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Without ‘Fear Of Past,’ Vatican Opens Secret Archives

Most documents deal with theological controversies through the centuries

BY John Norton

February 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/15/98 at 1:00 PM

 

VATICAN CITY—The Vatican has officially opened the last of its secret archives to the scrutiny of scholars. During a “Day of Study” Jan. 22 at Rome's National Academy of the Lincei with researchers from around the world, top Vatican officials explained the opening of the Archives of the Holy Office as another step toward removing the misunderstanding between the Church and the world of modern thought and science.

“The Church does not fear the past,” said Msgr. Alejandro Cifres, director of the Archives. “With the opening of the Holy Office Archives, [the Church] is trying to promote a serious and serene historical study of its mission in defending the faith.”

Though unofficially open to special study requests since 1991, all qualified researchers will now have access to the files dating from 1542 to 1903, covering some of the more controversial periods in Church history including the Roman Inquisition, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. But there are no “‘sizzling’ dossiers on [heresy] trials,” according to a Vatican press statement. Very few trial proceedings remain. Several famous cases have already been made public, including the trials of the astronomer Galileo, whose thesis that the earth revolved around the sun was condemned as heresy in 1616 and who was sentenced to house arrest in 1633 for continuing to promote his views; and of Giordano Bruno, a monk burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy. Pope John Paul proclaimed in 1992 that the Church had been wrong to condemn Galileo, calling the incident a “tragic mutual incomprehension.”

Even if there are few sensational secrets in the secret archives, “they are extremely rich with regard to the history of theology, spirituality, canon law, and for a general knowledge of the general establishment of the Institution and therefore useful for a more precise understanding of its role in civil and Church history in the last centuries,” the press statement said.

The files are not complete but “preserve precious testimony of the life and activity of the most important dicastery of the Church's central government,” said Msgr. Cifres. Instituted as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition by Paul III in 1542 to defend the Church against heresy, it became the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1908. Its current name, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith came in 1965 with Paul VI, who gave it the task of “promoting and safeguarding faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.”

The materials currently amount to some 4,500 volumes, spreading more than 2,000 linear feet and contained in 27 rooms. More than two-thirds of the collection was lost in the beginning of the 19th century when Napoleon I carried it off to Paris, and later in the era of the Roman Republic (1848-49). Most of the remaining documents deal with the major theological controversies that followed the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent, including the value of the Petrine ministry, papal infallibility, Jansenism, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, mysticism, Quietism, problems of intercommunion, and inculturation.

The material surrounding one of the debates, concerning the validity of Anglican ordinations, was released at the Jan. 22 meeting as a first volume in a series of archival material. It includes documents from a special theological commission set up by Pope Leo XIII. In 1896, the Pope issued an apostolic letter concluding that priestly ordinations in the Church of England were invalid. The issue is being re-examined in the wake of conversions to Catholicism by Anglican clergy.

The Holy Office Archives are separate from the Vatican Library and Vatican Secret Archives, which Pope Leo XIII opened to scholars in 1881. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said it should come as no surprise that the Holy Office Archives are the last to be opened. “The nature itself of the dicastery,” he said, means it is involved with “extremely delicate and weighty [doctrinal] matters.” This “administrative and judicial competency throughout the whole Catholic world … imposed obvious reasons for reservation and required extreme prudence in the use of the documents in its custody,” he said.

And unlike the other two collections, in which documents dating to 1922 are open to consultation, the Holy Office Archives remain shut beyond the death of Pope Leo in 1903.

German professor Father Hans Küng criticized the cut-off mark as inadequate. Father Küng, whose permission to teach Catholic theology was revoked by the Vatican in 1980, told a German radio interviewer that it left “important periods of contemporary history covered in secret,” including the anti-modernist campaign of Pope Pius X and dossiers on theologians who were critical of the Vatican in the 1950s.

Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, secretary of the CDF, acknowledged that there were “a great number of delicate dossiers produced” between 1903-22. He said the period was “too recent” to allow an indiscriminate open-door policy. Special requests for access to the files from Pius X's pontificate would be considered on a case-to-case basis, according to the archbishop.

The Vatican has also given scholars access to documents that reveal the inner workings of the now-extinct Congregation of the Index, responsible until 1917 for identifying and prohibiting under pain of excommunication books considered morally or doctrinally dangerous for the faithful to read. After a brief continuation under the jurisdiction of the Holy Office, the Index of Forbidden Books was officially abolished in 1966.

The pontificate of Leo XIII was characterized by a unique openness to the needs of the modern world. His 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris (On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy), which aimed at a renewal of ecclesiastical education, was “based on the fundamental principle of the harmony between the truths of reason and the truths of faith,” said Cardinal Ratzinger, who noted that the opening of the archives poses no threat to the Church.

He quoted the English Cardinal John Henry Newman: the Church “has an intimate conviction that the Truth is her ally … and that knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith.”

A letter from a Jewish-born, self-professed atheist in the United States “provoked the movement of reflection responsible for the immediate events leading to the opening of the Archives,” Cardinal Ratzinger said. University of California-Los Angeles professor Carl Ginzburg wrote to John Paul II shortly after he became Pope, saying “the opening of the Holy Office Archives would be an occasion for the Roman Catholic Church to demonstrate its solicitude and openness towards the world and cultural problems.”

“At the same time,” Ginzburg continued, “the Church would show itself unafraid of a serious scientific and critical examination.”

Cardinal Ratzinger said the American scholar had summarized in a few words that which “effectively constitutes the thought of the Holy See in this regard and which inspires the current attitude of our dicastery [CDF]: on one hand, the sincere and active commitment of the Church toward culture, of which it is also a promoter and advocate; and on the other hand, the trust which it has in the face of every critical and serious investigation which sheds light on the truth regarding man and history.”

The prelate said he was confident that opening the archives would meet the expectations of scholars. But he said any correct interpretation of them requires “respect for historical truth and the specific character of the nature and mission of the Church.” Even if the material in the archives “indirectly regards historical problems, it is mostly of a theological nature,” he said. Thus the researcher must try to see how the Church “understands herself and her mission of carrying the message of salvation.”

What is more, the scholar must take into account, he said, “the nature of the ministry entrusted to Peter of confirming his brothers in the faith, and of the historical circumstances of the times in which the Church had to defend the faith of the littlest ones in contexts frequently polemical if not manifestly aggressive.”

Msgr. Cifres told the scholars that a clue to understanding the uniqueness of the Holy Office Archives is the frequent consultation made of them even today by the CDF. An archive is usually understood to be a static collection of records stored away after the office that produced them no longer has any day-to-day use for them.

But the Holy Office Archives are different. When the curial office is faced with a specific question or problem, the chief archivist said, it always seeks to “re-employ that which was said or done in the past regarding similar questions or cases, with the intention to guarantee, not a servile repetition of the same ideas and decisions, but an organic development of teaching and discipline.”

“This fact furnishes the key to understanding” the Archives’ special character and “to reconstructing it in a scientifically correct way,” he said.

John Norton writes from Rome.