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St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome is considered the mother church of all the Catholic churches in the Western world; inscribed on the church facade for all to see are the Latin words “omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater et caput,” meaning, “The mother and head of all the churches of the city and of the world.”

Lateran Treaty

From the eighth through the middle of the 19th century, the papacy had been gifted with many territories, including much of central Italy. That area, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic Sea, became known as the Papal States and geographically split Italy in two. In 1870, King Victor Emmanuel II, as part of his effort to unite all of Italy and establish a new government, annexed the Papal States and occupied the city of Rome in a movement called the Risorgimento. The new government essentially took the Papal States and Rome away from the pope. Pope Pius IX (r. 1846-1878) reacted by excommunicating everyone involved with the invasion. 

The king attempted to treat the papacy diplomatically and offered Pius that the pope could keep Vatican City, the palaces and churches, the liberty to conduct religious activities, receive financial compensation for the Papal States and even have authority to conduct diplomatic relations. Pope Pius stated firmly that the state government had illegally seized Rome and the Papal States. Further, and most importantly, he claimed that he would not be put in a position of being subject to the Italian government as required by King Victor Emmanuel. He declared himself “a prisoner of the Vatican” and retreated into the Vatican palace from which he and the popes who followed refused to leave for the next 59 years. This situation, or standoff, became known as the Roman Question. 

In early 1929, after many of the original principals associated with the Roman Question had died and the political situation had changed, the Vatican and the Italian government ended this problem. Pope Pius XI recognized the Kingdom of Italy with the city of Rome as the capital and officially ceded the Papal States to the government. In return, the government agreed to recognize the Vatican as a sovereign state with its own police force, post office, newspaper and radio station. The Vatican could exchange diplomatic emissaries as it deemed necessary. The papacy would possess Vatican City and all the palaces and churches including those extraterritorial possessions like St. John Lateran and the pope’s summer home, Castel Gandolfo. Other concessions included a financial payment to the Vatican for the annexation of the Papal States, and the government agreed that the Catholic Church would be identified as the state church of Italy. There was no mention of the pope being subject to the Italian government. Treaties reflecting these agreements were signed in the Lateran Palace on Feb. 11, 1929. The Holy See was now a national state, independent of Italy, with its own head of state (the pope), government and church. The Lateran Agreement was superseded by a new concordat between the Holy See and the Italian government in June 1985.