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Why aren’t they all called “concordats”? Why aren’t they all called “concordats”?

The “C-word” appears to be avoided, as the Church itself implies, because sometimes it’s politically advisable to pretend that a concordat is something else.

Why aren’t they all called “concordats”?

First, because some of them aren’t

There are different kinds of international agreements and only one type, the treaty, may be called a concordat. A treaty is enforceable under international law, whereas an agreement, such as a diplomatic note or a modus vivendi is not. A concordat with a democratic country needs to be formally ratified by parliament and to get around this, the Vatican and a head of state occasionally conclude a less formal agreement, such as the 1928 modus vivendi with Czechoslovakia which gave the Church what it wanted in the form of a diplomatic note.

Another reason for opting for a modus vivendi is that a concordat implies diplomatic recognition by the Vatican. However, there are cases where the Vatican either won’t or can’t extend this. During the Cold War, agreements concluded with various Communist countries avoided the international dimension altogether. They took the form of a modus vivendi between the Communist government and the local episcopate, tactfully leaving the Vatican out of it, as in the 1950 modus vivendi with Poland. The Vatican also concluded an agreement in 2000 with the Palestine Liberation Organisation which couldn't take the form of a concordat, as that is a treaty between states. However, to avoid the offhand connotations of the term modus vivendi — which means a stopgap way of getting along together — it was dignified with the Latin word, pactio.   

Second, because the word “concordat” is unfamiliar in English

Because concordats are not traditional in the English-speaking world other, better-known terms, may be used in the English-language press. Reporters may try to avoid the unfamiliar term, concordat, by calling it instead an accord, bilateral agreement, pact, settlement, convention or treaty.

Third, because the word “concordat” raises concerns about church-state separation

By the Vatican’s own admission, the word concordat isn’t used when it could encourage opposition in a countries like France or Brazil with a secular tradition or in post-fascist ones like Italy and Spain that wished to make a break with the past. On the other hand, where the Vatican thinks that using the traditional word will help remind a country of its Catholic heritage, the word concordat occasionally resurfaces. Thus, in 1993 the term concordat reappeared as the official title of the Polish concordat and in 2004, a generation after the end of the oppressive Salazar regime, there was a new Portuguese concordat, as well.  

In general, the word concordat was dropped for a time when, after Vatican II (1962-65), these agreements no longer made the Catholicism the state religion. Franco was the last European dictator who would give the Church exclusive religious rights in a concordat. When Spain became a democracy the “revision” in which they relinquished their role as official state church was pointedly called an accord

Euphemisms for “concordat” reach back 200 years. Napoleon avoided using this term for his Concordat of 1801, fearing that the would be regarded as a sellout of the principles of the French Revolution. Instead, he called it a “convention” and this tactful term was used by a restored Bourbon monarch, Charles X, for two further concordats in 1828.

And in 1929, when the papal nuncio Pacelli (the future Pius XII) negotiated a concordat with social-democratic Prussia, the Lutherans objected. Undaunted, Pacelli suggested calling the concordat a “solemn convention.” Everybody was pleased.* Today it is officially titled a “treaty” (Vertrag).

More recently a euphemism seems to be judged helpful to get concordats under the radar of French public opinion, where separation of church and state is a part of national identity. Some 20th-century concordats with secularist France from 1974 and 1999 are called — for French (Avenants), yet one of them still appears in the list of “Concordats of John Paul II”. And the 2008 education concordat was called an “agreement” (accord). This simple Napoleonic simple trick appears to have completely misled the French secularists.

In Brazil, which also has constitutional church-state separation, the word “concordat” was avoided and, when it was finally revealed, the document was called an “agreement” (acordo).

Different and contradictory reasons were given for this terminology: in one version, that it wasn’t a real concordat because it didn’t stipulate Holy Days and, in another version, that, though it was a genuine concordat, the word wouldn't be understood by most Brazilians who thought it had to do with “bankruptcy”....

Vatican Radio says of the word “concordat” that it’s “not in harmony with the language of secularism”. (Framing it as a matter of language deflects attention from the real issue of whether the actual concordat is in harmony with actual secularism.) So, once more the bland term “agreement” was called into service. As Vatican Radio explained, “the legal term ‘agreement [...] poses no problem for the secularity of the state and the democratic and pluralistic legal order”. And the Papal Nuncio to Brazil who signed it claimed that “The term ‘agreement’ more easily matches lay terminology”, thus avoiding worries about “overlappings and encroachments”. 

 However, the real reason for avoiding the word “concordat” was made clear by the secret signing which was aided and abetted by the curious media silence. Actions speak louder than words.

Appendix: Conflicting accounts of the reason for not calling it a concordat in Brazil

Below are two different and conflicting accounts of why the Brazilian concordat is called an acordo (“agreement”): in the first case, because it isn’t one, and in the second, because. although it is indeed a concordat, that word can also mean something else in Portuguese (as, for that matter it does in Britain, where it can be a “memorandum of understanding”). However, given Brazil's constitutional tradition of church-state separation, not to mention the President's opposition to the Concordat until recently, it seems likely that the avoidance of the “C-word” has more to do with political calculation. The secrecy with which the concordat was signed and the haste with which it was ratified do nothing to dispel this notion.  

Why was the Agreement with Brazil not called a “Concordat”?
(Por que o acordo com o Brasil não foi chamado de "concordata"?)
Vatican Radio, 25 November 2008.

To deserve the name “Concordat” [...] an agreement would have to include all major items concerning the legal status of the Church and the regulation of all so-called res mixtae [mixed matters] i.e., the issues that come within the competence of the legal framework of the church [Canon Law], while in the state, such as the civil effects of canonical marriage and religious instruction in schools. Several of these items are included in the [Brazilian] agreement, others, such as the regulation of religious holidays, are not present, for reasons of opportunity.

Moreover, a second reason, also important, is that [...] the term “Concordat” is, according to some, not in harmony with the language of secularism, while the legal term "Agreement" refers to an international agreement between sovereign entities, which poses no problem for the secularity of the state and the democratic and pluralistic legal order. In conclusion, the use of the term “Agreement” expressed, without any ambiguity, the security and respect for secularism of the state.

Why has the term agreement been used and not “concordat”? (“The Agreement between the Holy See and Brazil: An interview with Monsignor Lorenzo Baldisseri, Apostolic Nuncio to Brazil, on the historic agreement between the Holy See and the Latin American giant, signed during the recent visit of President Lula to the Pope”) 
30 Days in the Church and the World, 13 November 2008

BALDISSERI: In Brazil the word “concordat” currently refers to a negotiation in the context of bankruptcy proceedings. The term “agreement” was therefore preferred, also because it better fits the modern understanding of relations between Church and State, although the contents of our agreement would authorize one calling it a concordat. Moreover, the term “agreement” more easily matches lay terminology, highlighting more the autonomy and mutual independence of Church and State, in healthy cooperation, but without the danger of the overlappings and encroachments of other historical periods.

* “Peace and the Papacy”, Time, 16 August 1943.,9171,933208-3,00.html


(Last updated 10 July 2010)

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