It has often been a staple of Protestant apologetics to assert that Rome “doesn’t like the truth,” and to back this up by an appeal to all the history that Rome has supposedly “covered up” because it’s too embarassing.
Many exemplars could be found of this argument, but one that I have actually seen in the past year or so concerns the guards posted outside the Vatican Archives. Well, come on, think about it. In this day of widespread intellectual freedom, where The Church no longer has any coercive authority in the temporal world, why would there be guards outside a library? What are they trying to hide? The very notion activates profound suspicions buried deep inside the type of Protestant mind which measures its own positions by their degree of variance from Rome’s, and which tells the Protestant story as a long string of Martyrs for Truth, always persecuted by a power-mad institution falsely using Christ’s Name to spread tyranny across the earth.
To be fair, it’s easy to understand this sort of argument being made in the 16th century, when Christendom was tearing itself apart at the seams and the baptized were taking up swords against each other. Appeals to history were made quite frequently by both sides–for equal and opposite perfectionistic claims to continuity with the ancient Primitive Church. As was discussed in my recent entries on the development of Protestant historiography, it rapidly became a feature of the Protestant mind to attribute Rome’s claims to historical continuity to mere dishonesty with the “plain” records.
It’s also easy to understand this sort of argument being made a few centuries down the line, when it has become a sort of Sacred Tradition, something that we use to define ourselves as over against The Enemy, a sort of mantra we chant to ourselves to keep the Bogeyman of Rome away. A number of apologetics books written in recent years make a great deal of this “Rome is desperate to hide the historical truth” argument. History “plainly shows” all her manifest errors, if only we will “just look at the facts” and “let them speak for themselves.” And so we come back to the guards outside the Vatican Archives. Why are they there? What are they trying to hide?
Allow me to suggest that they are there for quite ordinary, very human reasons, and that those reasons have nothing whatsoever to do with any purported hatred of “Truth” by the Roman hierarchy, or a concomitant desire to “cover up” things which are “plain” to anyone who doesn’t “fear the light” being shone upon their doings.
Allow me to suggest that the guards are there for the quite mundane reason that the masses passing by on the streets are basically intellectual clods and cannot be allowed unrestricted access to ancient manuscript materials that are not only not very well organized, but which also have to be handled with extreme care because of their age and irreplaceability.
Allow me to suggest that the guards are there because Rome, like all entities that have (or have had) significant political power has a certain quite natural and legitimate interest in not having every single thing it has done or said instantly accessible to any old person who claims, as if his very word is to be trusted merely because he says so, to be interested in “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Do state secrets necessarily equate to a desire to deceive millions of people and send them to the Abyss (to borrow more present Protestant polemical posturing)?
Owen Chadwick, one of the most distinguished historians of our day, has some interesting things to say about these factors as they operated in the 19th century. He writes of the quite proper concern of states to protect themselves from external threats by concealing documents which could be mis-used by their enemies:
Certain key words made fanatics more fanatical: words like Pope, Jesuit, Index, Inquisition. If you open all the archives until thirty years ago, you open them to historians. You open them also to minds eager to find what discredits. Is it possible that the impartiality of history is better served if the archives are closed than if they are open? Since feelings roused by religions run as deep in the human soul as passions roused by national conflict, the events of the past live in the present. Whether agents of the Church punish a man for saying that the earth went around the sun–whether the Council of Trent was no true ecumenical Council because the Pope controlled marionette bishops on invisible wires–whether a Pope was personally immoral–all these might afford matter for the obsessed, and might even affect attitudes among minds which were not obsessed. They all happen to be questions which only the archives might answer. In this argument between truth of history and reason of state, reason of state could be found arguing for a much longer closure of archives than that which advanced liberal governments came to adopt.:”(Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives [Cambridge University Press, 1978], pp. 1-2)”:
Later on Chadwick cites Augustin Theiner, one of the key players in the 19th century drama that ultimately led to the opening of the Archives. In a letter to a colleague regarding the request of the Austrian Joseph Kopp to have unrestricted access to the Archives:
…If this privilege is granted, we shall see in Rome half-educated writers and enquirers of every type, Protestant and infidel as well as Catholic. They will come with a special aim into the immense treasures of our archive, all under the protection of some government or other, alleging the precedent of Kopp. Publishers will pay large sums to authors who will fetch them documents from the Vatican Archives. Under the pretext of advancing Catholic scholarship they will really be out for money. The Vatican Secret Archives would soon lose its lustre, its prestige, and all its importance…:”(Ibid., pg. 42.)”:
Worries about what might be done by the unscrupulous and malicious were not the only consideration, however. From the time that Theiner wrote this letter in 1857, it had only been 45 years since Napoleon Bonaparte, the apparent soon-to-be master of all of Europe, had forcibly transferred the vast papal archives from Rome to France. During this process several cartloads of very old, very valuable documents–no one knew exactly what they were–had been lost in a flood en route. Only three years later (1814) Napoleon was beaten and the victorious allies ordered the Roman archives returned to their rightful home. But Napoleon’s brief return to power caused the cancellation of that order, and in the drastic confusion that followed more very valuable documents were lost. Indeed, by the time it was all said and done, only 1/3 of the amount of archival material that had been transferred to Paris made it back to Rome intact.
Careless handlers of these treasurers, having only 1/10 of the money needed to send them back to Rome, attempted to lighten their burden by selling cartloads of documents to grocers and cardboard makers. It is known that many of the records of the Inquisition suffered the fate of being dipped in water to make them illegible, then shredded and turned into cardboard.:”(No doubt this was done deliberately by evil “popish” puppets trying to conceal “Truth.” This is certainly a more dramatic explanation, and one more satisfying to the paranoid mind, than the rather ordinary and tragically human one about lack of finances and severe political pressures.)”: No one knows the full extent of what was lost. Chadwick reports that, incredibly, ordinary people could buy fragments of ancient papal registers in Paris shops into the late nineteenth century! In the midst of all this, radically anti-Catholic propagandists attempted to secure anything they could lay their hands on which could be made to serve their purpose of discrediting the papacy. Finally, the materials that did make it back safely to Rome were in a high state of disarray that not even four subsequent decades of toil by Vatican scholars could fix.:”(Ibid., pp. 14-19.)”:
Only ten years before Theiner’s letter (1848) Rome was rocked by a revolution that caused the pope to flee his city and all his treasures to be in drastic danger of looting and destruction by the rampaging vulgar masses. This had happened before, in 1527 when Emperor Charles V’s frustrated army had sacked Rome and dragged all manner of precious manuscripts out into the streets to be trodden underfoot and used as litter for horses.:”(Ibid., pg. 5.)”:
This sort of thing would certainly not constitute any reason for worry for men concerned with preserving ancient legacies so that they could be read and studied in less anxious times. For of course the masses of ordinary men, left to their own natural devices, are not characterized by anything other than the best and purest of motives for Truth and Freedom of Inquiry. Rome has a vast, deep, wide heritage stored away in those Archives–a heritage the likes of which Protestant polemicists, who very often care very little for anything that happened prior to 1517, cannot even begin to comprehend or bother taking the time to adequately prepare to handle.
In reality, we need not resort to conspiracy theories to explain guards in front of the Vatican Archives, or Roman refusal to “come clean” as we define it. Truths of history are not necessarily more important than reasons of state. Although the latter can be abused (and the Protestant is quite right to point this out), so can the former (and the Catholic is quite right to point this out). Somewhere between the radical poles of the “Rome tries to hide the truth” and the “No one but us can handle the truth” assertions may be something far closer to the real truth than either side suspects. At the end of the day, even the best of men are men at best.