It makes for the juiciest headlines: “Vatican official says...” or “...found at the Vatican” Whatever was said or done or found, the headlines imply, applies to the entire Catholic Church around the world. After all, it was said, or done, or found at “the Vatican.”
But what is the Vatican, and what is its relationship with the worldwide Catholic Church?
The easiest way to put it is that “the Vatican” is several different things at once.
The Vatican is a shrine to St. Peter.
That is how "the Vatican" got its origin as, well, "the" Vatican. Before that, it was just a hill across the Tiber from Rome, and not even one of the "seven hills" of the eternal city. But the Apostle Peter was crucified there, on Nero's racetrack (still marked by the obelisk that was at its center), and there Peter was buried. In time, a small memorial rose on the site, as pilgrims carefully made their way to the cemetery, leaving graffiti in Greek and Latin characters. Constantine built a basilica-style church over the site, digging into the hill to orient the building properly. Today we see Michaelangelo's dome rise over the grave of a crucified Jew, as Bernini's colonnade welcomes the world in.
The Vatican is a miniature nation.
Vatican City is an independent city-state, 108 acres in size, established in 1929 in the Lateran Treaty (signed by Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel III and Pope Pius XI). It consists of the property around St. Peter's Basilica, plus several “extra-territorial” locales, such as the major basilicas. During the Nazi occupation of Rome, the independence of the Vatican and its diplomatic neutrality were highly significant for the Jews who found refuge in "extra-territorial" locations across Rome and in Assisi.
As an civil entity, Vatican City-State has a government, court system, postal system, etc. On behalf of the Vatican City State, the Holy See has diplomatic relationships with other governments, as well as a place as a “Permanent Observer” at the United Nations. According to the website of the Holy See's mission to the U.N., at present the Holy See has full diplomatic relations with 177 of the 193 member nations of the U.N.
The Vatican is a network of departments at the service of the Pope's ministry.
With 1.2 billion Catholics scattered around the world, the Pope can hardly feed Christ's lambs and sheep on his own. Headquartered at or near Vatican City are a variety of departments charged with the day to day duties of administration in many areas. Two of the most famous departments (or “dicasteries”) are the Secretariat of State (on one hand, a kind of general government that handles internal affairs, publishing, communications, etc, and on the other the diplomatic corps and relations with other nations) and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which media love to call by its Renaissance moniker, the “Holy Office” or the “Roman Inquisition.” This department is charged with protecting the authenticity of the Catholic faith as it is taught around the world.
These are far from the only two important dicasteries in Rome. There are also Sacred Congregations (major offices) for Bishops, the Clergy, Institutes of Consecrated Life, Divine Worship, Eastern Churches, Evangelization, Catholic Education, Causes of Saints. These are all major dicasteries of “the Vatican.” They usually have a Cardinal as President, and a bishop as “secretary” (more along the lines of an executive vice-president). Several Cardinals may be appointed to each of these major departments, which address areas profoundly associated with the life of the Church.
“The Vatican” also has a series of departments ranked “Pontifical Councils”: for the Laity, Christian Unity, the Family, for Life, Justice and Peace, “Cor Unum” (charitable works), for Migrants, for Healthcare Workers, for the Interpretation of Canon Law, for Inter-religious Dialogue, for Social Communications, for the New Evangelization...
Then there are the offices responsible for day to day matters: the “Prefecture of the Papal Household,” the Office for Economic Affairs, the security detail (“Swiss Guard”).
Although Pope John XXIII is said to have commented that “about half” of the Vatican employees actually work there, the number of employees in the various Vatican offices numbers about 3,000.
The Vatican is not the headquarters for the Diocese of Rome.
Even though the Pope is Bishop of Rome, the day to day functioning of the Diocese of Rome is not handled at the Vatican, but near the mother Church of Rome (and of all the Churches), the Lateran Basilica. A Cardinal-Vicar for Rome usually acts in the Pope's stead for matters that regard the Diocese.
At the recent conclave, the call for reform was heard frequently and forcefully. This is not to say that everything about the Vatican's many dicasteries is corrupt, but it is an acknowledgement that in some cases, a culture may have arisen within some of them that rewards relationships over competence, or that an established way of assigning tasks or responding to needs is no longer adequate in assisting the Pope in his worldwide ministry, and yet has become so entrenched in the system that it doesn't occur to anyone that it needs to be revisited. People who have conducted matters in a certain way their entire career are unlikely to welcome the suggestion that it is no longer useful; they may even undermine efforts at renewal. There may be duplication of effort, overlapping competencies, habits that are all but impossible to uproot except by a rather general overhaul. In other words, there is plenty to do to enhance the services provided by these many departments. These are not problems specific to the Church or to the Vatican; any reader of a Dilbert comic strip can relate to them. Where the Vatican's issues are unique revolves around a particular view of ordained ministry that does not permit women and lay persons to be assigned positions where they might have “authority” over an ordained minister, even if the authority is strictly secular in nature.
Many eyes are waiting to see how Pope Francis approaches the task of reforming “the Vatican.”
This is the 7th of 7 articles in the series of "Things Every Catholic Should Know about the Papacy." Previous articles are: