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What is the Holy See?

Niki Acker
Updated Feb 04, 2024
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The Holy See can be considered to be the government of the Roman Catholic Church. The term is a bit complicated, however, and it can be used to refer to a number of different entities. Ot includes the territory of Vatican City; the literal seat or cathedra of the Pope in the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome; the Pope himself, who is sovereign over the Vatican City territory; and the other bodies of the government, known collectively as the Roman Curia.

In former centuries, the Holy See held sovereignty over a much larger territory in Italy known as the Papal States. In the mid-19th century, Italian nationalists began encroaching on the Papal States, and the territory was finally eliminated altogether in 1870. Vatican City was established in 1929 through the Lateran Treaty, an agreement between the Holy See and the Italian government. Named after the Roman Curia, sometimes called the Vatican, Vatican City was created as a tangible symbol of the independence of the Church as a political and diplomatic entity.

This government is complex, with three Tribunals, nine Congregations, 11 Pontifical Councils, and many offices with various functions. Second in importance to the pope is the Secretariat of State, whose incumbent, the Cardinal Secretary of State — officially called Secretary of State of His Holiness The Pope — is similar to the prime minister in many secular governments. From 2006 to early 2013, the holder of this office was Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, but he left office when Pope Benedict XVI resigned. In addition to the management of worldwide Church affairs and doctrine, the Holy See has offices dealing with judicial and financial functions.

The Holy See has a rich history of diplomatic relations dating from the 4th century. Today, it boasts 175 diplomatic relationships around the world, spanning every continent, along with 179 permanent diplomatic missions. Since its establishment in the 15th century, the Secretariat of State has overseen these relations. The government is also an active member of many international organizations, and an observer in many more, including the United Nations.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By TrogJoe19 — On Feb 10, 2011

The holy vatican is an immensely beautiful place, with relics from history everywhere. The obelisk in front of St. Peter's basilica dates back to the time of the Romans, and even farther, to ancient Egypt, from whence it was transported by the Roman empire.

By Qohe1et — On Feb 09, 2011


It may be true, but I think it is helpful for moral authorities to be speaking out against Silvio Berlusconi. His leadership certainly isn't moral, he is in control of much of the media and has kept his position by using an iron fist. And that's not even the worst: he is known to have had multiple affairs with underage models, and milks his power to the utmost.

By anon144794 — On Jan 20, 2011

The Vatican has a problem with the Italian Prime Minister? They are on very shaky moral ground to be stating that.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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