Monday, February 11, 2019

90 Years

Today is the 90th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy. That agreement ended the so-called "Roman Question" by restoring the Pope's temporal sovereignty over a miniscule portion of his former domain, the territory henceforth designated as "Vatican City" (as well as some additional extra-territorial sites in and around Rome). Several months later, on June 7, 1929, Cardinal Gasparri (representing the Pope) and Benito Mussolini (representing the King) exchanged the formal ratifications of the treaty, immediately after which the great Bronze Door of the Apostolic Palace was reopened for the first time since 1870 and the Swiss Guards emerged to take up their positions at the newly established international border between Italy and the Vatican.

To mark this occasion, the Vatican Post office has issued a beautiful commemorative postage stamp (photo). The stamp is reportedly made of polyester with yarn and metal threads embroidered in it, measures 1.75 by 2.6 inches, and has a face value of 8.40 euros (US $9.50).

Although the secular media often confuse them, it is the Holy See that is sovereign in international law. It is the Holy See (not the state of Vatican City) that is represented in international organizations and exchanges ambassadors with most of the nations of the world. Indeed, the Holy See continued to have formal diplomatic relations with some states even during the anomalous period between 1870 and 1929 when the Pope was no longer recognized as governing any territory. Since that time, however, the number of states which exchange embassies with the Holy See has grown enormously - the most significant addition being, of course, the United States in 1984. (During the period when the Pope still exercised actual sovereignty over the papal States, the U.S. had maintained consular relations with the Papal States from 1797 to 1867 and diplomatic - but not ambassadorial - relations from 1848 to 1867. In that year Congress prohibited any future funding for U.S. diplomatic missions to the Holy See.)

The reconciliation between Church and State in Italy was one of Mussolini's most lasting accomplishments - accomplishing what none of the bourgeois liberal parties which had preceded him in power would or could accomplish - and then in turn outlasting Mussolini's ridiculous regime already now by more than 70 years. 

Unlike his more infamous contemporaries Hitler and Stalin, Mussolini never really had truly totalitarian power. He had to share institutional legitimacy with the King (who throughout the Fascist era retained the primary loyalty of the military and who ultimately, if belatedly, removed Mussolini from power in 1943), and he had to share historic and charismatic legitimacy with the Church (and recognized as much by negotiating the hitherto unreachable compromise on the Roman Question and by regularizing the Church's status in society). The deal paid off in World War II when the occupiers of Rome respected the Vatican's independence and continues to pay off in the activity of countless papal nuncios in embassies around the world.

In retrospect, the 19th-century loss of the papal states turned out to be a benefit both for the Church and for Italy. The more than merely symbolic restoration of some semblance of temporal sovereignty in 1929 was not necessary for the Church's survival (as its flourishing after 1870 had proved), but it has been a welcome vehicle for the Church to maintain an effective institutional presence on the international stage.

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