Vatican City: capitol of the Catholic Church,
home to the pope, owner of impressive collections
of art and history all contained within the
borders of the world’s smallest country: conveniently
circumnavigateable on foot in only 40 minutes.
Just how did the world end up with this tiny
The short answer is: because Mussolini and
the long answer is fiendishly complicated
so here’s a simplified medium version:
The popes used to rule a country called the
Papal States that covered much of modern day
Italy. It was during this 1,000+ year reign
that the Popes constructed St. Peter’s Basilica
the largest church in the world — and also
built a wall around the base of a hill known
as Vatican upon which St. Peter’s Stood.
But the Kingdom of Italy next door thought
Rome would be an awesome capital for their
country and so conquered the Papal States.
His nation destroyed the Pope hid behind the
walls of Vatican and conflictingly refused
to acknowledge that the Kingdom of Italy existed,
while simultaneously complaining about being
a prisoner of the Kingdom of Italy — which
according to him didn’t exist.
Rather than risk religious civil war by getting
rid of the pope the Kingdom of Italy decided
to wait him out assuming he’d eventually give
up — but religion is nothing if not obstinate
— and 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 popes and sixty years
later nothing had changed.
Which brings us to Benito Mussolini the then
prime minister of Italy who was tired of listing
to the Pope complain to Italian Catholics
about his self-imposed imprisonment so Mussolini
thought he could score some political points
by striking a deal which looked like this:
1) Italy gave the land of Vatican to the Pope.
2) Italy gave the Pope a bunch of apology
1) The Pope acknowledged that Italy existed
2) The Pope promised to remain neutral in
politics and wars.
On the off chance that, you know, Mussolini
thought this might be a thing.
The deal was signed and a new country, Vatican
City was born.
And today the tiny nation on a hill has all
the things you’d expect of a country: its
own government that makes its own laws that
are enforced by its own police, who put people
who break them in its own jail.
It also has its own bank and prints its own
stamps and issues its own license plates,
though only its citizens can drive within
its borders presumably because of terrible,
terrible parking — and as the true mark of
any self-respecting nation: it has its own
top-level domain: .VA
But, despite all these national trappings
Vatican City is not really like any other
country. Hold on to your fancy hat, because
it’s about to get weird:
To understand the Vatican: there are two people
and two things that you need to know about:
the famous pope, the incredibly confusing
Holy See, The Country of Vatican City and
along with that the almost completely unknown
King of Vatican City.
But first the Pope: who gets a throne to sit
upon and from which he acts as the Bishop
for all the Catholics in Rome.
Actually all Bishops in the Catholic Church
get their own thrones but because the Bishop
of Rome is also the Pope his thrown is special
and has it’s own special name: The Holy See.
Every time a Pope dies or retires there is
a sort of game of thrones to see which of
the bishops will next get to occupy the Holy
So while Popes come and go the throne is eternal.
As such the name The Holy See not only refers
to the throne but also all the rules that
make the Catholic Church the Catholic Church.
When Mussolini crafted that aforementioned
deal, technically he gave the land of Vatican
City to The Holy See — which, believe it
or not, is a legal corporate person in international
law. Basically every time you hear the words
The Holy See think Catholic Church, Inc of
which the Pope is the CEO.
Now back to the King. The King of Vatican
City has absolute, unchecked power within
the country’s borders and his presence makes
Vatican City one of only six remanning absolute
monarchies in the world, including Brunei,
Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Swaziland.
The King’s absolute power is why Vatican City
can’t join the European Union because only
democracies are allowed.
Through Vatican City does, strictly speaking,
have a legislative brach of government — staffed
by cardinals, appointed by the pope — the
King of Vatican City can overrule their decisions
and at any time for any reason.
So why do you never hear about the King of
Vatican City? Because though King and Pope
are two different roles, they just happen
to be occupied by the same person at the same
time — which has the funny consequence that,
because the Pope is elected and the King is
all-powerful but they’re the same guy it makes
Vatican City the world’s only elected, non-hereditary
It’s this dual-role that makes untangling
Vatican City so difficult because the Pope,
depending on the situation either acts as
The King of the country of Vatican City or
the Pope of the Holy See.
Got it? No? OK, here’s an analogy:
Imagine if a powerful international company,
say Grey Industries, had a CEO who convinced
the United States to give one of its islands
to the Company which then made the island
into a new country — Greytropolis — with
an absolute monarchy as its government and
the law that the King of Greytropolis is,
by definition, the CEO of Grey Industries.
It’s pretty obvious at that point that the
CEO should move his corporate headquarters
to the new nation — so that the laws of the
country can benefit the company and the company’s
global reach can benefit the country. As for
the man in the middle sometimes it’s good
to the the CEO and sometimes it’s good to
be the king.
That is essentially Vatican City.
But if you’re still confused, don’t worry
even other countries can’t keep it straight.
For example the United Nations has The Holy
See the corporation as a member but not Vatican
City the actual country. And The Holy See
gives passports to Vatican City citizens that
other countries accept even though those passports
come from a company, not a country.
And speaking of Vatican City citizens, they
are perhaps the strangest consequence of the
Pope’s dual role as religious leader and monarch.
While other countries mint new citizens with
the ever popular process of human reproduction
Vatican City does not. No one in Vatican City
is born a citizen — and that’s not just because,
within a rounding error, there are no female
The only way to become a citizen is for the
King of Vatican City to appoint you as one.
And the King only appoints you a citizen if
you work for the Pope — who is also the King.
And because the King is all-powerful your
citizenship is at his whim. If you quit your
job for the Pope, the King — who is also
the pope — will revoke your citizenship.
These rules mean that Vatican City doesn’t
have a real permanent population to speak
of: there are only about 500 full citizens
— which is fewer people that live in single
skyscrapers in many countries — and all these
citizens work for The Holy See as either Cardinals
or Diplomats or the Pope’s bodyguards or other
So it’s best to think of Vatican City as a
kind of Sovereign Corporate Headquarters that
grants temporary citizenship to its managers
rather than a real city-state like Singapore:
which has a self-reproducing population of
citizens engaged in a variety of economic
activities both of which Vatican City lacks.
But in the end, the reason the world cares
about Vatican City is not because of the citizens
within its walls but because of the billion
members of its church outside those walls.