The Vatican secret documents have been the subject of myth for hundreds of years and we all enjoy the prolific supply of novels touting conspiracy theories, as well as, the movies based on the books. I’ll tell you right up front that there is such a library of archives in the Holy See called the “Vatican Secret Archives”.
The word “secret”, however, doesn’t have the modern meaning, but actually indicates that the archives are each Pope’s own papers (diplomatic archives) and not those of the “Roman Curia”, the central governing body of the entire Catholic Church.
The Secret Archives were separated from the Vatican Library and remained closed until 1881 when Pope Leo XIII opened them to researchers. “In the year 2000, the entire archive of the Vatican Council II was transferred there thanks to Paul VI who liberalized it to the access of scholars beyond the usual limitations set for the consultation of the archives of the Holy See.”
Now, more than a thousand people examine its documents each year. It’s not open to the general public (only scholars with credentials) and there is still no generic browsing allowed. Scholarly researchers must ask for the specific document they’d like to see and identify it by using the Indices to locate the document.
The archive contains approximately 52 miles of shelving and there are about 35,000 volumes in the Index room, another good reason to know exactly what you need to see before you start. You can’t copy anything—it’s forbidden.
There are other libraries in the Vatican City and the word “secret”, as we understand it, can be applied to the “Apostolic Penitentiary” where the absolutions of excommunications, the dispensation of impediments reserved to the Holy See, and the governance of indulgences are archived. The documents are usually made available to the public after a period of 75 years
Because of all the conspiracy theories raised by the popular fiction novels like Dan Brown’s “The De Vinci Code” or, Raymond Koury’s, “The Templar Salvation” (it’s a terrific novel-his latest), and the long-running dispute over the sealed World War II records, the officials at the Vatican clearly felt a need to deal with the demand of the modern world to understand the truth, so the great door has opened a crack. Don’t expect too much yet.
There are documents in the secret archives that date back to the eighth century and although available documentation is sparse before the thirteenth century, it’s a treasure trove of archives that includes Henry VIII of England’s request for a marriage annulment (he needed sons). There are also letters from Michelangelo.
There has been a rather beautiful book published with the title “The Vatican Secret Archives” and, keeping in mind the interpretation of the word “secret”, it’s still a beautiful and fascinating tome to own. Among the contents are formulas used by the Papal Chancellery dating back to the end of the 8th century. There’s even a letter included from Mary Queen of Scots and one from Pope Pius X to Hitler.
Does the Vatican have files that they would rather keep sealed? More than likely, but these theories and conspiracies are probably the result of the human condition and the great mantel of power surrounding the Roman Catholic church. This has probably added to the air of intrigue.
We can’t forget that there was a great deal of book and document burning done a few centuries ago and we are well aware of the fact that there were some very bad Popes. All this leaves a lot open to speculation.
It has been stated by many historians that Emperor Constantine decided, for his own political purposes, which holy manuscripts were to be kept and burned the rest. I doubt that there’s actually proof of such an action taking place otherwise the world would know.
Many scholars and authors claim the idea that the gospels of Thomas and Peter contained information that the church disposed of. Again, if there is specific proof of this lying around, the world would know about it already.
There are also fascinating theories on the “Dead Sea Scrolls” from the Ancient Library of Qumran that provides fascinating material for scholars, novelists, and alternative history theorists.
If there’s one thing we all understand it’s the fact that history is, and always will be, a never ending debate.
Please click on the embedded You Tube video below to see a wonderful presentation on the Vatican Secret Archives.