Faithful should distinguish between Catholic faith and Vatican state

Fri, Sep 21, 2012, 01:00

OPINION:Maybe time has come to pray for an end to the Vatican state, Europe’s last absolute monarchy, writes JOHN MANNION

THE PUBLIC response to the recent Vatican embassy closure indicates that many devout Catholics are unable to distinguish between the Catholic faith and the Vatican state.

Central to the former is our belief in Jesus Christ as God incarnate, but nowhere in our creed do we profess a belief in the Vatican state, of whose origins and history we know practically nothing.

Given that Taoiseach Enda Kenny travels to Rome this weekend to meet the pope, it may be timely to try lift the veil on these matters.

To do so, it is necessary to go back to AD313 when the Roman emperor, Constantine, legitimised Christianity but left Rome shortly afterwards for a new capital in present day Turkey, Constantinople. Gradually the pope stepped into the power vacuum in the West and rapidly acquired land and wealth.

The Lombards, a pagan tribe who moved into northern Italy in the late sixth century, gradually converted to Christianity, grew powerful and began to tax the Roman citizenry. In 752 pope Stephen II travelled north and appealed to Pepin the Short, king of the Franks, to save Rome from the Lombards using the “Donation of Constantine”, a document claiming Constantine had given his palace and extensive territories to the pope.

Pepin, having routed the Lombards, handed all the conquered lands to the pope; thus began the papal states. That the document was a forgery became public only in 1517. In the meantime it had been influential and the only English pope, Adrian 1V, used it to justify giving Ireland to Henry II of England.

As papal power increased, so did the struggle to influence and control the election of the pope. Equally the power claims of the papal office increased until, by the end of the reign of Gregory VII in 1085, he was “vicar of Christ” with power over the whole world.

The clergy and people of Rome had elected the pope since apostolic times. However, following disputed papal elections the Lateran synod, in 769, barred the laity from voting and decreed that only deacons and cardinals were eligible to be elected.

Later, in 1059, pope Nicholas II decreed that in future, cardinals only would elect the new pope. And so the office of cardinal, previously with merely liturgical duties and with no basis whatever in the Bible, became a source of power and influence in the administration of the papal states.

The pope alone chooses the cardinals and if there was a papal election tomorrow, 124 would be eligible to vote, of whom 30 are Italians, 37 from other parts of Europe, and only 21 from all of Latin America, which has the highest Catholic population on the globe.

It may also be relevant here to say something about justice.

Current Catholic justice has its origin in the Roman Inquisition founded by pope Gregory IX in 1232, which ushered in one of the most shameful episodes in all of human history. It formalised the practices of killing, burning or imprisoning heretics. Modified over time, it still exists under a changed name (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), but its rules owe much to its history and very little to contemporary standards of justice.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was its head for a quarter of a century before he became pope in 2005. In its mode of operation the suspect gets very little information. There is no independent judge, prosecutor or jury. An unknown defender is appointed from within the system. The accused is denied access to all documents related to the charge. All who take part in the trial are bound to secrecy, and there is no right of appeal.

Recently, Pope Benedict on his visit to Cuba pleaded for freedom for the Catholic Church there, but freedom within the church is a different matter.

At the time of the unification of Italy in 1870 the papal states stretched from Rome across to the Adriatic Sea and north to the river Po. Jesus Christ might have said “my kingdom is not of this world”, but Pius 1X ordered a military defence of the papal states, shedding the blood of many, including Irish soldiers recruited by the Irish bishops, precisely because he could not function as vicar of Christ unless he had an earthly kingdom.

After unification, the new Italian parliament guaranteed the independence of the Holy See and offered compensation for lost territories, but Pius IX rejected the offer. In 1929 the Vatican state was set up by agreement between Mussolini and pope Pius XI, and Italy compensated it for the lost papal states.

The bishops of the second Vatican Council (1962-1965) proclaimed the church as the people of God, but failed to address the paradox inherited from Vatican I in 1870. At that time Pius IX persuaded the council to declare that “the pope has supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the church and he can always freely exercise this power” (canon 313 of the current code of canon law).

This contradicts the model of church in the Acts of the Apostles. So the ideals embodied in Vatican II have been essentially sidelined in the subsequent years because, as an English commentator recently noted, “the Vatican is the sole remaining absolute monarchy in Europe”.

Even the college of bishops is cut off because absolute power is vested in one office only, the papacy. Lord Acton said “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. A convert to Catholicism, he was writing about the papacy.

I understand there is a branch of Judaism that prays daily for the destruction of the Jewish state because it does not conform to the Old Testament model of Israel. Maybe the time has come for Catholics to pray for an end to the Vatican state for the exact same reason.


Fr John Mannion is a priest of the archdiocese of San Antonio in Texas who has retired to his native Co Galway.

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