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Is the Catholic Church [Vatican, Holy See] a State?

From an exchange on LRC blog a few years ago:

First, Chris Manion had a post, Pope Benedict on Charity and Truth, about Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical letter, “Caritas in Veritate,” which is about the importance of (necessarily voluntary) eleemosynary activities. As Manion writes:

First, Charity is by definition voluntary. As soon as it becomes mandatory, it is no longer charity. It is theft backed by power, and the lust for power is recognized by the Church as the sin of Satan himself (1 John 2:16; Luke 4, passim).  The Charity that Benedict calls for is the freely-given Christian love of individuals (states, after all, cannot love), and the pope calls on all of us to devote ourselves more fully and deeply to this love, the fruit of which is voluntary generosity and the source of which is Christ.

Second, truth is the indispensable companion of true charity. Given their track record, the possibility that today’s governments could suddenly be trusted to tell the truth about anything, much less about what they are doing with the money taken from the productive taxpayer by force, would require a visible and profound conversion of truly miraculous proportions.

This demand for truth and voluntary charity — genuine Christian love — is central to all the particuars the Pope is calling for. The opportunistic left is busily cutting this beating heart out of the pope’s letter, and trying to peddle the cadaver as a shabby leftist diatribe against economic freedom. As we might expect, their approach embodies neither truth nor charity.

My reply and some others that followed, are below:

Re: Pope Benedict on Charity and Truth

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on July 7, 2009 04:05 PM

Chris–quite right about charity being voluntary. And not only that, as far as I know, the Holy See is the only state in the world that does not tax–it’s supported by voluntary donations of a billion Catholics around the globe. It’s the most libertarian state in the world.

Is the Vatican a State?

Posted by Lew Rockwell on July 7, 2009 06:21 PM

Stephan, while the Vatican is called a state, it is actually a voluntary community. See Carlo Lottieri’s paper, “Vatican City as a Free Society.”

Re: Is the Vatican a State

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on July 7, 2009 10:17 PM

Lew, excellent point. This highlights the need to distinguish the political conception of the state from more positivist definitions such as the one I was employing.

This is actually a quite fascinating area. International law generally sets forth four criteria for statehood: “The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.” (Art. I, Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States) Given such criteria, there are various “micro” and borderline “states,” such as San Marino, Monaco, and Lichtenstein. And “states” are not the only “legal persons” under international law–there are also international organizations such as the UN (see Brownlie, ch. 3) and other sui generis entities such as the Holy See (Vatican City is not a state under international law; it has a murky relationship with the Holy See). But even by positive international law standards the Holy See’s status as a state is borderline (see Brownlie, p. 64), although it is recognized as a (non-member) state by the UN.

Is being a “state” in this sense necessarily unlibertarian? I think not, since none of these criteria, even “government,” necessarily implies aggression. Libertarians are against aggression, and thus also against institutionalized aggression; the “state” opposed by libertarians is the agency of organized or institutionalized aggression. In Power and Market, Rothbard quotes Oppenheimer from his The State:

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. … I propose … to call one’s own labor and the equivalent exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others “the economic means” for the satisfaction of needs, while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the “political means.” … The state is an organization of the political means [emphasis added].

Or, as Oppenheimer defined it in his introduction to The State: “I mean by [the 'State'] that summation of privileges and dominating positions which are brought into being by extra economic power. And in contrast to this, I mean by Society, the totality of concepts of all purely natural relations and institutions between man and man …. ” (See also Rothbard’s classic The Anatomy of the State; update: see also my post The Nature of the State and Why Libertarians Hate It.)

Here, by the way, we see the genius of Hoppe’s essentialist definition of socialism not merely as centralized control of the means of production, but as “an institutionalized interference with or aggression against private property and private property claims” (A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, p. 2; also see pp. 12). To those who would object that this means all states are socialist, and all socialism is statist–yes. Exactly; and this is why libertarians are anti-state. It is because we are anti-aggression; and all states (in our sense) employ aggression; and this is what is also wrong with socialism: it is merely institutionalized aggression (update: see also my article What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist).  Thus Hoppe explicitly writes:

There can be no socialism without a state, and as long as there is a state there is socialism. The state, then, is the very institution that puts socialism into action; and as socialism rests on aggressive violence directed against innocent victims, aggressive violence is the nature of any state.

(A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, pp. 148-49; emphasis added)

In short: Lew, I stand corrected. The Holy See does not tax; it does not compel; it does not commit aggression. It is not a state in our sense, no matter what the UN calls it. And maybe this is why it is hated by leftists and liberals.


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