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Population: Population: 800, including diplomatic personnel living in different countries around the world.
Capital City: Vatican City
Language(s): Business is conducted in Italian, English, French, Spanish and Latin
Religion: Catholic
Head of State: Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), elected 19 April 2005.
Prime Minister: Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (Secretary of State since 15 September 2006).
Foreign Minister: Archbishop Dominique Mambertì, Secretary for Relations with States in the Papal Secretariat of State (since 15 September 2006).

Membership of international organisations: The Holy See is a full member of various international organizations including: the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE), and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO), the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT), the International Migration Organisation (IMO).

The Holy See is also a permanent observer state in various international organizations, including the United Nations General Assembly, the Council of Europe, UNESCO, WTO, ILO, WHO, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. In 2004, the United Nations General Assembly extended the rights and privileges of the Holy See as an observer state within the UN, through its Resolution 58/314 of 16 July that year. Up until 2002, the Holy See and Switzerland were the only two observer states in the United Nations. In 2002, Switzerland voted in a national referendum to take up full UN membership. The Holy See is also a Non-Member Accredited State of the African Union (AU), a Member of a bilateral agreement of cooperation of the League of Arab States (LAS), and Guest of the Asian-African Legal Consultative Organisation (AALCO).

What is the Holy See?

The Holy See is the universal government of the Catholic Church and operates from the Vatican City State, a sovereign, independent territory of 0.44 square kilometres (0.17 square miles). The Pope is the ruler of both the Vatican City State and the Holy See.

The term “see” comes from the Latin word “sedes”, meaning, “seat”, which refers to the Episcopal throne (cathedra). The term “Apostolic See” can refer to any see founded by one of the Apostles, but, when used with the definite article, it is used in the Catholic Church to refer specifically to the see of the Bishop of Rome, whom the Catholic Church sees as successor of Saint Peter, the leader of the apostles.

The Holy See (Sancta Sedes in Latin) is the Episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, in which its Bishop is commonly known as the Pope. It is the pre-eminent Episcopal see of the Catholic Church, forming the central government of the Church. As such, diplomatically, and in other spheres, the Holy See acts and speaks for the whole Catholic Church. It is also recognised by other subjects of international law as a sovereign juridical entity under international law, headed by the Pope, with which diplomatic relations can be maintained. The Holy See (the central government of the Catholic Church) is made up of the Pope and the Departments that assist him in carrying out his responsibilities towards the universal Church (identified as the Apostolic See or Holy See)..

Governance of the Holy See

The Pope governs the Catholic Church through the Roman Curia (Vatican Civil Service). The Roman Curia consists of a number of departments that administer church affairs. Those departments consist of the Secretariat of State, nine Congregations, three Tribunals, eleven Pontifical Councils, and seven Pontifical Commissions. The Secretariat of State, under the Cardinal Secretary of State, directs and coordinates the Curia. The present incumbent, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, is the Holy See’s equivalent of a Prime Minister. Archbishop Dominique Mambertì, Secretary for Relations with States, acts as the Holy See’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.

Among the most active of the main Vatican departments are the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees the Catholic Church’s doctrine; the Congregation for Bishops, which coordinates the appointment of bishops in the developed world; the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, which oversees all missionary activities, including the appointment of bishops in the developing world; and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, which deals with international thematic foreign policy and development and social issues.

Three tribunals are responsible for judicial power. The Sacra Rota is responsible for normal appeals, including decrees of nullity for marriages, with the Apostolic Signatura being the administrative court of appeal and highest ecclesiastical court. The Apostolic Penitentiary issues absolutions, dispensations, and indulgences.

The Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See coordinates the finances of the Holy See departments and supervises the administration of all offices. The Prefecture of the Papal Household is responsible for the organization of the Papal household, audiences, and ceremonies.

What is the Vatican City State?

The Vatican City State is a sovereign independent territory which was founded following the signing of the Lateran Pacts between the Holy See and Italy on 11 February 1929. These were ratified on 7 June 1929. Its nature as a sovereign State, distinct from the Holy See, is universally recognised under international law.

Holy See as opposed to Vatican?

Although the Holy See is closely associated with the Vatican City State, the independent territory over which the Holy See is sovereign, they are two international identities. The Holy See is not the same sovereign entity as the Vatican City State, which only came into existence in 1929 with the Lateran Treaty. The Holy See dates back to early Christian times. Ambassadors are officially accredited to the Holy See and not the Vatican City State, and Papal representatives to states and international organizations are recognised as representing the Holy See, not the Vatican City State. The Holy See as legal person bears many similarities with the crown in Christian monarchies.

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Basic Economic Facts

GDP: n/a
GDP per head: n/a
Annual Growth: n/a
Inflation: n/a
Major Industries: n/a
Major trading partners: n/a
Aid & development: significant through Caritas Internationalis, which brings together some 160 national Catholic Aid agencies e.g. CAFOD in England & Wales and SCIAF in Scotland under a single umbrella.

