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Vatican City: Not What or Where You Think It Is

So the Catholic Church has a new leader. And the Vatican has a new head of state. Two job descriptions, filled by just one single guy [1]: the Pope.  

Until very recently, Jorge Mario Bergoglio's main concern was tending to the spiritual needs of the 2.5 million souls in his flock, the archdiocese of Buenos Aires. But since his election as pontiff by the College of his colleagues [2] on March 13, the Cardinal now is Pope Francis, and thrust upon him are huge spiritual duties, but also a tiny temporal one.

The new Pope is the numero uno of the Holy See. In its strictest sense, this spiritual jurisdiction only comprises the diocese of Rome. But Rome is where Saint Peter was martyred [3] - and in the Catholic tradition, this Apostle was the first Pope, the current Pope being his 265th successor in an unbroken (though often quite wobbly) line.  Hence the primacy of the papacy over other bishops [4], and the conflation of the Holy See with the entire Catholic Church - or at least with the highest echelons of its Roman bureaucracy, also known as the Curia [5].

Under international law, the Holy See is considered a sovereign entity, as it has been since the Middle Ages, and as such maintains diplomatic relations with most other countries. It is a member of various international bodies[6], and has permanent observer status at the U.N. General Assembly. However, the Holy See should not be confused with Vatican City, independent only since the Lateran Treaty of 1929. The two entities issue distinct passports, and they have different official languages: Latin for the Holy See, Italian for Vatican City.



The Vatican's external borders - or are they?


The Lateran Treaty, concluded between Mussolini's fascist Italy and the Holy See, sealed the recognition by the Pope of Italy's authority over the former Papal States [7] and Rome itself, and by Italy of the independence of Vatican City. Thus was resolved the so-called 'Roman Question', which had arisen in 1861 when almost-unified Italy had declared Rome its capital, and escalated when the Italian state took Rome from the Pope by deadly force in 1870 [8].

Without the independence of Vatican City, the Holy See's sovereignty would be comparable to that of the Knights of Malta [9]: with plenty of ambassadors scattered the world over, the Order is considered sovereign - but lacking a territory of its own, the quality of that sovereignty is strained. To avoid a similar conundrum, Vatican City was granted independence, [to] "ensure the absolute and visible independence of the Holy See" and "to guarantee to it an indisputable sovereignty in international affairs" (as explicitly stated in the Lateran Treaty).

So Vatican City is not what you think it is. It is not the diplomatic interface between the Catholic Church and the rest of the world. That role is played by the Holy See, which exchanges ambassadors with most of the world's countries (rather than Vatican City). Rather, Vatican City is the toehold of sovereign territory that gives the papacy its peace of mind: the territorial buffer shielding the Church's sovereignty rather than the essence of that sovereignty. 

Nor is the Vatican where you think it is. Vatican City's borders are remarkably fuzzy for a country this tiny. When we say tiny, we mean tiniest: The Papal State is accoladed as the world's smallest sovereign state, and it is - if you discount those lacklands, the Knights of Malta. Vatican City, completely enclaved within Rome, comprises no more than 108 acres, which is 1/6th of a square mile, or 0.44 of a square km. The second-smallest state, Monaco, is almost five times bigger - huge by comparison [10].

So where is the border between Vatican City and Italy? Centred on Vatican Hill (elevation: 75 m, 250 feet) [11], the Vatican state's border with Italy is about 3.2 km (2 miles) long. In the south and west, the border follows the 9th-century Leonine Wall [12] - the bastions are clearly visible on the map. Another easily recognisable feature of Vatican City's outer limits is the roundness of St Peter's Square; to the north of here, the border is formed by the arrow-straight Via di Porta Angelica.

There are, however, a few grey zones. First, a remarkable counter-enclave, spotted by a contributor to BorderPoint, a Yahoo Groups messageboard for news on and discussions about boundaries and frontiers.

"While doing some research on the Casa Santa Martha, where the cardinals [were] housed during the papal enclave, I ran across [a] WikiMapia [13]map, representing part of the Vatican City State. To the left of St. Martha's House and St. Charles Palace is the Vatican Train Station. Across from the station is a small trapezoidal area designated as 'Fontana (it.)'," said David L. Langenberg. "Does this represent an Italian exclave within Vatican City, itself an enclave within Italy?"

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