Closure highlights anomaly of Vatican’s dual claim

The Government’s decision to shut down its embassy to the Holy See is political not religious, writes TP O’Mahony

Benedict XVI delivers an Easter address at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, which occupies 108 acres in the heart of Rome. Picture: AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano

A GOOD deal of nonsense has been written about the Government’s decision to close the Irish embassy to the Holy See — much of it based on an unwillingness to distinguish between a global church and a claim by the headquarters of this Church (the Vatican) to be a sovereign state.

The Catholic Church has a spiritual leader called the Pope but, invoking its “right” to be recognised as a sovereign state, a simultaneous claim is made by the Vatican to a separate title for Benedict XVI — that he must also be recognised as a head of state.

It is as a head of state that the Pope appoints ambassadors (called nuncios) to secular states, expecting in return these governments to reciprocate by appointing ambassadors to the Holy See and housing them in separate embassies in Rome, separate that is from embassies to Italy.

The decision of a sovereign state to withdraw an ambassador or close an embassy to the Holy See is not, in any sense, a repudiation of the Pope’s position, status or authority as a spiritual leader. It’s not a decision related to religion at all — it is a purely political decision, occurring within the context of relations between two states, not between a state and a Church.

Sweden did this recently when it took a decision to close its embassy in Dublin. It did so for its own internal reasons and as part of a reorganisation of its diplomatic missions, but nobody suggested for a moment that this was somehow a rebuke to the Government.

The distinction between a Church and a state is crucial, yet many of the critics of the decision by Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamonn Gilmore either fail to see it or refuse to make it. The idea that loyal, practising Catholics in Ireland or elsewhere might see it, or be expected to see it, as some kind of a rebuke to Benedict XVI as spiritual leader is both ill-founded and sad.

The problem — and it is a problem dating from 1929 — is that the Vatican wants to have it both ways. It wants — unlike every other Church or religious organisation in the world — to be treated both as a Church and a state. Concomitant with this, it claims that the Pope has the “right” to wear two hats: (a) as spiritual leader, and (b) as head of state.

Unfortunately, secular governments have for far too long gone along with this. The reality is that the Vatican is a pseudo-state, but the fiction that it is otherwise is propped up and maintained by the willingness of governments to play along.

What is the basis of the Vatican’s claim to statehood? And is it really a state? The UN doesn’t think so. Geoffrey Robertson in his book The Case of the Pope is surely right when he says: “The papal claim that the Holy See became a state once more in 1929 because it then acquired the Vatican City as a ‘territory’ is really a fudge.”

The reference to 1929 is a reference to the Lateran Treaty negotiated between Pope Pius XI and the government of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.

It brought protracted talks to an end, and it suited the Italian dictator — in strengthening his legitimacy in the eyes of Italian Catholics — to “grant” statehood to the Vatican.

The deal ended the frostiness that had existed since the annexation of the Papal States in 1870, following the occupation of Rome. The treaty established Vatican City as an independent state, but that was just in the eyes of the Italian government only. This was a purely internal arrangement, yet the Vatican continues to insist that Mussolini’s “gift” carries international legitimacy.

The Vatican — which calls itself Vatican City State — occupies 108 acres in the heart of Rome. This piece of territory is dominated by St Peter’s Basilica and piazza, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums.

Clinging to the status of a pseudo-state, and all the imperial trappings that go with it in the 21st century, may serve the interests of the Church of Rome, as presently constituted and governed, but it ill-serves the Church of Jesus Christ. Far from being an act of “folly”, the decision by the Irish Government should serve to high- light the anomalies and inevitable compromises flowing from the dual claim by the Vatican to be treated both as a church and a state.

As for the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin next year, it is a matter for the Irish bishops — not the Irish Government — to invite the Pope. If he were to come in that context, it would be as a pastor making a pastoral visit to Irish Catholics, not as a head of state. The Government should stand firm, and not turn this into a state visit. That would only serve to compound an anomaly that has been around for far too long and in the maintenance of which too many secular governments have been complicit.

The real, damaging consequence of all of this is that the Catholic Church’s primary function to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus has been too often compromised in too many parts of the world by dodgy alliances between the Vatican and the rich and the powerful, as well as corrupt and oppressive regimes. The example of Mussolini is just one shameful facet of this.

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