The Holy See is supported financially by contributions from the 1.1 billion Roman Catholics throughout the world – 'Peter’s Pence' - the sale of postage stamps, souvenirs, museum admission charges and the sale of publications. The Holy See is also involved in banking and financial activities and has its own bank – the I.O.R. - 'L'Istituto per le Opere Religiose' (Institute for Religious Works).

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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. The Vatican City State is situated on the right bank of the River Tiber and includes a slight elevation, a part of which was known in ancient times as the Vatican Hills. Caligula constructed his private circus there in the 1st century AD and it became the scene of early Christian martyrdoms. A necropolis constructed nearby was said to contain the tomb of St Peter, who was executed in the circus around 64 AD. In the 4th Century AD the Roman Emperor Constantine erected an imposing basilica over the site of the necropolis. The present Basilica of St. Peter – the largest church in Christendom – was built in the 16th and 17th centuries on the same site, and the main altar is situated directly over the presumed tomb of St Peter. Excavations beneath the Basilica, carried out during the Second World War, revealed the site of the tomb.

The Unification of Italy and the Roman Question, 1860-1929

Until 1870, the Popes retained significant secular power as well as a spiritual role. For over a thousand years they had ruled lands in the Italian peninsula. But the Napoleonic Wars and the first Italian Wars of Independence brought about the gradual erosion of the Papal States, so that by 1861 only Rome and the surrounding coastal regions remained under Papal control.

On 18 February 1861, the deputies of the first Italian Parliament assembled in Turin. On 17 March, the Parliament proclaimed Victor Emmanuel II King of Italy, and on 27 March, Rome was declared Capital of the Kingdom of Italy. However, the Italian Government could not take its seat in Rome because a French garrison (which had overthrown the Roman Republic in 1849), maintained there by Napoleon III of France, was defending Pope Pius IX. The seat of government was moved from Turin to Florence in 1865.

In July 1870, the Franco-Prussian War began. In early August, Napoleon III recalled his garrison from Rome and could no longer protect what remained of the Papal States. The Italian government took advantage of Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Sedan and crossed into the Papal States on 11 September 1870. Papal troops put up a token defence of Rome, but on 20 September, Italian forces entered Rome and the Papal States came to an end. Pope Pius IX left the Quirinal Palace where the Popes had had their seat since 1594, and retreated to the Vatican Palace. He and his successors refused to recognise the Italian Government’s annex of Rome and the Papal States.

Following the events of 1870, the Pope had no territorial sovereignty. The Holy See continued to exercise the right to send and receive diplomatic representatives and that was recognised by the major powers of the day. Among others, the Holy See maintained diplomatic relations with Russia, Prussia, the United Kingdom, and Austria-Hungary. The practice established by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 whereby the Papal Nuncio (Pope’s Ambassador) was automatically the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps continued to be recognised post 1870. In the course of the 59 years (1870-1929) during which the Holy See held no territorial sovereignty, the number of states with which it had diplomatic relations rose from 16 to 29.

The Sovereign Status of the Holy See between 1870 and 1929

Before 1870, there were two subjects of international law: the Papal State and the Holy See. Of these two persons in international law, the one, the Papal State, came to an end, under the rules of general international law, by means of the Italian conquest and unification. The Holy See remained, as always, a subject of general international law also in the period between the annexation of the Papal States in 1870 and the Lateran Treaty of 1929. That is illustrated by the practice of States, including the United Kingdom which re-established diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1914. During this period, when the Holy See had no territory, it continued to conclude concordats, and with the consent of a majority of states exercised the active and passive right of legation. The legal position of its diplomatic agents remained based on general international law.

The 1929 Lateran Treaty (The Lateran Pacts)

The Lateran Pacts of 1929, signed by Italy and the Holy See, solved the Roman Question between the Holy See and Italy. Under the terms of the principal Treaty (the Treaty of Conciliation), the State of Vatican City was created to “ensure the absolute and visible independence of the Holy See” and “to guarantee to it an indisputable sovereignty in international affairs” (Preamble of the Treaty of Conciliation). In article 2, Italy recognized “the sovereignty of the Holy See in the international domain as an attribute inherent in its nature, in accordance with its tradition and with the requirements of its mission in the world.” The treaty concluded between the Holy See and Italy pre-supposes the international personality of the Holy See. But contrary to some assertions, the Lateran Treaty was not essential to allow the diplomatic recognition of the Holy See. For example, the United Kingdom re-established diplomatic ties with the Holy See in 1914 following their rupture in 1559.

Under the terms of the Lateran Treaty, the Holy See has extraterritorial authority over 23 sites in Rome and five Italian sites outside of Rome, including the Pontifical Palace at Castel Gandolfo. The same authority is extended under international law over the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See in a foreign country.

