The Vatican and Permanent Neutrality​

Edited by Marshall J. Breger and Herbert R. Reginbogin

The essays in this book cover a fast-paced 150 years of Vatican diplomacy, starting from the fall of the Papal States in 1870 to the present day. They trace the transformation of the Vatican from a state like any other to an entity uniquely providing spiritual and moral sustenance in world affairs. In particular, the book details the Holy See’s use of neutrality as a tool and the principal statecraft in its diplomatic portmanteau. This concept of “permanent neutrality,” as codified in the Lateran Treaties of 1929, is a central concept adding to the Vatican’s uniqueness and, as a result, the analysis of its policies does not easily fit within standard international relations or foreign policy scholarship. These essays consider in detail the Vatican’s history with “permanent neutrality” and its application in diplomacy toward delicate situations as, for instance, vis a vis Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan, but also in the international relations of the Cold War in debates about nuclear non-proliferation, or outreach toward the third world, including Cuba and Venezuela. The book also considers the ineluctable tension between pastoral teachings and realpolitik, as the church faces a reckoning with its history.​


Marshall J. Breger and Herbert Reginbogin

Italy recognized the Vatican City as an independent state under the sover- eignty of the Holy See in the Lateran Treaty signed February 11, 1929. This political treaty (sometimes called the Treaty of Conciliation) included a separately signed financial convention regarding financial compensation that was appended to the Conciliation Treaty as Annex 4. At the same time, Italy and the Holy See signed a Concordat regarding their religious relations. All these are referred to as the Lateran Pact or Pacts (and variously as consisting of two or more documents. Read more….

Part I:
From the Papal States to the Vatican: 1870–1929

Chapter 1:
The Holy See and Neutrality: Vatican Diplomacy 1870-1929

John F. Pollard

The purpose of this chapter is to explore the fundamental elements of Vatican diplomacy between 1870 and 1929 and, in particular, to consider how far that diplomacy adhered to policies of neutrality and impartiality. Before Consalvi declared papal neutrality in 1821, though the pope was the Vicar of Christ, and therefore logically “The Prince of Peace,” neither neutrality nor impartiality characterized the Holy See’s international role. Since the popes’ territorial sovereignty—the so-called Temporal Power—consisted of a medium-sized state in Central Italy, they were anxious to defend, consolidate and even extend their territory. Consequently, military alliances were formed with Italian and other European states, and in the sixteenth century, one pope, Julius II, actually led his army into battle. While these alliances were chiefly a tactical response to the political situation in the Italian peninsula-like the 1508 League of Cambrai with France, the Holy Roman Empire, and Spain against Venice—they could also be more “theological” as in the alliances against Protestantism during the Thirty Years War, and against the Muslim assault upon Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: in these cases, neutrality was not an option for the papacy.

Chapter 2:
The Holy See and Neutrality in the Aftermath of World War I: The Consequences of the Treaty of Versailles and Other Peace Treaties

Kurt Martens

More than nine decades ago, on February 11, 1929, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, secretary of state of Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini, prime minister of Italy, signed two agreements in the Lateran Palace. Gasparri acted on behalf of Pope Pius XI. Mussolini represented King Vittorio Emmanuele III, the King of Italy. The two agreements—the Lateran Treaty and a Concordat between Italy and the Holy See (collectively referred to as The Lateran Pacts)— resolved a painful situation that began in 1870, when the Italian unification process’s final steps stripped the pope of the territory of the Papal States. In subsequent magisterial documents, mostly encyclicals, Pius IX and his successors lamented the Papal States’ loss and labeled the occupation of the Papal States to be in opposition with Divine Providence.

Chapter 3:
The Lateran Treaty and the Hermeneutics of the Holy See Neutrality

Maria d’Airenzo

On September 20, 1870, with the entry of the army of the Italian Kingdom into the city of Rome, the defeat of the Papal State was completed. For centuries, Rome had been the inseparable center of power of the Chair of Saint Peter. Therefore, when the Kingdom of Italy proclaimed Rome its capital city the following year, it marked the beginning of a bitter political, diplomatic, and legal dispute between the Italian State and the Holy See. History remembers this issue as the “Roman Question.”

