The Vatican is by far the smallest State in the world, being just over a hundred acres in size. It plays at being a real State by issuing its own stamps, but it has no proper citizens (just transient employees of the Catholic Church), few public services (Italy provides it with police and water) and no real economy (though it does have a novelty ATM machine that issues instructions in Latin).
But that does not matter, because the toy Vatican State does not generally interact with other real States. Instead, an entity called the Holy See, which is the central government of the worldwide Catholic Church, masquerades as a State and deals with actual States from its base in the Vatican.
This distinction is very important. It is the openly religious Holy See, and not the theoretically civic Vatican State, that swaps diplomats with actual States, and that has Permanent Observer status at the United Nations and other bodies. But the Holy See does not have any citizens, or any defined territory, and all that it governs is the religious affairs of some citizens of actual civic States.
Preaching to Diplomats about God
In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI gave a ‘state of the world’ address to all foreign diplomats to the Holy See. He told them that ‘law can be an effective force for peace only if its foundations remain solidly anchored in natural law, given by the Creator,’ and that ‘God can never be excluded from the horizon of man or of history.’
In a particularly patronizing passage, he added that ‘my thoughts today go especially to the nations that have yet to establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See: they too have a place in the Pope’s heart.’ But he could be forgiven for sounding smug: compared to the 176 States that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, there are only seventeen that have not (nine of which are Muslim, and four communist).
Vatican Issues its own Stamps
How did this happen? How did the worldwide leadership of one religion come to be accepted as not only a civic State, but an influential one, while it is preaching to diplomats about God?
Well, in 1929, when Mussolini’s Italy recognised it as a State, the Vatican started issuing its own stamps. Because of this, in 1951, it got to attend UN meetings through its membership of the Universal Postal Union.
In 1957, the Vatican delegates persuaded the UN to refer to them as ‘the Holy See’. There was no vote on this, just an exchange of letters with the Secretary General. With this political sleight-of-hand, the Catholic Church could now officially act as a State.
Vatican Gets Status at United Nations
In 1964, the UN gave the Holy See permanent observer status, allowing the Catholic Church to attend and vote at UN conferences.
Pope Paul VI quickly set the tone when he colourfully told the next General Assembly that the UN must ‘not favour an artificial control of birth, which would be irrational, in order to diminish the number of guests at the banquet of life.’
Since then, because the UN takes most decisions by consensus, the Holy See has been able to frustrate negotiations on population, contraception, reproductive health care and women’s rights.
Vatican Status Upgraded at United Nations
In 1999, a campaign called ‘See Change’ tried to get the UN to treat the Catholic Church in the same way as it treats other religions – by allowing it to make submissions as an ordinary nongovernmental organisation. A reasonable suggestion, you would think.
Instead, in 2004, the UN upgraded the Holy See to having all of the rights of a full member State except voting at the General Assembly, which they didn’t want to do.
And so today, because the toy Vatican State can issue stamps, the Catholic Church is the only religion in the world that can attend and vote at UN conferences and co-sponsor drafts of UN resolutions and decisions.
I am of course exaggerating for effect here. The Vatican did not get to attend UN meetings solely because they could issue their own stamps. It was also because they ran their own radio station.