In 1985, a new Concordat between the Holy See and Italy modified some of the provisions of the 1929 Concordat, which governed the Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical relationship with the Italian state. Under the terms of the new Concordat, Catholicism ceased to be the state religion of Italy, and religious education in public schools was no longer compulsory.

Legal Status of the Holy See

The Holy See is recognised, both in state practice and in modern legal scholarship, as a subject of public international law, with rights and duties analogous to those of States. The Holy See is also recognised by the United Nations as an Observer State in the UN system (UNGA Resolution 58/314 of 16 July 2004).

The Holy See possesses full legal personality in international law by the fact that it maintains diplomatic relations with 179 states, that it is a member state in various intergovernmental international organisations, and that it is: respected by the international community of sovereign States and treated as a subject of international law, having the capacity to engage in diplomatic relations and to enter into binding agreements with one, several, or many states under international law that are largely geared to establish and preserving peace in the world.

Sovereign recognition of the Holy See

The Holy See, not the Vatican City, maintains diplomatic relations with states and participates in international organizations. Foreign embassies are accredited to the Holy See, not to the Vatican City, and it is the Holy See that establishes treaties and concordats with other sovereign entities. When necessary, the Holy See will enter a treaty on behalf of the Vatican City.

Since medieval times the Episcopal see of Rome has been recognised as a sovereign entity. The Holy See (not the Vatican City State) maintains formal diplomatic relations with 179 sovereign states (including the United Kingdom), and also with the European Union, and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, as well as having relations of a special character with the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The Holy See maintains 180 permanent diplomatic missions abroad. The diplomatic activities of the Holy See are directed by the Secretariat of State (headed by the Cardinal Secretary of State), through the Section for Relations with States.

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The Holy See’s Relations with the UK

Formal diplomatic links between the England and the Holy See were first established in 1479 when John Shirwood was appointed by King Edward IV as the first resident Ambassador. Shirwood was also the first English Ambassador to serve abroad, making the Embassy to the Holy See the UK’s oldest Embassy.

Shirwood’s successors included William Celling, Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge and Silvester De Giglis, Bishop of Worcester, however formal diplomatic relations between England and the Holy See were interrupted in 1536. Links were restored in 1553, with Sir Edward Carne’s re-appointment as Ambassador by Queen Mary I. Sir Edward had previously been Ambassador to the Holy See under Henry VIII. He was initially Queen Elizabeth I’s Ambassador too, but when relations with the Holy See deteriorated he was recalled. He chose to remain in Rome however, and died in 1561. He is buried in the Church of San Gregorio Magno on the Caelian Hill. He was the last resident envoy until diplomatic relations were restored in 1914. Unofficial ties were maintained between the UK and the Holy See through much of the 18th and 19th centuries however: for example, Lord Odo Russell was the UK’s unofficial Minister to the Holy See from 1858 to 1870.

The United Kingdom re-established formal resident diplomatic relations with the Holy See in 1914. And the Holy See sent an Apostolic Delegate to London in 1938. In 1982, full diplomatic relations were restored when representation was again raised to full ambassadorial level after a break of some 423 years.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has visited the Vatican three times during her reign, most recently in October 2000 to mark the Jubilee Year. As Princess Elizabeth, she and The Duke of Edinburgh visited the Vatican in 1951. In 1923 King George V met the Pope at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II visited the United Kingdom in May 1982. The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall most recently visited the Vatican on 27 April 2009. The Prince of Wales had previously visited the Vatican in April 2005 to attend Pope John Paul II’s funeral. The Prince of Wales met Pope John Paul II twice: once in 1985 when he paid an official visit to the Vatican, and also in 1982 during the Pope’s visit to Canterbury Cathedral.

Prime Ministers have regularly visited the Vatican over the years. Prime Minister Churchill visited the Vatican to meet Pope Piux XII in 1944 shortly after the liberation of Rome. Prime Ministers Macmillian, Wilson, Heath and Thatcher made official visits to the Vatican. Prime Minister Tony Blair, visited the Vatican on four separate occasions, February 2003, April 2005 (Pope John Paul’s funeral), June 2006 and June 2007. Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited the Vatican twice as Chancellor (in July 2004 and February 2007). Prime Minister Brown also visited the Vatican in February 2009. A government delegation of 7 Ministers, led by Baroness Warsi as the Prime Minister’s representative, paid an official visit to the Holy See on 14-15 February 2012.

In the summer of 1982 Pope John Paul II paid a pastoral visit to the United Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI visited the United Kingdom on a four-day State visit from 16-19 September 2010.