Part II:
The Long Second World War: 1931–1945

Chapter 4:
Neutrality to the Test: The Vatican and the Fascist Wars of the Thirties

Lucia Ceci

Thanks to the Lateran Treaty, Italy finally recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See and its jurisdiction over Vatican City. This ended decades of dispute between successive popes and the leaders of the Italian state, and for the first time, the Kingdom of Italy renounced two principles of its liberal vision of the state: the idea of religion as a private matter and the exclusive sovereignty of the state. Importantly, the treaty also was an agreement signed with an authoritarian government with totalitarian ambitions. The presence of the Vatican City State in the capital of the Kingdom, as well as the privileges recognized to the Catholic Church through the concordat and the reality of the dictatorship put to the test the determination of the Vatican to maintain a position of neutrality in the international conflicts of fascist Italy.

Chapter 5:
Vatican Diplomacy and Church Realities in the Philippines during World War II

Pascal Lottaz

On the death of Pope Pius XI in 1939, Manuel L. Quezon wrote a letter of condolence on behalf of the Philippine nation, which he signed as “President of the Philippines.” Three days later, he received a warm response from the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli—soon to be Pope Pius XII—thanking the “President of the Philippine Commonwealth” for his expression of sympathy. The marginal difference in Quezon’s title was a subtle nuance but characteristic of Pacelli’s sense of diplomatic etiquette. The Commonwealth was the Philippines’ civil administration, which had been governing the island’s internal matters since 1935, in preparation for independence, which the US Congress had already granted, but that awaited the end of a ten-year transitional period. A diplomat for forty years, Pacelli was keenly aware of the importance of diplomatic accuracy. The exchange with Quezon stands in stark contrast to Pacelli’s rejection of correspondence with José P. Laurel, who became the president of the Second Republic of the Philippines, 1943 through 1945. The republic was a Japanese satellite state, which was reliant on and allied with the Japanese Empire. The Holy See (HS) never recognized it.

Chapter 6:
Pope Pius XII, Vatican Neutrality, and the Holocaust: Case Studies from the Newly Opened Vatican Archives

Suzanne Brown-Fleming

In the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas (Unity of the Human Race), drafted in 1938 but never issued, the authors made the following statement admonishing faithful Roman Catholics not to “remain silent” in the face of racism: “the struggle for racial purity ends by being uniquely the struggle against the Jews.” By 1945, this premonition of the ultimate consequences of racism and Jew-hatred—the murder of approximately six million Jews in the Shoah—had come to pass. The shelving of this draft encyclical by Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII, 1939–1958) and the pope’s decision to remain neutral and impartial during World War II was the subject of vigorous debate both then and now.

Part III:
Into the Cold: 1950–1990

Chapter 7:
No Neutrality in Ideology: The Holy See and the Cold War

Piotr H. Kosicki

“How many divisions does the pope have?”—Joseph Stalin’s October 1944 quip to Winston Churchill has taken on legendary status in the annals of European history. Yet, remarkably little attention has been paid to the con- cepts implicit in Stalin’s dismissal of the Catholic Church as an international actor. Key among these was the permanent neutrality of the Holy See. In Stalin’s eyes, this legal neutrality, agreed within article 24 of the 1929 Lateran Accords, amounted to a complete defanging of the modern Roman Catholic Church in the international arena.

Chapter 8:
The Holy See’s Efforts to Secure the Departure of Cardinal Mindszenty: Diplomacy in a Cold War Context

Arpad von Klimo and Margit Balogh

On September 29, 1971, the Hungarian Cardinal József Mindszenty concelebrated mass in St. Peter’s, on the side of Pope Paul VI. The day before, the cardinal had boarded an airplane in Vienna, after having arrived from Buda- pest. A dramatic story that had begun on November 4, 1956, fifteen years earlier, had come to an end. On that day, a massive phalanx of one thousand Soviet tanks had rolled into the Hungarian capital, and Mindszenty had asked the United States Legation (since 1967, Embassy) for refuge.

Part IV:
Post-Cold War: 1990–2020

Chapter 9:
Pope Francis and Vatican Sovereignity

Massimo Faggioli

In February 2019, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, addressed a study day at the University LUMSA (Libera Università degli Studi Maria SS Assunta di Roma) in Rome to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Pacts. Cardinal Parolin stated that through its use of “positive neutrality,” “the Holy See does not limit itself to simply looking out the window but contributes to building a dialogue between the parties involved.” Being in this kind of perpetual “dialogue” with states, he continued, is intended to “assure humanity a worthy future.” For example, the Vatican’s stance on Venezuela was shaped by this concept. Cardinal Parolin described the Vatican’s position on the Venezuelan crisis as one of “positive neutrality . . . not an attitude of someone sitting in front of a window and observing indifferently; it is an attitude of being with the parts in order to overcome the conflict.”

