The Vatican has a scary reputation and as a devout Catholic I have to admit that sometimes it can be well deserved. There aren’t many institutions that are 2,000 years old, let alone ones that have spent three-quarters of that time toying with some of the world’s greatest empires.
So when you hear people talking about the Vatican Secret Archives, it sounds pretty disturbing. That’s where you find out where the bodies are buried, isn’t it?
(Well, the bodies are technically buried in the Vatican necropolis, but you know what I mean.)
The real story is less exciting. In Latin it is known as Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanumand the meaning of secrecy is closer to the English word “personal” than to the English word “secret”. Archives just means to archive and apostolic means it is associated with an apostle (in this case, the pope), so a more literal dynamic translation might be “The pope’s store of personal documents”. This sets it apart from the more general Vatican museums, libraries and document repositories.
Pope Paul V’s decision to call it the Vatican Secret Archives in 1612 was a landmark move. Pope Francis tried to make a better branding decision in October 2019 by renaming it the Vatican Apostolic Archive, which emphasizes another part of the Latin name.
It could be a gradual rebranding effort. Google tells me that the phrase “Vatican Apostolic Archive” returns 2,850 results. “Vatican Secret Archive” returns more than 15,000. The fact that the Archive was secret in both meaning of the word until the late 1990s did not help.
The fact that there are many documents held in the Vatican which are still secret, but not part of the Archives. These include most Vatican documents that are less than 75 years old.
But as more and more scholars access the documents of the Apostolic Archives, we come across interesting bits of history that we might not have expected to see. These include…
1. The excommunication of Martin Luther
The Vatican Apostolic Archives contain an original copy of Pope Leo X’s Papal Bull Decet Romanum Pontificem (1521), which followed up on an earlier threat to excommunicate Martin Luther.
In a poetic touch, Leo made the document accessible by tacking it to a cathedral door – a means of publication that Luther might have appreciated.
2. Henry VIII’s ultimatum
England’s King Henry VIII and 81 of his closest friends promised “extreme remedies” if Pope Clement VII did not grant him an annulment. The clanking seals of the nobles, visible in the original copy from the Vatican’s secret archives, made the letter look like a chime.
Pope Clement said no, and the result was Henry’s excommunication and ultimately the founding of the Church of England by his daughter Queen Elizabeth.
3. The Last Stand of Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary was Catholic; Scotland was not. This is said to have created tension between her and Queen Elizabeth even before the awkward affair of the assassination plot.
On death row at Fothingerhay Castle in November 1586, Mary wrote to Pope Sixtus V pleading for her life. To our knowledge, she received no response. She was executed the following February.
4. The Trial of the Templars
Over a three-day weekend in mid-August 1308, Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay and his closest knights were interrogated and absolved by the Pope at the Chateau de Chinon in western France. .
The grand master of Moray again clashed with the French monarchy in 1314; he was burned at the stake in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral and the pope who absolved him died a month later.
The details of this mysterious event are still hazy, but we learned the basics after Italian textual historian Barbara Frale discovered the Chinon Parchment, a first-hand record of the 1308 trial, in the Vatican’s secret archives. . The Scroll seems to suggest that homophobia was a key factor in the suppression of the Templars.
5. Dialogue with the Dalai Lama
Although Pope John Paul II met the fourteenth Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) in 1980, it was not the first time a pope and his Tibetan Buddhist counterpart had exchanged words. There are nineteen popes and seven Dalai Lamas, in 1738 Pope Clement XII asked the seventh Dalai Lama (Kelzang Gyatso) to help him secure safe passage for some Franciscan friars. A copy of the letter was found in the Vatican’s secret archives.
6. The Trial of Galileo
One of the hierarchy’s less popular decisions was Galileo’s life imprisonment (following threats of torture and execution) for declaring that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos. There’s no way to sugarcoat it: it was a pretty dark and embarrassing moment for our Church. Pope John Paul II formally apologized for the outrageous mistake in 1992.
The documents from the Vatican’s secret archives on his trial only confirm much of what we already know, which is perhaps surprising in itself; there was nothing that made Galileo’s persecutors look any better, but at least the Vatican didn’t have documents in the papal hideout that made things more even worse.
7. More questions than answers about Pope Pius XII
The relative lack of surprise is also a surprise in the case of Pope Pius XII, whose World War II record has come in for considerable criticism. His supporters hoped that documents from the Vatican’s secret archives, 170 volumes of which were published earlier this year by Pope Francis, would help rehabilitate his reputation; critics hoped they would solidify the case against him.
So far, the Vatican Secret Archives have done neither. It is clear that Pius XII met several times in secret with the Nazi envoy Philipp von Hessen in 1939; it is also clear that he did not trust von Hessen at all and even lied to him on several occasions. The Vatican Secret Archives’ transcript of their 1939 conversation (which was conducted in German without translators and secretly recorded by a papal aide) speaks of a situation that the new pope knew was rapidly getting worse.
Pope Pius XII’s words to von Hessen several months later that the Church would not interfere with anti-Jewish persecution should probably be read in light of this atmosphere of suspicion and deceit – but they are still terrible words, and speak to a terrible reality. The new documents do not fully resolve the issue surrounding Pope Pius XII; they complicate it, as historical records tend to do.