The Atypical International Status of the Holy See

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ABSTRACT

The Holy See, as personified by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, has acquired significant international status over the centuries. In modern times it has not always been clear whether this status arises from the Holy See's status as head of the Church or as ruler of the tiny State of Vatican City. Some view the Holy See's unique international status as an exception to the general rule that only states participate in international affairs. The Holy See has acquired such recognition and authority primarily because of its long-standing involvement in world affairs over the last thousand years. Others disagree, however, and particularly object to the Holy See's status as Permanent Observer at the United Nations. They argue that the Holy See acts solely as a religious authority in the United Nations, a body where membership is supposed to be limited to independent states.

This Note discusses the possibility that another religion could form a new, independent, international state following the model of the Holy See and the Vatican City, thereby seeking to establish equivalent rights and authority in world affairs. The centuries-old influence of the Holy See in world affairs is an essential aspect of its unique status and continued authority. This Note first explores the historical background and current status of the Holy See, the State of Vatican City, and the Roman Catholic Church. The Montevideo Convention's definition of a "state" in international affairs is examined and applied to the Vatican City. Next, the considerations recently used by the international community when recognizing a new state are explored. The Note concludes that while the Vatican City is certainly an exception to the traditional requirements for statehood, no other religion could attempt to use the Holy See as a model for successfully gaining acceptance in international affairs.

I. INTRODUCTION

The international status of the Holy See(1) has been continually defended and attacked for centuries. The Holy See, as personified by the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, is thought by many to have international authority either as the head of the Church or as ruler of the State of Vatican City. Numerous authors have argued that the Holy See's special status in international relations is either appropriate or improper.(2) While theoretical disputes continue as to the requirements for international personality and the definition of a "state" in international law, it is generally accepted that the Holy See does have, if atypical, a status in international relations.(3) Thus, it is clear that the Holy See will continue to play a role in international relations.

Currently, the Holy See is considered to be the head of an independent state, the Vatican City, and as such enjoys Permanent Observer Status at the United Nations.(4) This Note considers the possibility that another religion could form a new independent, international state, and thus seek to establish equivalent rights and authority in world affairs by following the paradigm established by the Holy See and Vatican City. The centuries-old influence of the Holy See in world affairs is an essential characteristic of its continued authority and unique status. No other religion possesses this characteristic, and any attempt by another religion to establish a similar state would not find the international acceptance and authority enjoyed by the Holy See.

Part II of this Note explores the historical background and current international status of the Holy See, the Vatican City, and the Roman Catholic Church. Part III looks at the Montevideo Convention's definition of a "state" in international relations and applies it to the Vatican City. Part IV discusses the requirements that the international community has recently considered essential for recognizing an entity as a state. This Note concludes that while the Vatican City is certainly an exception to the traditional requirements for statehood, no other religion could attempt to use the Vatican City as a model for gaining acceptance in international affairs. …