David Quinn: Papal States are guarantee of popes' legal and political independence
Published 17/02/2012 | 05:00
Many people no longer seem to have a clue why the Catholic Church should also have a state that is called the Holy See. Some of us seem to imagine it is purely for reasons of vanity.
But only someone lacking the faintest knowledge of church history could think such a thing because all down the centuries rulers have sought to bend popes to their will.
Imagine how much Henry VIII would have loved to force Pope Clement VII to sign his annulment papers. Imagine how much the Soviet Union would have loved to bring John Paul II to heel when he gave his backing to the Solidarity movement in Poland.
The reason the Papal States evolved was to try and preserve the independence of popes although even these couldn't always offer protection because rulers could still invade them if strong enough, as Napoleon did.
One reason the popes opposed the unification of Italy was because they feared that if the Papal States were destroyed so would their independence. They feared they would be dominated by the new Italian state.
After a standoff lasting several decades, Mussolini agreed to recognise the independence of the Holy See, the successor to the Papal States.
The reason the Holy See seeks diplomatic ties with as many countries as possible is to solidify the place of the Holy See in Italy -- something that couldn't be taken as a given for a long time -- and to solidify its place in the world.
The alternative to an independent Holy See is a pope who lives in the Italian state and is subject ultimately to the whim of the Italian state and to whatever laws it passes. The possibility of a strongly anti-clerical government being elected in Italy in the future can never be ruled out, nor can the passage of politically correct 'human rights' laws such as exist in places like Canada where the simple expression of church teaching on issues like homosexuality could end up being deemed a 'hate crime'.
One reason why most of the countries of the world are happy to have diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and in over 70 cases to have embassies there, is because they support the political and legal independence of the Pope.
But all of this seems to have been forgotten by a government that can't seem to see beyond today's headlines.
The Government may have closed our embassy to the Holy See for financial reasons but it did so in a highly charged atmosphere, and if it really wanted to, it could have kept the embassy open by slightly trimming the budgets of some of our other embassies and consulates a little more.
As was confirmed this week, the embassy to the Holy See was one of our cheapest to run.
Relations between the Holy See and Ireland are at a low ebb chiefly because the Government wrongly got it into its head that the Vatican refused to co-operate with the Murphy Commission which investigated the Dublin archdiocese.
In fact, the Vatican asked the commission to use the normal diplomatic channels when writing to it and legal advice obtained by our Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed the Vatican was perfectly entitled under international law to do this.
We might still accuse the Vatican of being pedantic in wishing to use the normal channels but we can't in justice accuse it of non-cooperation, and certainly its response to the Murphy Commission didn't justify the thermonuclear missile of a speech directed at the Vatican by Enda Kenny last summer.
Just this week, the British government sent a high-powered delegation to meet with Vatican officials, including the Pope, led by Cabinet Minister without Portfolio, Baroness Warsi.
Baroness Warsi warned of a militant secularism threatening to drive religion completely from public life. Warsi, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, said that Britain and Europe need to be more confident in asserting their Christian heritage.
But the fact that the British government sent such a high-powered delegation over to the Vatican shows how much better relations are between post-Protestant Britain and the Holy See than they are between Catholic, or post-Catholic, Ireland and the Holy See.
This is despite the fact that the Catholic Church in Britain has also been hit by the scandals.
So why would Britain want to have a good relationship with the Holy See, and to have an embassy attached to it?
It's because it recognises the importance of the pope in world affairs and it wants to see his legal and political independence protected by maintaining the standing of the Holy See as a state.
The Holy See may be tiny but under John Paul II it had the power and influence to help bring down European communism, an epochal event.
For this and other reasons, the pope and the Holy See are ultimately more important in world affairs than Ireland or any Taoiseach could ever hope to be. Some of us might not like that, but it's a fact.