The terms “Vatican state” and “Holy See” are often used interchangeably, but they are very different things.

According to international law and diplomatic custom, it is the Holy See and not the Vatican city-state that is the recognized “legal personality” of the worldwide pastoral ministry of the bishop of Rome as head of the Catholic Church. Therefore, the Holy See existed for centuries as a diplomatic entity before the creation of the Vatican city-state in 1929.

And it is the Holy See, not the Vatican city-state, which exchanges diplomatic representations with 179 countries and is also represented at many intergovernmental bodies, including the European Union and the United Nations.

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1 Comment

  1. The author of the article is correct but the use of “Vatican” is still valid as it follows along the lines of the nation state and what Anglo-Saxon thinkers interpret the state to be.

    From Britain and all governments that have accepted it as the Mother of Parliaments and its British understanding of what the State is comes the common concept of the state. That is for all anglicized states such as the USA the concept of state is agreed from the British perspective.

    The state is thus about Government, the crown or Executive and its bureaucratic structures such as the civil service, the police, judiciary, the church and even the military all of which support a pyramid cal government structure: the state.

    Yet that is not the European meaning of the word nor is it what many continental Europeans understand as the state. For example in France, the state is compared to a bouquet of wine and the state is more about natural order and a concept of justice rather than legality. Thus across Europe where governments have been more fluid and numerous often resulting in revolution the state is about a sense of order rather than governmental structure. Thus Hitler’s claim for example was a new order a third Reich a new society that was far more than a simple change of government and its structures.

    Therefore whilst diplomats respond to the Holy See the Pope was correct to remind the US that the Holy See is not just about the nation state. Nevertheless since the Vatican concordat the Vatican is a legal geographical entity and has legal sovereignty claims.
    The United Nations recognises that sovereign states are geographical and have legal rights within that national structure. This structure is changeable not just by map references but by some borders constantly moving such as in some parts of Africa where the border is marked by a pole that is moveable at will of local officials.

    So whilst the Church of Rome is about the Holy See and has moral authority, this is not about any nation state and relies rather on a cultural sense of world order or rightness. Yet it also has a legal geographical site called Vatican City which is the physical residence of The Pope as Head of State and to which ambassadors etc attend. They cannot talk to the Holy See because it does not have any geographical boundaries which means that the use of the word Vatican to describe all diplomatic shenanigans etc is valid and whilst the Vatican is not the Holy See it is a physical identity to a part of it.


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