It's always dropped as a factoid that supposedly confirms the sexual depravity of the Catholic Church. It's a bit of a nonsense really, on several counts, so I thought I'd document these reasons in a post to save myself from repeating this in future comments.
How big is the Vatican City?
The Vatican City is an area within the city of Rome, Italy. It can be described as a City-State. It is around 110 acres in area (approx 0.44 square kilometres) and has a population of around 800, making it the smallest country in the world in terms of land size and population.
No schools. No families. No children.
The Vatican is not a traditional "country" with families and schools and children growing up. It's a small area of land not even half a square kilometer serving as the central government of the Catholic Church, with tourists and visitors typically leaving the grounds at the end of the day. Thus, the applicability of this law is more conceptual than actual. The total number of inhabitants living in the Vatican City is around 800. Most of them are clergy, with 100 Swiss Guards, Clerical (admin who are actually clerics!) staff and a handful of others, usually short term residents there on work.
Inheriting Italian Laws
The Vatican City-State was created under the terms of the Lateran Pacts of 1929 between Italy and The Holy See. The pact consists of three treaties. The main intent of the pact was to formally recognise the sovereignty of the Holy See and come to settlement over past losses the Catholic Church suffered (Conciliation Treaty [CT], Article 26).
In it's creation, the Vatican City automatically inherited Italy's laws and penal code. It also allowed that the Vatican would hand over criminals to be tried in Italy, under Italian Law (CT Article 22). The Vatican City does not have civil courts.
One of these laws it inherited was the age of sexual consent, which was 12. This is the "factoid" bandied about on the internet. It is incomplete information, and is likely incorrect.
It is incomplete because the law had two parts. The second part mentions the age of consent is 15 where one of the parties was some-one in a relationship of dependence, such as a Doctor-Patient or Teacher-Student. We could therefore expect the Vatican to prosecute on these issues as a minimum.
However, as I said, this fact is likely incorrect. From what I can determine, the source of this information comes from the Wikipedia page listing the age of consent for all countries around the world [ref]. It argues that once these laws came into existence in 1929, they were fixed from then on. This is not so. The pact allowed for the laws of Italy, as they changed, to continually apply to the Vatican. Currently, this age is 14/16. Specifically:
The age of consent in Italy is 14 years, with a close-in-age exception that allows those aged 13 to engage in sexual activity with partners who are less than 3 years older. The age of consent rises to 16 if one of the participants has some kind of influence on the other (e.g. teacher, tutor, biological or adoptive parent)
Fixed Laws or Changing Laws?
A single paragraph in the Wikipedia, without proper citation suggests the laws were fixed in time. That conflicts with several other sources. Without going into them all, let's cut to the chase: In December 31, 2008 the Holy See announced that it would no longer automatically inherit new or changing laws from the Italian Penal Code. A BBC article summarises this:
The Vatican City State, the world's smallest sovereign state, has decided to divorce itself [BBC humour? - Zen] from Italian law. Vatican legal experts say there are too many laws in Italian civil and criminal codes, and that they frequently conflict with Church principles.It's pretty clear from this that Italy and the Holy See understood the current civil laws of Italy applied to the Vatican right up until 2009. It appears that the unreferenced paragraph in the Wikipedia was in error.
With effect from New Year's Day, the Pope has decided that the Vatican will no longer automatically adopt laws passed by the Italian parliament.
All Italian laws will be examined one by one before they are adopted.
Under the Lateran treaties signed exactly 80 years ago between Italy and the Pope, and the Italian Parliamentary system, Italian laws were applied automatically.
Is Italian Civil Law the only law applicable?
However, just because the Vatican City inherits Italian law, it doesn't necessarily mean they represent a "maximum offence", particularly where there is a direct conflict against Church teachings. The treaty provides provision for Canon Law to apply.
The first treaty document discusses the absolute sovereignty and independence of the Vatican, explicitly backed by international law. The third document - The Conciliation Treaty spells out the nature of the protection of the Catholic Faith and the importance of Canon Law.