Today, the Embassy to the Holy See is a vital part of the UK’s overseas network. The Holy See is the centre of a global community of over one billion people and as such is one of the world’s biggest opinion formers. In an era when religion has once more emerged in international relations, the Holy See is key to the continuing policy debate on the proper boundary between faith and politics. The Holy See is taken seriously in the religious world and in the world of ideas. It is a key stabilising influence in the global faith/politics debate, and helps keep discussion rational. The Holy See maintains a wide dialogue and is a credible interlocutor with many groups in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Besides focusing on traditional foreign policy issues such as the EU or the Middle East, the UK and Holy See have productive contacts in the areas of inter-faith dialogue, environmental policy, disarmament issues, international development and human rights.

The Holy See’s Foreign Policy

Since Pope Benedict XVI’s election in 2005, a number of themes have characterised the Holy See’s foreign policy:

Relationship between the religious and the secular

Seeing faith and reason as allies rather than enemies, Pope Benedict has sought to heal the rift that developed between the two during and since the enlightenment. But rather than turn the clock back, the Pope advocates a “healthy secularity” based on collaboration - respect and dialogue - between religion and secularism.

International development

On international development, the Holy See has provided both moral and practical leadership. The Catholic Church is a world leader in delivering health care and relief to the world’s poorest, providing treatment to one quarter of those affected by HIV/AIDS. Caritas Internationalis is a Vatican body which brings together some 160 national Catholic Aid agencies under a single umbrella (including CAFOD in England & Wales and SCIAF in Scotland). The Holy See supports international efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and has played a significant role in developing the International Finance Framework: in 2006 Pope Benedict purchased the first Immunisation Bond, which has raised $1.6 billion for health and immunisation projects in 70 countries. In June 2011 the Holy See associated itself with the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunisation (GAVI) at the GAVI re-launch in London.


As the world’s first carbon-neutral state, the Vatican has been at the forefront of international efforts to protect the environment and tackle climate change. Pope Benedict’s 2009 Encyclical Caritas in Veritate focussed strongly on environmental issues, calling on the international community to counter mistreatment of the environment, to work to ensure that the costs of exploiting resources are borne by those who incur them, not by future generations; and stressing that the protection of the environment and the climate requires full international co-operation, including with the weakest regions of the world.


On the disarmament agenda, the Holy See played a crucial role in achieving the international consensus required to agree a Treaty on Cluster Munitions in 2008. Over 100 states have now signed up to the Treaty, with the Holy See among the first to do so. More recently, the Holy See played an important role in encouraging 153 states to support a UN General Assembly Resolution on moving ahead with an Arms Trade Treaty, and in 2012 called for a robust and wide ranging ATT.


Following on from the Papacy of John Paul II (1978-2005), Pope Benedict continues to work for better understanding between Christianity and other faiths, as well as among the Christian churches. He and his officials approach all aspects of international affairs through the prism of authentic human development and the dignity of the human person, and in this context the promotion of human rights, including religious freedom, remain key priorities.

Anglican/Roman Catholic Relations

There are six million Catholics in the United Kingdom. At an international level the main vehicles for ecumenical exchanges between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches are the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). ARCIC was established by Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1966 and has continued to meet regularly since then. It discusses theological issues. IARCCUM brings together bishops of both churches to discuss more practical issues on the ground.

Diplomatic Representation

The United Kingdom is represented by an Embassy. Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Holy See is Nigel Marcus Baker OBE MVO (since 2011).

The Holy See is represented in the UK by an Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador). Archbishop Antonio Mennini, formerly Nuncio to the Russian Federation and Uzbekistan, was appointed in December 2010 and took up his appointment in March 2011.

UK in Holy See flickr photostream (

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The Holy See is the universal government of the Catholic Church and operates from the Vatican City State, a sovereign, independent territory of 0,44 square kilometres (0.17 square miles). The Vatican City State is an enclave within the city of Rome. There are also some sovereign areas outside the State territory, which also enjoy extraterritorial status, such as the Basilicas of Saint Mary Major, St. John Lateran and St. Paul-outside-the-Walls; the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo (the Papal Summer Residence).

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Papal Elections

The Pope is elected for life by those members of the College of Cardinals who are less than 80 years old. Canon Law allows for the resignation of a Pope, but this has not happened since Pope Celestine V resigned in 1294.

Governance during an interregnum

The Holy See does not dissolve upon a Pope’s death or resignation. It instead operates under a different set of laws “sede vacante”. During this interregnum, the heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia (such as the prefects of congregations) cease immediately to hold office, the only exceptions being the Major Penitentiary, who continues his important role regarding absolutions and dispensations, and the Camerlengo of the Holy Roman Church, who administers the temporalities (i.e. properties and finances) of the See of St. Peter during this period. The government of the See, and therefore of the Catholic Church, then falls to the College of Cardinals. Canon Law prohibits the College and the Camerlengo from introducing any innovations or novelties in the government of the Church during this period.

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Last Updated: February 2012

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