The Holy See Commemorated a Trio of Anniversaries in 2014

This past year witnessed the 85th anniversary of the Lateran Pacts, the 50th anniversary of the Holy See presence at the UN, and the 30th anniversary of the restoration of full diplomatic recognition by the US

In 2014, the Holy See observed three major historical milestones, all of which were virtually ignored in the global press. This past year marked the 85th anniversary of the Lateran Pacts establishing sovereignty for Vatican City State, the 50th anniversary of the Holy See presence as Permanent Observer at the United Nations and the 30th anniversary of the restoration of full diplomatic recognition by the United States.

These key historical events are very important in the life of the Catholic Church as they helped to spread the influence of the Vatican as a force for morality and reason while maintaining neutrality in political affairs. The three milestones have helped provide the Church with complete and universally recognized sovereignty, to accompany her unique blend of temporal and spiritual power.

The historical setting

On February 11, 1929, Vatican City State became a full sovereign state under Pope Pius XI as his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, signed the Lateran Pacts. It put an end to the “Roman Question” that arose with the annexation of the Papal States in 1861 at the time of Italian unification and the subsequent fall of Rome in 1870.

The three Pacts took their name from the Lateran Palace where they were signed. They included a political treaty with Italy recognizing the sovereignty of the Vatican, a Concordat to regulate religion and the Church in Italy, and a financial convention to settle financial claims stemming from the loss of temporal power in 1870.

Previously, relations between the Church and Italy were covered by the “Law of Guarantees” approved by the Italian Parliament on May 13, 1871, but not recognized by any of the Popes. Under the new treaties, the Vatican was recognized as an independent territory, taking its place in the global roster of nations. Thus the Vatican gained sovereignty over a territory of 109 acres (44 hectares).

The Pope acquired complete jurisdiction over St. Peter’s Basilica and Square, the Vatican Gardens, the palace at Castel Gandolfo and assorted properties scattered about Rome that were given “extraterritoriality” status. Vatican City State is governed as though it were a monarchy with the Pope as Head of State. The pontiff holds executive, legislative and judicial powers.

Vatican City has its own flag, issues its own euro coins and stamps (both prized by collectors), owns radio and TV stations, and participates in various international organizations such as the Universal Postal Union (UPO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Vatican City State is the independent, territorial base for the Holy See. An important distinction is in order: Vatican City State refers to the physical territory of the sovereign while the Holy See is the entity that conducts diplomatic affairs, including the signing of treaties. Its ambassadors are called Papal or Apostolic Nuncios. Interestingly, two popes of recent memory previously served as Papal Nuncios: Pope Pius XII and Pope St. John XXIII.

Diplomats who represent the Holy See around the world are trained at the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, located in Piazza della Minerva in Rome, which was founded under a slightly different name in 1701 to prepare priests for foreign postings. Today the course of study includes diplomatic history, languages, and writing. Nunciatures regularly send reports covering relevant developments to Rome from their diplomatic posts. Presently the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 179 countries and various international organizations.

From the Tiber to the East River…

The United Nations Organization was founded in 1945 (and thus will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2015) with membership consisting of former World War II allies. Over the years it began to extend membership to other countries and today consists of 193 member states. The Holy See gained recognition and admittance as a Permanent Observer as of April 6, 1964, a full half century ago. There have been six Papal Nuncios assigned to the United Nations in New York over the past five decades. The first was Msgr. Alberto Giovannetti who served for nine years. The current Papal Nuncio is Archbishop Bernardito Auza, of the Philippines, who assumed his post in September 2014.

The Holy See also has a diplomatic presence at the United Nations in Geneva, where the UN Human Rights Council and various other UN bodies are located. It also has Permanent Observer status with UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris and the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization) in Rome, among others.

On April 6, 2004, the United Nations General Assembly adopted three resolutions by consensus which enhanced the status of the Holy See. The resolution gave the Holy See additional rights such as 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. Then Papal Nuncio Archbishop Celestino Migliore commented that the Holy See chose not to apply for member state status but could do so in the future. As a non-member state the Holy See has no right to vote.

For the past half century the Holy See has built a legacy at the United Nations that embodies a voice for human dignity, reason, freedom, and consistency in the face of controversial issues, especially on social and moral matters. UN meetings are seemingly endless. The Papal Nuncio delivered 24 statements in the three months since the opening of the current session of the General Assembly in mid-September.