Chapter 10:
Neutrality as an Aid to Holy See Diplomacy: Iraq and Syria, 1991-2011

Luke Cahill

When a pope appoints new cardinals, he places the red biretta on their head and, speaking in Latin, states: “libertate et diffusione Sanctae Romane Ecclesiae,” translated as, “for the freedom and growth of the Holy Roman Church.” This chapter will argue that these two words, “freedom” and “growth,” represent “possession” and “milieu” goals, respectively in Arnold Wolfer’s typology. Thus, freedom is a possession goal, and growth is a milieu goal. Possession goals denominate ends that states seek to maximize their status or power, such as security or territory. In contrast, milieu goals describe ends that states seek to shape their international environment such as “growth.” This chapter argues that the Holy See demonstrates a combined traditional temporal and religious ontology, which is why it is difficult to make direct comparisons to other states. In essence, the Holy See’s possession goals primarily protect Catholics and Christians in the Middle East. Its milieu goals relate to promoting the common good, human rights, and ending war. In this context, Holy See neutrality serves as both a means and an end to realize both “freedom” and “growth.” It is a means for political and theological reasons to guard the Holy See’s independence while conducting diplomacy.

Chapter 10:
The Church and the Bomb: Holy See Diplomacy and Nuclear Weapons

Maryann Cusimano Love

Pope Francis and the Catholic Church have doubled down on their opposition to nuclear weapons. For the Holy See, neutrality does not mean the Catholic Church is neutral on issues such as nuclear disarmament. As Massimo Faggioli notes in this volume and his book The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis, the Holy See strives for a role of “positive neutrality.” This is not a “bystander” neutrality, but one committed to bringing marginalized voices from the periphery to participate in dialogue, mainly through the United Nations and multilateral institutions, which reflects Catholic theology of the unity of God’s diverse human family, mirroring the unity of a Trinitarian God. Pope Francis and Holy See diplomats have played a critically essential role in raising voices from the periphery, bringing atomic and nuclear weapons survivors to testify at the United Nations and multilateral fora, such as Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki. Putting a human face on nuclear disarmament issues has raised awareness of the danger and humani- tarian impact of nuclear weapons, achieving the long-sought treaty banning nuclear weapons, and renewing commitment to deeper nuclear disarmament at a time when nuclear arms control and disarmament are threatened. The Catholic Church has long worked for nuclear disarmament and a nuclear weapons ban, using its dual positions as an ancient prestate actor with more than 1.3 billion followers in every country, and as a sovereign actor with the oldest diplomatic corps on the planet. The Church is working simultaneously to change both nuclear weapons policy as well as the normative framework by which we judge nuclear weapons, so as to strengthen the nuclear taboo at a time when it is being undermined.

Chapter 10:
Vatican’s / Holy See’s Approach to Nonproliferation: The US and Japan

Saho Matsumoto

Just before ending the Second Vatican Council in December 1965, Pope Paul VI, who had recently succeeded John XXIII, declared that the Vatican would officially join the United Nations as a Permanent Observer. The move was timed to coincide with the first reconciliation with the Orthodox Church since the Great Schisma of 1054. This was the historical moment when the Holy See’s official diplomatic commitment to international organizations really began. It is also well known that this decision followed soon after Pope John XXIII’s role in helping to mediate a solution to the Cuban missile crisis through his contact with Alexei A. Adzhubei, the son-in-law of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, and the first Catholic US president, John F. Kennedy. Thus, from the start, the Vatican’s relations with international organizations were influenced by the issue of the threat of nuclear war. Accordingly, as a neutral power and as a Permanent Observer to the United Nations, the Vatican tried to play an important role in dealing with nuclear issues during the Cold War, which has continued in the post–Cold War period up to the present.

Chapter 10:
Power and Spirituality: The Collision of Canon and International Law

Herbert Reginbogin

Popes have been entrusted as “the Vicar of Christ and the pastor of the Universal Church on earth,” exercising universal power over the Catholic Church. They are at the forefront of securing humanitarian aid pursuing all necessary measures to alleviate the civilian population’s suffering in conflict situations. The Holy See has helped mediate peaceful settlements of international disputes or cease-fires to end hostilities during two world wars, between Chile and Argentina in 1978 and the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 to 1981, or the official re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba in 2015. Even when the pope was officially without sovereign territory between 1870 and 1929 and thus deprived of the traditional attributes as a sovereign, he was called upon by States to mediate settlements of international conflicts. Even before the Vatican became a permanently neutral state, as laid out in article 24 of the Lateran Treaty (1929), the pope maintained an aura of neutrality.