St. Peter’s and Their 30 Pieces of Silver: Vows of Silence in Exchange for Statehood

A question has been on my mind for some time, which came to the fore after the resignation of Pope Benedict over the ever-growing global scandal of sexual abuse and coverup, concerning the diplomatic privileges the Vatican is afforded as a nation state: If the Vatican was granted sovereignty by the State of Italy, why, then, is the status not revocable? Surely, that which can be bestowed can be taken back just as easily.

St. Peter’s Square and Basilica, Vatican City

Mussolini’s government signed the Lateran Treaty with the Vatican in 1929, granting the latter sovereign statehood, in return for the Vatican’s cooperation in agreeing not to publicly criticize the fascists. In his 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, Professor David Ketzer of Brown University noted:

…[T]he Lateran Accords, the historic agreement that Pius Xi had struck with Italy’s dictator, Mussolini, ending decades of hostility between Italy and the Roman Catholic Church. With that agreement, the separation of church and state that had marked modern Italy from its founding sixty-eight years earlier came to an end. A new era began, the Church a willing partner of Mussolini’s Fascist government.

What does a negotiated restraint imply about the legitimacy of a Vatican so willing to turn a blind eye to fascist atrocities and abuses of power in return for statehood? When a vow silence was taken in return for self-serving autonomy, can the “prisoners of the Vatican” really be taken seriously as beacons of supposed moral authority when their acquiescence was so readily purchased? 

If Italy was able to grant the Vatican sovereignty, why not simply take it back? According to the website Concordat Watch, the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides that one party to an international treaty cannot unilaterally withdraw from that agreement, but requires consent from both sides. Obviously, the Vatican will never willingly give up the power and benefits their sovereign status gives them on the international stage; especially as it affords them diplomatic immunity from prosecution for criminal obstruction of justice.

Additionally, the Vatican uses its power as a state  to obstruct more than justice, it also uses its position— as they did at the 1994 (and ’84 & ‘74) United Nations Population Conference in Cairo — to derail progress:

The Vatican insists that all references to abortion and other language that might imply that it is acceptable as a method of family planning be removed from the plan of action. Because the United Nations conference operates by consensus, a minority objection to the disputed passage was enough of an obstacle to send the issue back to a committee….

Does the Vatican rule the world?” asked Egypt’s Population Minister….

How come this is the only religion with a permanent observer seat at the U.N.?” Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, asked today at a news conference. “How come we don’t finally stand up and say we’re not talking about abortion? We’re not talking about family planning. We’re talking about the role of women in church and state.”

Stephen Fry commented on this very subject during the October, 2009 Intelligence Squared debate, ‘Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?’

You are a nation state. And it is no accident that the UN Cairo population conference, when they were trying to do something about the world’s population spinning out of control, Vatican City, as a nation state represented at that conference, made a joint statement with the Islamic countries of the world, notably the most extreme Islamic countries of the world, led by Saudi Arabia, and it began ‘on behalf of the revealed religions of the world dot-dot-dot.’ And what it did was a essentially hobble and veto any possibility of women’s sexual freedom in the world.

However, there is a little-used provision in the Vienna Convention, Article 62, which allows for treaties to be abrogated due to a “Fundamental Change of Circumstance.” In such cases, the legal doctrine, clausula rebus sic stantibus, or “things thus standing,” may be invoked. Specifically, a case could be made that sub-paragraph B would apply: wherein the change of circumstances has had a radical effect on the obligations of the treaty.

A change in circumstances having a radical effect, is the increasing secularization of European and world society. Italy, being a heavily Catholic country, both when this treaty was signed in 1929 and now, is unlikely any time in the near future to rescind the Lateran Treaty and revoke the sovereignty of the Vatican; but, perhaps there is hope for the future as secularism gains ground there.

Pew Research Center

However, other secular countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Vatican City could simply refuse to continue recognizing the Vatican’s sovereignty. This game of recognition is a diplomatic grey area. Take for instance the status of the People’s Republic of China, which, until 1971, was not considered to be the legitimate government of China in the United Nations, as Taiwan was the officially recognized party. Ironically, the Vatican and the PRC do not recognize each other in this international game of petty politicking, given that the Vatican maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

A growing majority of citizens in Western nations are no longer beholden to religious doctrines which guide their decision-making; note the recent sea-change in (previously heavily Catholic) Irish socio-political attitudes with reversals on gay marriage, abortion and blasphemy. This highly increased secular world society constitutes a radical change in circumstances, grounds upon which to abrogate the existing treaties between other nations and the Vatican, effectively ending the diplomatic protection the Church hides behind while granting safe refuge to fugitive pedophiles and their complicit protectors.


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