I know little about Joseph Stalin's sense of humor, but I would imagine that he was cracking a joke when he once asked sarcastically: "How many divisions does the pope have?" It would be amusing, I think, to poll Catholics concerning their knowledge of the nature and origins of the tiny state, the Vatican, of which the pope is the chief. Many people probably think it's simply a suburb of Rome, where the pope happens to reside… which it is, in a way. Others might imagine the Vatican as an ancient autonomous territory, akin to Monaco or Liechtenstein, set up back in the days of Saint Peter and his companions. In fact, the Vatican is a relatively young "nation", of a quite artificial kind, founded on 11 February 1929.
The Vatican was the bastard offspring of Benito Mussolini and a wishy-washy pope, Pius XI, who never once had the courage to oppose the ugly Fascist dictator in an outspoken manner. Finally, Mussolini may have even been responsible for assassinating the pontiff by means of a mortal injection on 10 February 1939.
It's good to reflect upon these murky origins of the Vatican when we see Benedict XVI about to set foot in Britain, where he'll be treated, as usual, as a chief of state.
But the visit will surely be marred by all kinds of allusions to the current scandals about pedophilia within the church. It's not by chance that the distinguished British barrister Geoffrey Robertson has just brought out a book that examines in depth the international legal grounds for granting—or not granting—diplomatic immunity to such a straw-man leader during his four-day visit to the UK.
Click the cover image to access pertinent comments by Paula Kirby (on the Richard Dawkins website) of this recently-published book.