The Holy See’s is an unwavering voice for the voiceless and defenseless, not only for the poorest of the poor but also for the unborn. There are strong forces, both in the number of countries and the presence of vocal non-governmental organizations (NGOs), that are assiduously working to not only legalize abortion worldwide but to have it declared a “human right!” These nefarious forces willingly would terminate any pregnancy they consider unplanned, unwanted or inconvenient.

Indeed, the Holy See is among the few defenders of life from conception to natural death, often opposed by certain Northern European states—and the current US administration—who work hand-in-glove with well-financed pro-abortion civil society organizations employing the terminology of “reproductive rights.” The Holy See’s clear and consistent positions convey the message that “thou shalt not kill” is changeless and applies to human life at all stages. In addition, it reinforces efforts towards world peace as the Holy See also opposes war and the death penalty.

By choice the Holy See prefers Permanent Observer status at the United Nations rather than full membership in order to maintain “absolute neutrality” on political matters. Paradoxically, while the Holy See as a non-member cannot vote, by virtue of abstention and neutrality, its presence and power is elevated. As a former US ambassador to the Holy See stated: “The Holy See’s bias is always for neutrality, morality and truth.” [1]

Next year will mark another milestone in Vatican-UN relations. In 1965, only a year after diplomatic relations were established, Pope Paul VI paid a visit to New York, a previously unheard of venture for a Pope, [2] and spoke at the United Nations General Assembly. Those of us who were around remember the TV news coverage of the normally staid Pope thundering in no uncertain terms: “No more war! War no more!” Yet, countless wars and other barbarities followed in the last half century.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s history-making speech, there is a possibility that Pope Francis will make an appearance next year. He has already planned to visit the United States to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September when the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly convenes.

… and on to the Potomac

Twenty years after diplomatic recognition at the United Nations, the United States re-established full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Formal diplomatic relations had been suspended and reduced to informal but ongoing relations since 1867 when Congress failed to secure funding for the ambassadorship to the Holy See.

On January 10, 1984, President Ronald Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II, who were like-minded souls, announced resumption of full diplomatic relations. By March 7 of the same year the US Congress approved and confirmed William Wilson as full ambassador to the Holy See. The current US ambassador to the Holy See is Kenneth Hackett who previously had spent many years as president of Catholic Relief Services. The Holy See is represented in Washington by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò who has been at his post since October 2011.

Some American administrations have valued the relationship with the Holy See more than others and have shown profound respect for the knowledge, wisdom and intelligence possessed by the Holy See’s global presence, moral authority and influence that goes beyond that of a mere political power.

The challenges ahead for the Holy See

Many of today’s issues present at the United Nations involve moral challenges such as freedom of religion and worship, human trafficking, child soldiers, the scourge of AIDS, violence against women especially in war zones (and often perpetrated by UN forces), family values, the ever increasing number of refugees, and, of course, peace. World peace should be at the very heart of the United Nations but every year there are more wars and violence displacing and impoverishing people, causing true humanitarian crises.

Perhaps the most significant challenge facing the Holy See at the United Nations is the ongoing process to formulate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2016-2030 that are to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire at the end of 2015. At the start of the millennium world leaders that gathered at the General Assembly in 2000 adopted the eight MDGs that were to eradicate poverty by the end of next year. While the MDGs applied to the lesser and least developed countries, the SDGs are to be universally applied.

A series of “Open Working Group” meetings took place over 2013-2014 to allow civil society to make contributions. The results yielded an unwieldy list of 17 goals and 169 targets compiled last July. After receiving this input, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently released his own “Synthesis Report” consisting of 47 pages of reworked components plus his own additions.

With this Report in hand, the intergovernmental process will commence in 2015. Member states will cobble the final, and hopefully shorter, list of SDGs, mindful of the input gathered from civil society. World leaders are expected to approve the final version at the convening of the next General Assembly in September.

This process is an opportunity, indeed an obligation, for certain member states to remove existing controversial language in the “reproductive rights” category that goes against deeply held religious beliefs and constitutional precepts of many countries. The Holy See has its work cut out as it endeavors to once again make the best of its “soft power” status.


[1] Francis Rooney, The Global Vatican: An inside look at the Catholic Church, world politics, and the extraordinary relationship between the United States and the Holy See, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013, p 209.

[2] Pope St. John Paul II made two visits to the General Assembly, in October 1979 and again in October 1995, while Pope Benedict XVI spoke in April 2008.

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About Vincenzina Santoro 8 Articles
Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.