What is the Difference Between the Vatican City and the Holy See?

By Joyce Chepkemoi on August 1 2017 in Politics

An aerial view of Vatican City.

When one mentions the Holy See, most people think of Vatican City and mistakenly use the terms interchangeably. The confusion is made worse by the fact that the Pope is the head of both Vatican City and the Holy See. However, Vatican City and the Holy See are entirely distinct entities with a different nature, establishment, and functions. The Holy See is the central governing body of the entire Roman Catholic Church located within the Vatican City, an independent state located on the Vatican hill.

Where Is The Vatican City?

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world established by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 between the Kingdom of Italy and the Holy See. The country is located in Rome and occupies an area of 44 hectares, and houses a population of about 1000. Vatican City exists as an absolute ecclesiastical monarchy and is not recognized as a democracy, therefore not a member of most international organizations such as the United Nations. Before its declaration as an independent state, Vatican City served as the home to the Pope and the Catholic clergy, and the headquarters for the Papal States. Vatican City is the home to the largest church, the St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pope is the overall authority within Vatican City. The government is divided into the executive, judiciary and legislature arms. Pope Francis is the current head of state in Vatican City and the Bishop of Rome. Vatican citizens are mainly those working for the Holy See whose citizenship may be revoked by the pope at any time or when they cease working for the Holy See. Those who lose Vatican citizenship automatically become Italian citizens. The Holy See can only issue diplomatic passports since the Vatican is not a territorial sovereign.

What Is The The Holy See?

The Holy See (Sancta Sedes) is an independent sovereign entity and the top spiritual governing body. The Bishop of Rome rules through the Roman Curia. The Holy See or the apostolic see is the top diocese and central government of the Roman Catholic Church with universal authority. The International bodies recognize the Holy See as a sovereign body, capable of diplomatic relations with other countries and have the permanent observer status in meetings of the United Nations. Unlike Vatican City which became a state in 1929, the Holy See came into existence during the early church days and is an eternal establishment which is not dissolved upon the death of the Pope. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome and the successor of Peter, the apostle, therefore, the Vicar of Christ on earth. The Holy See is, therefore, the chair of the Bishop of Rome.

Before the Lateran Treaty, the Holy See played both secular and spiritual leadership. However, the unification of Italy and the conquest of Papal States made the Pope a prisoner within the Vatican between 1846 and 1929 until Pope Pius IX signed the Lateran treaty and gave up secular leadership to focus on spiritual matters. The Holy See now without territorial powers and features of a state such as permanent citizenship is recognized as a legal entity in international law with the capacity to enter into agreements and engage in diplomatic relations with other countries, a status reaffirmed by the Lateran Treaty.

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