The Vatican City is the physical seat of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. For many centuries, the popes of the Roman Catholic Church held sovereignty over a wide band of territory across central Italy. In 1861, however, these Papal States fell under the control of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The pope's sovereignty was limited to Rome and its surrounding areas. In 1870, even Rome itself was forcibly incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy. In 1871, the Italian Parliament passed the Law of Guarantees that secured the pope's spiritual freedom, an income, and special status for the Vatican area. Unwilling to accept this arrangement, however, the popes from 1871 until 1929 remained as self-imposed prisoners in the Vatican until a more permanent political and financial agreement, the Lateran Treaty, was signed with the Italian government in 1929. A new concordat was signed in 1984 that further specified church-state relations between the Holy See and Italy.
A constitution, published at the same time the Lateran Treaty went into effect, provided for the pope to exercise supreme legislative, executive, and judicial power within the Vatican City. The pope delegates, however, internal administration to the Pontifical Commission for the State of the Vatican City, which is assisted by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic City. The Pontifical Commission consists of seven cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church and a lay special delegate, with the assistance of a board of 21 lay advisors. The principal government officials, other than the pope, are the secretary of state and the secretary of the Sacred Council for Public Affairs.
Following the death of a reigning pope, the College of Cardinals is called into conclave to choose a successor from their number. The cardinal who receives two-thirds of the vote is elected pope for life. There are no political parties and no local government. Much of the government's work is devoted to the needs of the Catholic Church and is conducted by offices called Sacred Councils. Each office is headed by a cardinal who holds his position for five years. Thus, the Vatican can be characterized as a monarchical-sacerdotal (hereditary-priestly) state.
The Vatican issues its own currency, stamps, and passports. Defense is the responsibility of Italy, but internal security is maintained by a contingent of the Swiss Guard and a civilian security corps. Judicial authority for criminal cases resides in the Vatican Courts. For ordinary legal matters, which typically involve religious cases, there are tribunals inside the Vatican to decide issues. Appeals can be made to the Roman Rota or, in exceptional cases, to the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature.