U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: The Holy See, September 1995
Bureau of Public Affairs
Official Name: The Holy See
Geography and People
Area (Vatican City): 0.439 sq. km.
Ethnic groups: Italian, Swiss.
Languages: Italian, Latin, French.
Work force: 3,000 lay workers (reside outside the Vatican).
Type: Papacy; ecclesiastical governmental and administrative capital of
the Roman Catholic Church.
Independence: Lateran Pacts regulating independence and sovereignty of
the Holy See signed with Italy on February 11, 1929.
Suffrage: College of Cardinals elects Pope for life.
PEOPLE AND HISTORY
Almost all of Vatican City's 400 citizens live inside the Vatican's
walls. In addition to the approximately 3,000 lay workers who comprise
the majority of the work force, the Vatican's employment ranks also
include high dignitaries, priests, nuns, and guards. Although official
acts of the Holy See are drawn up in Latin, Italian is generally used.
The Holy See's diplomatic history began in the fourth century, but the
boundaries of the papacy's temporal power have shifted over the
centuries. In the middle of the 19th century, the Popes held sway over
the Papal States, including a broad band of territory across central
Italy. In 1860, after prolonged civil and regional unrest, Victor
Immanuel's army seized the Papal States, leaving only Rome and
surrounding coastal regions under papal control.
In 1871, Victor captured Rome itself. The following year Victor entered
the city and declared it the new capital of Italy, ending papal claims
to temporal power. Pope Pius and his successors disputed the legitimacy
of these acts and proclaimed themselves to be "prisoners" in the
Vatican. Finally, in 1929, the Italian Government and the Holy See
signed three agreements regarding the dispute:
-- A treaty recognizing the independence and sovereignty of the Holy
See and creating the State of the Vatican City;
-- A concordat fixing the relations between the government and the
church within Italy; and
-- A financial convention providing the Holy See with compensation for
its losses in 1870.
A revised concordat, altering the terms of church-state relations, was
signed in 1984.
GOVERNMENT AND INSTITUTIONS
The Pope exercises supreme legislative, executive, and judicial power
over the Holy See and the State of the Vatican City. Pope John Paul II,
born in Poland, is the first non-Italian Pope in nearly five centuries.
Elected on October 16, 1978, he succeeded John Paul I, whose reign
lasted only 34 days.
The term "Holy See" refers to the composite of the authority,
jurisdiction, and sovereignty vested in the Pope and his advisers to
direct the world-wide Roman Catholic Church. As the "central
government" of the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy See has a legal
personality that allows it to enter into treaties as the juridical equal
of a state and to send and receive diplomatic representatives. The Holy
See has formal diplomatic relations with 157 nations, including the
Vatican City is the base of the Holy See. Created in 1929 to administer
properties belonging to the Holy See in Rome, the State of the Vatican
City is recognized under international law and enters into international
agreements. Unlike the Holy See, it does not receive or send diplomatic
Administration of the Vatican City
The Pope delegates the internal administration of the Vatican City to
the Pontifical Commission for the State of the Vatican City, headed by
the Cardinal Secretary of State. The legal system is based on canon, or
ecclesiastical law; if canon law is not applicable, the laws of the
city of Rome are invoked. The Vatican City maintains the Swiss Guards, a
voluntary military force, as well as a modern security corps. It has its
own post office, commissary, bank, railway station, electrical
generating plant, and publishing house. The Vatican also issues its own
coins, stamps, and passports. Radio Vatican, the official radio station,
is one of the most influential in Europe. L'Osservatore Romano is the
semiofficial newspaper, published daily in Italian, and weekly in
English, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and French (plus a monthly edition
Administration of the Holy See
The Pope rules the Holy See through the Roman Curia and the Papal Civil
Service. The Roman Curia consists of the Secretariat of State, nine
Congregations (equivalent to Ministries), three Tribunals, 12 Pontifical
Councils, and a complex of offices that administer church affairs at the
highest level. The Secretariat of State, under the Cardinal Secretary of
State, directs and coordinates the Curia. The current incumbent, Angelo
Cardinal Sodano, is the Holy See's second-ranking official and is the
equivalent of a prime minister. Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary
of the Section for Relations With States of the Secretariat of State is,
in effect, the Vatican's foreign minister.
Among the most active of the major Curial institutions are the
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees church
doctrine; the Congregation for Bishops, which coordinates the
appointment of bishops worldwide; the Congregation for the
Evangelization of Peoples, which oversees all missionary activities; and
the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which deals with
international peace and social issues.
Three tribunals are responsible for judicial power. The Apostolic
Penitentiary deals with matters of conscience; the
Roman Rota is responsible for appeals, including annulments of marriage;
and the Apostolic Signatura is the final court of appeal.
The Prefecture for Economic Affairs coordinates the finances of the Holy
See departments and supervises the administration of the Patrimony of
the Holy See (an investment fund dating back to the Lateran Pacts). A
committee of 15 cardinals, chaired by the Secretary of State, has final
oversight authority over all financial matters of the Holy See,
including those of the Institute for Works of Religion (the Vatican
Principal Government Officials
Head of State--Pope John Paul II
Secretary of State--Angelo Cardinal Sodano
Deputy Secretary of State--Archbishop Giovanni Battista Re
Secretary of Section for Relations With States of the Secretariat of
State--Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran
Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to the United States--Archbishop Augustino
The Holy See maintains an Apostolic Nunciature in the U.S. at 3339
Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-333-7121).
