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The Vatican’s triple crown: church, government and state

The Vatican is inserted into the international community because it is a state; once there, it behaves like a church.[1]  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”.


How hat tricks led to national status
The post office and radio station gave the Vatican State
membership in two international organisations. This, in turn,
allowed the Holy See (the
government of both this plot
of land and the Church), to get
permanent observerstatus
at the United Nations in 1964. This gave the Vatican an
unbroken presence there and let it speak and vote at most
UN conferences
 all of these invaluable lobbying tools.


The Vatican switches identities according to convenience

 —»  “The Vatican State has set up its structures on our territory”, announced an indignant Russian newscaster. But he was quickly informed that this was not at all the case — heavens, no — the Vatican was acting, not as a state, but as “a religious centre”. [2]

 «—  Yet when the Orthodox clergy grumbled about Greece sponsoring the visit of a religious rival, their government was able to retort that — heavens, no — the Pope was acting not as a religious leader, but as a head of state. [3]

 —»  However, in 2005 Archbishop Lajolo, the Vatican Foreign Minister, told Del Ponte, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, that he was powerless to help locate a war criminal believed to be hiding in a monastery, because the Vatican was not a state. [4]

 «—  But, naturally, that did not stop the Pope claiming immunity from prosecution as a head of state. [5]

The Vatican — or Holy See, as it is officially known — performs this identity switch on a regular basis: 

In recent years the Holy See has, when convenient, both asserted and renounced its statehood. Recently, and nearly simultaneously, the Holy See claimed statehood to ask for diplomatic immunity from sex abuse cases in the United States while denying statehood to refuse cooperation with the International Criminal Court. Often, when denying its state status, the Holy See instead claims to be a religious institution, accompanied by demands that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution protect the actions of the church after claims that members of the hierarchy mismanaged allegations of sexual abuse. [6]

The Vatican has also falsely claimed that the Vatican Bank is not part of the Vatican State and therefore does not fall under European Union anti money laundering rules.

Three separate legal entities

In fact, the Vatican actually has, not two, but three persona, and all are separate legal entities.

The Pontiff’s “triple crown” can serve to remind us of his role as primate of the Church, as CEO of its government and as ruler of a pocket-sized principality. That is to say, he presides over three distinct entities:

♦  The Roman Catholic Church is an international organisation claiming to provide exclusive access to — or exemption from - certain destinations in the hereafter.

♦  The Holy See is an absolute monarchy, “by divine right” [7] whose ruler is appointed by God. [8] The Holy See is the government of both the Roman Catholic Church and of the Vatican State.

♦  The Vatican State, (officially “State of the Vatican City”), a country of less than half a square kilometre (the smallest in the world) with less than 600 citizens, most of them clergy or Swiss Guards.

The lesson of 1870: a state can end, but its government can live on in exile

We can begin this tale of multiple identities with the unification of Italy in 1870. That was when the Papal States were overrun by Italian troops and the Pope lost his kingdom in Central Italy. Early in the next century, however, with the help of Pope Pius XI, Mussolini came to power. In 1929 the Italian government made the Lateran Treaty with the Church government, the Holy See, which gave it back enough land to create the smallest country in the world, the Vatican State.

 The Vatican once more had a plot of land to call its own. It had also learned a valuable lesson: that territory may be confiscated, but a government can survive, even in exile. The Vatican's government is the Holy See which governs both the Vatican State and of a church which influences the minds of more than a billion people. This disembodied “government” offers a more secure base than real estate alone. In fact, probably as a response to objections to the Vatican being treated as a country, they neatly define themselves as eternal.

Canon 113.1 makes clear that “the Catholic Church and the Apostolic See have the nature of a moral person by divine law itself”. “That means that the Holy See, [...] will endure, even if it were to be reduced to its simplest expression in the person of the Pope and even to the end of time.” [9] In other words, unlike the Vatican State, the Catholic Church and the Holy See are eternal. Yet despite the claims of timelessness, was only in 1957 that the Vatican hit upon the idea of making the Holy See its persona on the international stage. [10]

This non-territorial “government”, the Holy See, is careful to hold the Vatican State at arm’s length as a “vassal” territory, rather than ruling it directly. [11] The Vatican is anxious to keep its international presence and privileges from depending on a plot of land defended by a hundred and ten men armed with pikes. (A former guardsman says that their weaponry now includes tear gas and pepper spray to protect the Holy Father from “religious fanatics”. [12])

♦  How the Lateran Treaty made the Catholic Church into a state
♦  Canon Law in action: Was the Papal State a “perfect society”?

