By Michael O’Loughlin
National reporter September 1, 2014
Some believe it houses evidence of extraterrestrial life. Others, ancient texts that disprove the existence of Jesus. Perhaps dark truths that would discredit and destroy the Church?
A mistranslated Latin word may be responsible for the conspiracy theories about the Vatican Secret Archives. In fact, the actual contents can stand on their own without delving into the absurd.
The archives, or Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum, contains historical records chronicling intriguing historical events. Its contents, once plundered by Napoleon and moved to Paris, span 12 centuries.
There’s the document that began the Protestant reformations: Pope Leo X’s 1521 decree excommunicating Martin Luther.
A 1530 petition from 85 English clergymen and lords asks Pope Clement VII to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The seals of many of the signatories were affixed to the petition, each held in place by red ribbon. This is considered the source of the term “red tape.” Clement refused, of course, leading to the establishment of the Anglican Church.
Michelangelo penned a letter to the pope warning that Vatican guards hadn’t received paychecks in three months, and that they were threatening to walk off the job.
A year after Columbus landed in what became North America, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Cetera, the 1493 papal bull that split the New World between Spain and Portugal.
There are letters from Abraham Lincoln as well as Jefferson Davis, who wrote to try to convince Pope Pius IX that the South was an innocent victim of Northern aggression. Neither man was Catholic.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the notion that Mary was conceived without original sin, was articulated in 1854 on a piece of parchment that’s in the archives.
Famous Vatican trials were recorded with handwritten transcripts that are housed there, including cases against the Knights Templar in the early 14th century and astronomer Galileo Galilei in the 17th, who was tried by the Vatican for heresy and forced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest.
When Sweden’s Queen Christina abdicated in 1654, she converted to Catholicism from Lutheranism, moved to Rome, and today she is one of the few women buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. There’s a letter to the pope announcing her conversion.
Interesting, sure, but hardly the stuff of Dan Brown novels.
See photos of items in the Vatican’s archives here.
Secretum, the Vatican says, translates more accurately to “personal” than to “secret” and refers to the private letters and historical records of past popes. In fact, the archives haven’t been secret since 1881, when Pope Leo XIII opened them up to scholars.