The North American College in Rome, owned and operated by the U.S.
Catholic hierarchy for training American priests, handles all requests
for papal audiences. The address is Casa Santa Maria dell'Umilta, Via
dell'Umilta 30, 00187, Rome, Italy (tel. 678-9184).
The Holy See conducts an active diplomacy. As noted, it maintains formal
diplomatic relations with 157 nations; 67 of these maintain permanent
resident diplomatic missions accredited to the Holy See in Rome. The
rest have missions located outside Italy with dual accreditation. The
Holy See also maintains 91 permanent diplomatic missions abroad.
The Holy See is especially active in international organizations. It has
permanent observer status at the United Nations in New York; the Office
of the United Nations in Geneva and specialized institutes; the UN Food
and Agriculture Organization in Rome; and the UN Educational,
Scientific, and Cultural Organization in Paris. The Holy See also has a
member delegate at the International Atomic Energy Agency and at the UN
Industrial Development Organization in Vienna. It also maintains
permanent observers at the Organization of American States in
Washington, DC, and the Council of Europe. In addition, the Holy See has
diplomatic relations with the European Union in Brussels.
In 1971, the Holy See announced the decision to adhere to the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty in order to "give its moral support to the
principles that form the base of the treaty itself." The Holy See is
also a participating state in the Organization for Security and
Cooperation in Europe.
U.S.-HOLY SEE RELATIONS
The United States maintained consular relations with the Papal States
from 1797 to 1870 and diplomatic relations with the Pope, in his
capacity as head of the Papal States, from 1848 to 1868. These relations
lapsed with the final loss of all papal territories in 1870.
From 1870 to 1984, the United States did not have diplomatic relations
with the Holy See. Several recent presidents, however, designated
personal envoys to visit the Holy See periodically for discussions of
international humanitarian and political issues. Myron C. Taylor was the
first of these representatives, serving from 1939 to 1950. Presidents
Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan also appointed personal envoys to the
The United States and the Holy See announced the establishment of
diplomatic relations on January 10, 1984. On March 7, 1984, the Senate
confirmed William A. Wilson as the first ambassador to the Holy See.
Ambassador Wilson had been President Reagan's personal envoy to the Pope
since 1981. The Holy See named Archbishop Pio Laghi as Apostolic Pro-
Nuncio (equivalent to ambassador) of the Holy See to the U.S.
Establishment of diplomatic relations has bolstered the frequent contact
and consultation between the United States and the Holy See on many
important international issues of mutual interest. The United States
values the Holy See's significant contributions to international peace
and human rights.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Raymond L. Flynn
Deputy Chief of Mission--Louis J. Nigro
The U.S. embassy to the Holy See is located in Rome in the Villa
Domiziana, Via delle Terme Deciane 26, 00153 Rome, Italy (tel. 39-6-
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program provides
Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel Warnings are
issued when the Department of State recommends that Americans avoid
travel to a certain country. Consular Information Sheets exist for all
countries and include information on immigration practices, currency
regulations, health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security
information, political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S.
embassies and consulates in the subject country. They can be obtained by
telephone at (202) 647-5225 or by fax at (202) 647-3000. To access the
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board by computer, dial (202) 647-9225, via a
modem with standard settings. Bureau of Consular Affairs' publications
on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad are available
from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, D.C. 20402 (202) 783-3238.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be
obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at (202) 647-
While planning a trip, travelers can check the latest information on
health requirements and conditions with the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at (404) 332-4559
provides telephonic or fax information on the most recent health
advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on
food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet
entitled Health Information for International Travel (HHS publication
number CDC-94-8280, price $7.00) is available from the Superintendent of
Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest to
travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a country's
embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (see "Principal Government
Officials" listing in this publication).
Upon their arrival in a country, U.S. citizens are encouraged to
register with the U.S. embassy (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials"
listing in this publication). Such information might assist family
members in making contact en route in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information:
Consular Affairs Bulletin Board (CABB). Available by modem, the CABB
provides Consular Information Sheets, Travel Warnings, and helpful
information for travelers. Access at (202) 647-9225 is free of charge to
anyone with a personal computer, modem, telecommunications software, and
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the Internet,
DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S. foreign policy
information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes Background Notes; Dispatch,
the official weekly magazine of U.S. foreign policy; daily press
briefings; directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc.
DOSFAN is accessible three ways on the Internet:
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on a quarterly basis
by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information on the
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes an array of
official foreign policy information from 1990 to the present. Priced at
$80 ($100 foreign), one-year subscriptions include four discs (MSDOS and
Macintosh compatible) and are available from the Superintendent of
Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 37194, Pittsburgh,
PA 15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.
Federal Bulletin Board (BBS). A broad range of foreign policy
information also is carried on the BBS, operated by the U.S. Government
Printing Office (GPO). By modem, dial (202) 512-1387. For general BBS
information, call (202) 512-1530.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department of
Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related information,
including Country Commercial Guides. It is available on the Internet
(gopher. stat-usa.gov) and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202)
482-1986 for more information.
Background Notes Series -- Published by the United States Department
of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public
Communication -- Washington, DC -- Series Editor: Marilyn J.
The Holy See -- Department of State Publication 8258 -- September
This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without
permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the
Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office,
Washington, DC 20402.
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