The truth won't out

May 28, 1999

Why won't the pope release papers from shameful periods in Vatican history? Michael Walsh reports

"Hell" was abandoned in the mid-1960s. "Hell" was the name given to a locked room in the library of Heythrop College - which was then a Jesuit theologate located in Oxfordshire but is now in Kensington as part of London University. Books thought improper for Catholics to read were consigned to Hell. There was an edition of Rabelais with particularly exuberant illustrations, and a copy of Luther's Table Talk, placed there because of the frankness of the reformer's language rather than its Protestant content.

There were other volumes, too, still thought risky but available on the library's shelves because they were essential reading. These were marked by a large white "L" on their spines. It stood for Liber Librorum Prohibitorum, as the index of banned books was formally known. Permission had to be sought before such volumes could be borrowed.

The index was abolished, too, in the mid-1960s, in the atmosphere of openness which then enveloped the Catholic church. This openness did not, however, penetrate as far as the secret archives of the Vatican.

This autumn sees the publication of a biography of Pope Pius XII. John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope will again focus attention on Pius's reaction to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Defenders of the pope's reputation will point to the volumes published by the Holy See between 1965 and 1981. The Actes et Documents du Saint Si ge pendant la seconde guerre mondiale contain all the material in the Vatican archives regarding the Holocaust, the Vatican's spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls, claimed last December. Against accusations voiced at a conference hosted by the US State Department, he insisted there was nothing - "I repeat nothing" - more to be found in the Vatican's archives.

But if there is indeed nothing more to be discovered relating to the Holocaust, why cannot the Vatican permit an independent scholar to investigate? As the president of B'nai B'rith remarked after a fruitless visit to current pope John Paul II asking that a Jewish historian be given access to the material: "The only way the Vatican can put suspicions to rest ... is to open its second world war archives now."

Instead of a "30-year rule", the Vatican releases documents pontificate by pontificate. Until the accession of the present pope, researchers were allowed to consult papers in the secret archives up to the last pontiff but eight. Given papal longevity, if such a rule were still in force scholars would be denied sight of all papers after 1878. John Paul II changed the rules. He made papers available up to the last pontificate but six: John Pollard, for his recent biography of Benedict XV, who died in 1922, made use of them. But Vatican papers relating to the Holy See's dealings with Mussolini, Hitler and Franco are still under wraps.

Only the pope has the power to change things. When John Paul II dies, papers dealing with the long pontificate of Pius IX, 1922-1939, will become available for research: those of Pius XII's even longer reign, 1939-1958, will still be locked away, to the frustration of church historians.

But they suffer even worse frustration with the archives of the Inquisition, opened last year with a fanfare and a conference. The Holy Roman Inquisition was far from being the ruthless pursuer of heresy of legend. Even so, it had its moments, not least in the first 15 years of this century when Pope Pius X, since declared a saint, was persecuting Catholic historians, scripture scholars, theologians and scientists who wanted to bring the church's tradition into line with modern learning. Most of what the modernists stood for has become orthodoxy, yet the campaign against them was secretive and terrifying.

The archives of the Roman Inquisition, or of the Holy Office as it was then known, contain many documents throwing light on this shameful episode.The secret archives of the Vatican are open from 1922: those of the Inquisition, however, are to remain closed from 1903, the accession of Pius X.

Pius X's predecessor, Leo XIII, once remarked that the church had nothing to fear from the truth. It seems a hollow claim while access to Vatican archives remains so restrictive.

Michael Walsh is librarian, Heythrop College, University of London.

Should the Vatican allow greater access to it archives? Email us on soapboxthes.co.uk.

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