The world's smallest microstate

  From its tiny plot of land the Holy See runs its diplomatic service, with “apostolic nuncios” serving as accredited ambassadors to countries round the globe. However, this microstate isn’t even big enough to hold the offices of the ambassadors acredited to the Holy See. The foreign embassies must be located in Rome outside the borders of the Vatican State. In fact, the Italian Embassy to the Vatican sits on Italian territory.

The Vatican State is also too small to accommodate the patriarchal basilicas in Rome, let alone the pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, and therefore it has arranged for extra-territorial privileges (similar to those enjoyed by foreign embassies in a host country [13]) at 28 places in Italy. 

Even so, the tiny Vatican State has proved invaluable as a springboard into international diplomacy. If it weren’t for the Vatican State, the Holy See’s diplomacy could hardly be expected to function in practical terms.

State visit or pilgrimmage, according to convenience

The pope's official titles reflect both his religious and territorial identities. On the one hand, he is the Vicar of Christ and Successor of the Prince of the Apostles (Peter), etc., and on the other, Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City. And when he goes abroad he continues to juggle his two identities.

Paul VI, “the Pilgrim Pope”, became the first pontiff to visit five continents, while John Paul II managed to visit 130 countries. Here, as usual, the different roles are adroitly combined. As “pilgrimages” these trips are liturgical spectacles – and as “state visits” they get paid for by the host country.

The advantages sovereign state status confers, including banking unsupervised by any banking authority, the ability to issue passports, the granting of diplomatic immunity and membership of international organisations at the state level, should not be underestimated. [14]

The secret costs of papal visits 
Papal trips: both “pastoral visits” and “state visits”

Escaping accountability by using the Vatican State to redefine treaty obligations, claim diplomatic immunity and refuse extradition

The Vatican also uses statehood to get it off the hook morally and legally for clerical child abuse.

 Redefining treaty obligations

The Vatican has continued to use its statehood to try to keep from having to pay damages to children abused by its own priests. When challenged by the UN about its obligation to protect children and oppose torture — after all, it has signed UN treaties to this effect  it came up with an amazing excuse. It claimed that it signed treaties “exclusively in the name of and on the part of Vatican City State.” [15]

In 2013 it told the United Nations committee on the Convention Against Torture that it was morally and legally responsible only for abuse perpetrated within the tiny enclave of the Vatican City State. After all, it pointed out, the Holy See had signed the Convention, not as the government of the Catholic Church, but only in its other role as the government of the Vatican State. [16]

In the Vatican shell game, whichever shell you look under, the responsibility isn't there. (For more on this, scroll down to the section, “Finally Vatican admits its signature only applies to its tiny enclave”.)

And when the UN Committee didn't buy this, the Vatican gave them a lecture, about how the “religious obedience” required of clerics by canons 331 and 590 did not mean that the Holy See had control over what they did (#7). [17] (Canon 331 says that the pope "possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely" and Canon 590 says that priests are "bound to obey the Supreme Pontiff as their highest superior by reason of the sacred bond of obedience".) But, apparently none of this can be used as evidence of anything since, as the Vatican told the committee, it is the only one allowed to interpret Canon Law (#8). [18] 

— Claiming diplomatic immunity

In 2005 the Vatican asked the American Government to put an end to lawsuits against Catholic churches there. It reminded the Americans that the Holy See was a “sovereign entity” and suggested that they “recall the immunity for its acts that international law anticipates.” [19] And, indeed, a few months later “the U.S. Justice Department […] told a Texas court that a lawsuit accusing Pope Benedict XVI of conspiring to cover up the sexual molestation of three boys by a seminarian should be dismissed because the pontiff enjoys immunity as head of state of the Holy See.” [20]