For example, Article 34 of the Concordat starts off:
Art. 34. The Italian State, wishing to restore to the institution of matrimony, which is the foundation of the family, that dignity which is conformable with the Catholic traditions of its people, recognizes the civil effects of the Sacrament of matrimony regulated by Canon Law.
and further on:
The provisions and the relative sentences when they have become definitive shall be carried to the supreme tribunal of the Segnatura, which shall control them and see that the norm of the Canon Law relative to the competence of the judge, the citations, the legitimate representation and the contumacy of the parties, has been observed.
So, when considering the age of consent, the question becomes "what exactly is the party consenting to?" It is well known that Catholic teaching is against sex before marriage, and in civil law, the age of consent for marriage is different than the deemed age of consent for sex.
Does Canon Law respect civil law? That is, to what extent do the secular laws of the country come into play when considering a Catholic Marriage? Canon Law 1058 gives us an idea: All persons who are not prohibited by law can contract marriage.
In other words, the Catholic Church would typically respect the secular laws of the country in which it operates. For Italians, the age of marriage without parental consent is 18.
However, the link between Canon Law and the Italian Legal Code has been ignored by many detractors over the years. In 1984 Italy and the Holy See reaffirmed the Lateran Treaty and took the time to restate acceptance of Italian Constitutional rights without prejudice to the canon legal system (Note 2c)
Article 8 of this document stressed the importance of marriage, and acknowledged that marriage would not take place: When the spouses do not meet the requirements of age determined by civil law for celebration;
Now this might seem to be a little off topic. What if we find ourselves in the situation where, against all Catholic teaching, two 12 year olds have engaged in sex, in one of the gardens of the Vatican City. Having been caught, they are technically breaking Vatican law. For argument lets even allow they are not breaking the law if the 1929 laws applied.
Either way, one might consider that the State has no interest in prosecuting two minors in this regard - it is a matter for the parents. On the other hand, some critics use this "age of consent" to suggest the Catholic Church is immoral for not prosecuting through the court system. They would undoubtedly prefer the Church to hand these youths to the Italian authorities, and under Article 22, have them prosecuted under Italian Law.
This issue is probably worth a separate post, as it actually raises some very fundamental points on how far we wish the state to go in regulating on essentially private matters. In New Zealand, it is illegal for 13 year olds to have sex. Yet, it's not illegal to supply contraception. Surely, this is prima facie evidence that illegal sex is occurring, and the law must be enforced?
In practice, the underage sex laws in NZ are rarely enforced. I recall a case of an adult having sex and getting the child pregnant at age 13. It turned out he had a sexual relationship with this girl since she was 11. The police chose not to prosecute. It seems the laws are there only for show. Whilst atheists take pot shots at the Vatican City, where the law is basically irrelevant, continual disregard for the law they demand in New Zealand is standard operating procedure.
Moving along, what if one of the parties is older? In that situation the youngest must now be at least 14 (13 if the other is under 16). They could still be handed over to the Italian police, and let them determine if a law is broken. If there is a relationship of dependence and the minor is 15, or the person is under 14, they have still broken the Law, and prosecution becomes a secular matter.
The meme that the age of consent in the Vatican is 12 is incorrect, given current Italian Laws apply for the reasons outlined above. Furthermore, the law would seem largely academic given the unique situation that the Vatican City is a small City State whose function is to house the government of the Catholic Church. It is not a country that has children growing up and going to school and spending summer holidays walking the 110 acres of grounds.
Also, Catholic teaching reinforces the sacrament of marriage, and discourages sex outside of marriage. Canon Law respects the civil laws of the country it operates in. Detractors of the Catholic Church seem indifferent about this. The civil laws they try to hold the Vatican City accountable to are largely ignored in New Zealand by the authorities, with nary the same outrage expressed by these people. How hypocritical. I'd be interested in a debate on just how far the State should go in criminalizing consensual sex between like-aged participants. I wonder if these people have sons and daughters they will haul off to the police when they find contraceptives in the sock draw? I doubt it.
Related Link: Age of Consent in Italy and the Vatican
Related Link: About the Vatican City
Related Link: The Lateran Pacts