The pope’s eleven

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Editorial, General, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2011), Volume 19

Why doesn’t the Vatican City, a sovereign state, represented at the United Nations, have a football team? After all, other European micro-states—Liechtenstein, the Faroe Islands (in Ireland’s qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup), Andorra and San Marino (like the Vatican, also surrounded by Italian territory)—have international football teams. Sure, it only has a population of c. 800 from which to select a team, and the ‘granny rule’ might prove to be a problem (or would it?), but that could be offset by its network of clergy worldwide and judicious use of FIFA’s residency rules. And we know that it has had some good players in the past: Pope John Paul II was known to have been handy between the sticks.Seriously, isn’t it time that the whole notion of the Vatican as a sovereign state—courtesy of the 1929 Lateran Treaty with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy—be called into question, particularly in the light of its alleged attempts, to quote Taoiseach Enda Kenny, ‘to frustrate an inquiry [the Cloyne Report] in a sovereign, democratic republic’? What is the theological basis for the Vatican’s claim to temporal power? Historically, it used to be based on the Donation of Constantine—a decree from Rome’s first Christian emperor, supposedly transferring authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the pope—now known to be a forgery. This is of more than just academic interest to people in Ireland; it was also the basis for Laudabiliter, the papal bull issued in 1155 by Pope Adrian IV, giving King Henry II of England the right to assume control over Ireland.Wouldn’t the Catholic Church be better off unburdened by these temporal pretensions? There is a precedent of sorts in Irish history. The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869—prior to that a collection of sinecures for the dimmer sons of the Anglican landed gentry—is now seen by its adherents in retrospect as having been a positive development, setting it on the road to becoming a self-sustaining bona fide religious organisation. Moreover, the Catholic Church itself survived for nearly 60 years (1870–1929) without a temporal headquarters, a period of unprecedented consolidation in Ireland. When the present pope, then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, stated that ‘standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church’ (quoted out of context in the taoiseach’s 20 July speech), he was merely stating the obvious: the Catholic Church, no more than any other organised religion, is not a democracy. Fair enough. But by the same token surely it is time for it to recognise that it is not a sovereign state but a religion . . . either that or go the whole hog and put a football team on the field.

Tommy Graham


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