 Then in 2010 the US Supreme Court refused to review whether the Vatican is a sovereign state, thereby refusing to question the broad legal immunity from prosecution over the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the United States. [21] This meant that suits against the Vatican in the US could only be pursued under an exception to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which involves employees acting within the scope of their employment. [22]

However, in 2012 a US court blocked this way to breach the immunity of the Vatican. An Oregon federal court ruled that there wasn't "a true employment relationship" between a clerical child molester and the Holy See. [23] 

—  Refusing extradition

That same year the Vatican also hid behind its statehood to avoid the prosecution of a senior papal diplomat, Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski. It secretly whisked the papal nuncio out of the Dominican Republic to keep him from having to answer accusations of child abuse. [24] Then, when he was safely on its territory, it invoked his diplomatic immunity as an excuse not to hand him back. The following year, to distance his alleged crimes from the Church, he was defrocked and his diplomatic immunity ceased, but the Vatican's statehood still protected him. The Vatican continued to refuse to let him face justice by saying that it didn't extradite Vatican citizens. [25]

According to the Vatican's 2011 citizenship law, the ex-cleric is safe, providing he remains in the Vatican State. Of course, now his citizenship can no longer rest on his "office or service". However, just as canon law allows the pope to do anything he wants, the laws of the Vatican State let him specially grant citizenship to a defrocked paedophile. [26] So long as the pope lets Mr. Wesolowski keep his Vatican citizenship and he stays within Vatican territory, he should remain safe from prosecution by any other country.

It has even been speculated that this is why Benedict XVI has also retired in this legally secure enclave. [27] Does this give a modern meaning to “Prisoner of the Vatican”?

Vatican denies obligation to uphold children's rights in the Church
How the Vatican evades human rights obligations through Canon Law, diplomatic immunity and other dodges

Concordats “treaties” that can't be broken without Vatican permission

In addition to papal visits and immunity for clerical criminals, the Vatican diplomatic apparatus has another important function. It allows the negotiation of “treaties”, called “concordats”. These agreements with other sovereign states in order to secure privileges for the Church. Because they are made with the Holy See, rather than with the local Catholic archbishop, these concordats can generally override national laws. This, in turn, means that privileges, once granted to the Church, are removed from democratic control – forever. [28]

What are Concordats? 
Twenty tricks to get a concordat through 

Manoeuvring to join the United Nations

The Vatican is not content to run a church which influences the minds of more than a billion people. It wants global influence through international bodies. Perhaps the Vatican's greatest benefit from statehood is the way this has given it to infiltrate the United Nations. To accomplish this, it has skilfully exploited its multiple identities for almost a century until finally the goal of full membership seems almost within its grasp.

In 1929, the very year it was founded, the Vatican State joined the Universal Postal Union, and later on, the International Telecommunications Union, as well. [29] Membership in these international bodies then allowed the Holy See in 1957 to get “observer” privileges at the United Nations (as opposed to the mere “consultative status” accorded to most non-governmental organizations – including other religions). [30]

In 1964 it managed to have these privileges upgraded, when the Holy See acquired “permanent observer” status at the UN. This permitted an unbroken presence at the UN and access to all UN forums. Both of these are invaluable for lobbying at important UN events such as the Conference on Population and Development. [31] This conference was strategic for the Vatican, since developing nations rely heavily on the UN to help out with social services. As a result, people living in these countries, regardless of their religious affiliation, are increasingly subject to Catholic agencies which enforce Church dogma – and these policies condemn millions to unwanted pregnancies and AIDS. [32]

In 2003 the Vatican tried to take the final step to reach its goal. It let it be known that it would be open to becoming a full member of the UN. [33] The attempt proved premature and, threatened with an embarrassing challenge to its statehood, the Vatican backed off and the next year accepted a more modest upgrade, to let it take part in General Assembly debates. Among the  additional rights given to the Holy See were the power to co-sponsor draft resolutions, to circulate proposals and position papers as official documents, to make points of order, and to exercise the right of reply. [34] The Holy See's “enhanced observer status” has been likened to a “full member state, just without the vote.”

