Joseph Stalin once famously quipped: "The Pope! How many divisions has he got?"

Technically speaking, the pope IS a secular ruler of a country that holds an observer status at the UN, and as far as I'm aware, has a standing military (Swiss guard mercenaries).

The Popes of the past clearly had a lot of military power and participated in and started tons of wars (most notably, several Crusades).

As such, can Vatican (or Pope) legally declare war in 2013?

The answer should be based on actual Vatican/Catholic Church legal rulings or official statements.

The question does NOT pertain to whether Catholic doctrine views the idea of declaring war positively.

  • 1
    Now I'm wondering if there's any country that has a smaller standing military, or has no military and hasn't designated another country as its defender. Aug 30 '13 at 12:37
  • @AndrewGrimm - "designated" is squishy. Finland didn't "designate" another country, and isn't a member of NATO... but in reality, do you seriously think that post-1945 USSR wouldn't have gobbled them up as soon as they could (the way they tried and failed before 1941) if not for worry about Western response?
    – user4012
    Aug 30 '13 at 12:49
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    I'm tempted to cross-post this to Christianity.SE - there's a good base of Catholics including PeterTurner and @AndrewLeach who know how to answer these things... Aug 30 '13 at 13:51
  • @AffableGeek - No objection from me
    – user4012
    Aug 31 '13 at 3:59

The most difficult part of a Vatican declared war would be its promise, in the 1929 Lateran treaty to maintain perfect neutrality in international relations. Indeed, the Pope can only mediate international conflicts in certain circumstances, per this this treaty. Whether or not the Pope reserves to himself the ability to declare war (as happened throughout the XVIth and XIXth centuries), Italy, at least, with its territorial position three inches away over a solid white line, is in a position to cast a veto over that.

When Italy was fascist in WWII, this led to precarious times for the Pope, but his neutrality saved him from any actual harm. To give this up would be problematic for future Popes in similar situations.

In general, most "small" states (depending on your definition), are called protectorates. Generally speaking, a protectorate cedes its defensive authority to another country, usually along with a say in its foreign affairs, in exchange for security guarantees. The Vatican is certainly within this common pattern.


The first article of the Constitution of Vatican declares:

The Supreme Pontiff, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, has the fullness of legislative, executive and judicial power.

As such it seems, the Pope can do whatever he wants, but the term "war" does not occur anywhere in the law. Internationally, however, the term is defined.

It seems that international treaties do not enjoy primacy over domestic law, unlike most other countries and as such the Pope can issue legislation contravening the treaties.

Vatican is signatory of the Geneva Convention on rules of waging war and additional protocols, which forbids starting a war of aggression.

As such the Pope can declare war on any country, but he possibly would be considered an international war criminal in that case.

So the answer is:

  • Yes, the Pope can declare war on any country without breaking domestic law.

  • No, if he does so, he would be a war criminal on international scale who could be tried in another country or by a special international tribunal.

  • 2
    But what about the Lateran Treaty? Aug 31 '13 at 4:57
  • 2
    So the international legality of the pope waging war using the vatican is identical to that for any country?
    – Publius
    Aug 31 '13 at 7:20
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    1. Many countries do NOT give international treaties precedence over their own law (UK is an example). 2. I don't believe the Geneva Convention(s) forbid wars of aggression. It deals with treatment of non-combatants during a war. Sep 5 '13 at 16:38
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    @DJClayworth 1. this may explain why they easily break international law without consequences to the perpetrators. 2. you are right. it seems, Vatican is not a signatory of any of the treaties prohibiting wars of aggression, including the UN Charter.
    – Anixx
    Sep 5 '13 at 18:54
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    @Anixx - Despite that, your answer still says the Vatican is prohibited by the Geneva Convention from declaring war. Nov 2 '16 at 14:47

The 1992 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the conditions for a Just War Doctrine in the Catholic Faith. This doctrine lists four vary strict criteria for a "Just War" declaration:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).

Basically, if diplomacy will not work, the damage inflicted by the aggressor is going to be serious and certain, the war against those damages will not produce greater evils AND Vatican City has a reasonable chance to win the war, than the Pope may declare war if he so wishes. The Third part is the biggest issue for the Pope moving forward, as anyone powerful enough to march on the Vatican City probably will just roll over them in a full on war. That said, the Pope is the leader of one of the largest sects of any religion (1.285 Billion Catholics world wide) and a potential pool 1/7th of the world's population ready to fight for the defense of His Holiness is really crazy on the part of an aggressor state.

This doesn't begin to account for the large number of Catholic Majority countries that will have their citizens petition their governments hard to rally (The United States is one of the few Christian Majority Nations with a Catholic Minority... the rest are usually reversed). And of course, the Pope of late has been historically well loved by most secular countries... so it's not like he would not have allies aplenty.

  • Last I checked, the United States does have Catholicism as a plurality among religions, for what it’s worth, at least so long as various denominations of Protestant are treated separately and not lumped together as “Protestant.”
    – KRyan
    Feb 28 '18 at 21:19
  • I was citing Lumped as a Whole statistics.. Among Christian Sects, Protestantism is usually dwarfed by Catholicism in most nations, but the United States is not one of them.
    – hszmv
    Mar 1 '18 at 17:33

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