing every year.
These church-state accords, known under various names, can give the Catholic Church massive state subsidies and other privileges. They can also let Church employees be hounded about their private lives. Yet as “international treaties”, once ratified, concordats cannot be changed by parliaments. Most have been concluded with the Vatican, but now many are being made with the Order of Malta which functions as the Pope's "wholly-owned subsidiary".
“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. Vatican concordats often require Catholic canon law to be used in Church institutions and this includes social services that are run by the Church, but funded by the state. Numerous polls show that most Catholics do not agree with many of these Church rules. (And they would be shocked by the anti-Semitism of the pre-1917 version of Canon Law.)
Quotes from popes, prelates, lawyers and historians give a lively look at Vatican concordats from many different points of view.
The document used to justify the pope owning his own kingdom turns out to be a fake. But it was very useful. 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. Naturally, 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 with reciprocal obligations. It claimed that while the countries concerned were bound by concordats, the pope was not. 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 a state. Has this conviction really changed, or is this no longer proclaimed due to improved marketing?