As the Vatican’s Permanent Observer at the UN remarked serenely, “We have no vote because this is our choice.” [35] At the same time he noted pointedly that this latest move “does not close any path for the future.” [35] In fact, the satisfaction expressed by the Vatican when the Palestinian Authority was also given observer status at the United Nations as a “non-member state”, suggests that the Church may hope to use the Palestinians as a wedge and further improve its own status in tandem with the PLO. [37]

Pushing its reproductive policies on women worldwide

Meanwhile, the lack of a vote has not prevented the Vatican from taking an active part in meetings of UN groups such as the Commission on the Status of Women. This forum is meant to promote gender equality, which Vatican uses its influence to oppose. There it bolsters others in this aim. The Norwegian Minister for Equality noted that “The Vatican, conservative religious forces within the United States and Europe, Catholic and Muslim countries are joining forces to stop women from gaining sexual rights.” [38] The Holy See does not have the right to vote, but its permanent observer status enables it to lobby. It is claimed that “one tactic of the Holy See in the past has been to personally call ministers to persuade them to take a particular stance at the CSW talks, even if it flies in the face of a country's national polices”. [39]

 This strategy has paid off. In 2012 a group of conservative states managed to prevent a decision to put gays' and women's rights above the forces of "tradition". One wonders who organised this coalition.... [41]

The Vatican continues to try to use UN conferences to work its way by degrees into full membership. Angry demands to be included as full participants in conferences are meant to set precedents. [41] Already its participation in key UN conferences has allowed it to block some attempts to let the world's women plan their families. The triple-tiered Papal headgear is being used to engineer a major human tragedy.


See also Preserving Power and Privilege: The Vatican’s Agenda in the European Union. This 2003 report by Catholics for Choice reveals the goals and methods of a well-funded and orchestrated campaign by the Vatican and conservative Catholic allies to undermine the European Union’s support of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

1. The Tablet, (British Catholic weekly newspaper), 17 September 1994, quoted in Peter Hebblethwaite, “Vatican's vaunted diplomacy a no-show; moral absolutes trip pope's negotiators at U.N. meeting in Cairo”, National Catholic Reporter, 1994-10-07.

2. “Russia: Varied State Response to Orthodox-Catholic Rift”, Keston News Service, 2002-02-22.

3. “God’s ambassadors”, The Economist, 2007-07-19. The occasion was the 2001 trip of John Paul II.

4. Carla Del Ponte, Madame Prosecutor, 2008, p. 268.

5. Donald Scarinci, “Pope’s Retirement Raises Immunity Questions”, Politicker NJ, 2013-03-13

6. Jon O’Brien, “Catholics for Choice Statement on the 80th Anniversary of the Lateran Treaty”,  2009-02-10. Also in a Polish translation:,6357/

7. Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith quoted in “Pope Francis’ doctrine chief: Bishops conference presidents are not ‘vice-popes’”, Life Site News, 2013-12-30. 

8. Code of Canon Law, 1983, Can. 331.

9. Lecture by Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran on the theme “The presence of the Holy See in the international organizations”, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan, 2002-04-22.

10. Church or State? Catholics for Choice, 2013, Box 2: The “Roman Question”, p. 5. 

Oct. 16-19, 1957: Confusion regarding the interchangeable use of the terms Holy See and Vatican City prompted an exchange of notes between the Holy See and the secretary-general of the UN. This resulted in an agreement that relations should henceforth be understood as being between the United Nations and the Holy See. (At this time the Holy See was not a permanent observer.)

11. “Church or State? The Holy See at the United Nations”, Special Report, Center for Reproductive Law & Policy, July 1994.

12. Karl-Heinz Früh quoted by John Tagliabue, “Swiss Guard marks 500 years as popes' potted plants”, New York Times, 2005-11-18.

13. In re Moriggi, Italy, Court of Cassation, Case No. 172, 1939-03-22.
In 1939 one Mr. Moriggi was convicted in an Italian court for stealing from the Lateran Museum, whereupon he argued that Italy couldn't punish him, as the Museum was an extraterritorial part of the Vatican State. The court rejected this and, in so doing, explained the legal nature of the Vatican's extraterritorial holdings in Italy.

[These are] the property of the Holy See (Article 13 of the Treaty of 1929 between the Holy See and Italy), but [form] part of the territory of the Italian State (Article 15). [They enjoy] only such immunities as are granted by international law to the official residences of the diplomatic agents of foreign States. The properties used as residences of such agents are territory of the State in which they are situated and crimes committed therein must be regarded as crimes committed in the territory of that State. 

