Unless a person is a member of the Catholic faith, most people don’t give a great deal of thought to what they think of as “the Vatican”, unless there is some noteworthy story concerning the Church. Most historians (both professionals and amateurs) are well versed, in varying degrees, about the Church’s history. Historians know that the Holy See – the actual leadership of the complex structure that is Catholicism – is an independent and sovereign nation, a condition settled by the Lateran Pacts of 1929, after seventy years of upheaval. But really – it’s not like the Catholic Church is actually a nation, right?
Well, no, actually. That is not the case, at all. And while it of course is a matter of immediate impact to the 1.3 billion-odd Catholics in the world, it is also a major concern – or should be – for non-Catholics, including non-Christians, throughout the world.
The Catholic Church – the strictly religious organization – has certainly existed in some form for over two thousand years; in fact, our formal dating system (i.e., “2023AD”, where ‘AD’ means “Anno Domini”, or, literally, “in the Year of our Lord”) is based on the Church’s established interpretation of the historical timeline.
During those twenty-odd centuries the temporal authority of the Holy See has waxed and waned. Where it once held immediate and direct sway over the secular affairs of much of the Christian world, in the minds of most people – even of most Catholics – the notion of the Pope as a secular leader is somewhat bizarre. In 1870, when Italy was finally united, the Holy See was stripped of its “Papal States”, although the Pope of the day, Pius IX, flatly refused to recognize the “Law of Guarantees” imposed on his rule, and referred to his rule, as well as that of his successors, as the “Prisoner in the Vatican” era.
This was the situation that remained in force until the signing of the aforementioned Lateran Pacts in 1929 by Pope Pius XI, which created the modern division between the Holy See, and the Vatican as a sovereign city-state, albeit a tiny one, only holding some 108 acres within the city of Rome. However, these remain technical differences. Among those differences is that Vatican City the City-State retains its own military forces…whose “commander in chief” (to use the modern term) is the Pope.
And it is here, that we reach the subject of this article.
Unlike most of the articles like this at the Freedomist, this is not a historical piece. Instead, we will consider the Vatican’s potential to impact current affairs through creating and applying military action.
While the Holy See is no stranger to maintaining military forces – some of which still exist – it has not had “operationally deployable forces” (again, to borrow the modern vernacular) since 1870. It does retain military and police forces, specifically the Pontifical Swiss Guard and the less-well known Gendarmerie Corps of Vatican City State.
While the Swiss Guard, famous for their Renaissance-period ceremonial armor and uniforms, directly protects the Pope (or the College of Cardinals, when they gather to elect a new Bishop of Rome), the Gendarmerie conducts more police-like duties within Vatican City, mostly managing tourist traffic. The Swiss Guard has significantly improved their protective training in the decades since the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. Still, these two forces comprise barely two hundred and fifty troops, and are only armed with the lightest of small arms.
Additionally, of the Church’s remaining military orders, only the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM) is really “military” in any way: SMOM maintains a military medical detachment, providing medical support to the Italian Armed Forces.
Should the Holy See decide to expand its secular military, finances are not an issue, should the Vatican decide to reform an operational military arm. Accusations of certain fiscal shenanigans aside, the Holy See is fully capable of mobilizing all of the vast capital (much of it not easily tracked down) that it controls. At the same time, a program soliciting remittance-like donations (even tithes) from Catholics would provide a significant boost to the Holy See’s income stream. Spent wisely, Vatican finances are more than sufficient to field a very large force, and very quickly, as the world is awash in arms and equipment.
But surely, this is all hypothetical. It’s not like the Vatican is going to suddenly militarize. Right?
States have a habit of changing their nature quickly, and sometimes functionally overnight; take modern Iran as one example. How would such a thing happen to the Holy See?
While the current leadership of the Holy See and Vatican City are well known for “liberal” policies that could easily change. Granted, it would have to be an extraordinary circumstance, but a change to a staunchly conservative, even reactionary, leadership within the Church is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. In such a circumstance, assuming that a reactionary Pope ascended to the Throne of St. Peter, and decided to field a functional military, how would that take shape?
First, the reactionary Pope would need to define a mission for the expanding Papal forces. Given the nature of the modern era, this could easily begin with a revival of the Papacy’s long-disbanded Papal State forces, including its navy.
One of the curiosities of the Covid pandemic was that many cruise lines retired their older cruise ships, selling them off for scrap, using the suspension of cruise travel to purchase new ships. Many of the ships that were scrapped were still usable, and could have been converted into hospital ships, with a land component to handle the more delicate surgeries at dockside. This is completely in line with the current mission of SMOM, and could be presented as an expansion of the Order’s mission…Of course, the docked vessels would need armed guards.
An expansion of this mission is where things start to get dicey. With the active persecution of Catholics and other Christians (to say nothing of other religious groups) by terror groups like ISIL, it would be entirely plausible to see Papal “peacekeeping forces” inserting into conflict zones to defend refugee camps from attack. As has been painfully learned in the last two decades, such defense measures require serious weapons and training. That requires an army, an army with equipment…and bases.
This is not an implausible thought exercise. The Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with some one hundred and eighty nations, giving it all the diplomatic ‘in’ it needs to open a dialogue with a potential host nation. Likewise, there are many Third World states that would welcome a Vatican military base inside their borders, even with limited extraterritoriality.
But – where would all the necessary military talent come from? It’s not like this is the Renaissance, with large number of experienced troops and officers available for hire at short notice, even given the vast numbers of PMC’s available for hire. The answer is unsettlingly simple.
With an estimated worldwide population of 1.3 billion Catholics – many of them, from many countries, being former soldiers and officers, many with recent combat experience – the Holy See has no shortage of potential recruits to recruit from, including many officers and long-serving enlisted personnel with all the necessary skills to train a force that would resemble the French Foreign Legion in character, given the disparate origins of its recruits.
Numbers-wise, it should be remembered that India – with a population similar in size to the Catholic Church – currently fields a force of around 2.5 million troops, counting reverses. The Holy See would not need anything approaching that number…at least, not initially. However, given the money and space to house and train troops, it could easily assemble a comparable force.
…Now, all of the preceding is speculation. There is no sign that the Catholic Church is going to suddenly “arm up”, drawing in hundreds of thousands of Catholics from around the world to join a massive military force, and no indication that it is even thinking about it.
But it is possible…And possibilities offer options.
Deus Vult, indeed.