14. David Ranan, Double Cross: The code of the Catholic Church, London, 2006, pp. 24-25.

15. “Holy See testimony on torture a UN treaty obligation, spokesman notes”, CNA Daily News, 2014=04-16.

16. “Holy See's Presentation of Report to UN Committee on the Convention Against Torture”, Zenit, 2014-05-05

“...the Interpretative Declaration insists that ‘The Holy See, in becoming a party to the Convention on behalf of the Vatican City State...’”

This claim cannot be verified because the online version of this is abbreviated. It can be found at

See also: “Vatican denies obligation to uphold children's rights in the Church”, Concordat Watch.

17.  Holy See's Comments to Observations From UN Committee on Rights of the Child
Zenit, 2014-09-26 

18. Holy See's Comments to Observations From UN Committee on Rights of the Child
Zenit, 2014-09-26 

19. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls quoted by John L. Allen Jr, “Vatican asks Condoleezza Rice to help stop a sex abuse lawsuit”, National Catholic Reporter, 2005-03-03.

20. “Feds say pope immune from sex-abuse lawsuit”, Associated Press, 2005-09-21.

21. “Vatican US child sex abuse cases 'falling apart' ”, Agence France Presse, 2010-08-10.

22. “Ruling on priest abuse called 'breakthrough'”, Star Tribune (Minneapolis), 2010-06-28 

23. “Catholic Church Not Employer of Pedophile Priests, US Judge Rules”, Christian Post, 2012-08-22

24. Betty Clermont, “Pope Francis Concealed His Actions Against Two Prelates. Now Both 'Whereabouts are Unknown'.” Daily Kos, 2013-09-29

25. “Vatican to Polish prosecutor: we don't extradite”, AP, 2014-01-11

26. Dante Figueroa, “The Current Legislation on Citizenship in the Vatican City State”, Law Library of Congress blog, 2012-07-18

27. Donald Scarinci, “Pope’s Retirement Raises Immunity Questions”, Politicker NJ, 2013-03-13

28. “What are Concordats?” Concordat Watch.

29. “The History of Stamps Part of a Broader Museum of Human Communications”, Vatican State.

30. David Nolan, “The Catholic Church at the United Nations: Church or State?” 2001-02-21.

31. See three articles by Jennifer Butler, who got an inside view through her work for the Presbyterian Church USA’s UN Office:

32. “Church or State? The Holy See at the United Nations”, Special Report, Center for Reproductive Law & Policy, July 1994.

33. “Vatican Is Open to Becoming a Full Member of U.N.”, Zenit, 2003-09-21.

34. “The Holy See Commemorated a Trio of Anniversaries in 2014”, Catholic World Report, 2014-12-30

35. Serra Sippel, “UNfulfilled: The Holy See Backs off From Its Claim for Full Membership of the UN, Settling for the Rights Already Held by Palestine”, Conscience, Winter 2004-05.

36. “Vatican’s Role at UN Expanded”, Catholic Family and Human Institute, 2004-07-17.

37. “The Holy See welcomes the decision of the UN by which Palestine has become an Observer State (full text)”, Vatican Radio, 2012-11-30.

38. “Vatican and Iran fight UN’s efforts to stop violence against women”, Agence France-Presse, 2013-03-04.

39. Liz Ford, “The religious right are wrong: all women have the right to choose”, Guardian, 2013-03-11. 

40. “UN women's commission rejects expansion of 'reproductive rights'”, Catholic News Agency, 012-04-03.

41. For a rare description of Vatican manoeuvring see “Day Two: Palestinian Issue Continues to Vex Arms Trade Treaty Conference”, Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D., Heritage Foundation blog, 2012-07-05.  And when the Vatican won only a partial victory - participation in the discussion, but not as a recognised member - it was claimed that the Vatican had been "sidelined": “Vatican, sidelined at UN conference, backs arms-trade treaty”, Catholic World News, 2012-07-27.


Vatican shell trick to avoid financial scrutiny

The Vatican Financial Authority falsely claimed the Vatican Bank was not part of Vatican City therefore did not fall under European Union anti money laundering rules.

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