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Buffeted by history, Vatican records scattered


Despite the Vatican’s legendary reputation for centralization, the world’s leading expert on its archives says they’re actually far more scattered and, from a modern point of view, more disorganized than you might expect.

Professor Francis Blouin of the University of Michigan edited the most comprehensive guide to the Vatican archives, up to the point those records are open to researchers -- right now, 1922. As Blouin put it, “I’m the only one who’s seen the whole thing.”

A Catholic with an undergraduate degree from Notre Dame, Blouin was the man tapped by the U.S. government to look for evidence about assets looted by the Nazis should the Vatican open its archives from the war years. To date, that hasn’t happened.

Blouin spoke to NCR in a telephone interview. He said that in talking about the “Vatican archives,” people often have in mind the “secret archives” in Vatican City. In fact, however, the records of the Holy See are much more widely dispersed, reflecting the vicissitudes of its history.

The Archivio Segreto Vaticano does form the core of the Vatican’s historical documents, Blouin said. But several Vatican offices do not deposit their records in these archives. They include the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Propaganda Fide (the Vatican’s chief evangelization agency), and Fabricia St. Pietro (the curial office responsible for the upkeep of St. Peter’s Basilica).

Blouin said he’s “not sure why, historically” those records aren’t in the archives. Given the centrality of the doctrinal office to much of church history, however, the fact that its records are not indexed with the main collection complicates research.

Other Vatican records ended up in Paris, Dublin or the trash because of Napoleon. When Napoleon created his empire, he decided to consolidate all of its records in Paris. French troops, therefore, carted the Vatican archives to the French capital. After Napoleon’s downfall in 1815, about two-thirds of the material was returned. Some material stayed in Paris, while some records from the Holy Office inexplicably ended up at Trinity College in Dublin.

Other records were simply tossed in the trash. “This struck some people in the Vatican as a good time to get rid of this stuff anyway,” Blouin said. He said that among other undesirable information, records from the Inquisition were disposed of, including a transcript from the trial of Giodarno Bruno, a scientist who was later burned at the stake.

Another batch of records left the Vatican in 1870, when the papal states were consolidated into the new nation of Italy. At that time, records pertaining to the civil management of those territories, such as railroad and highway records and police ledgers and so forth were transferred to the new government in Rome.

Each of the papal nunciatures -- representatives of the Vatican in foreign countries -- keeps its own records, too, Blouin said. When they’re “inactive” they’re supposed to be sent to Rome, but each office ultimately decides what to do with it records.

The result, Blouin said, is that key records are often not where you’d expect to find them, or sometimes just aren’t there.

A further complication for researchers is that, unlike how the papers of American presidents are preserved, no one saves the papers of individual popes.

“They keep the papers of individual nuncios,” Blouin said. “So, for example, when Pius XII was the nuncio in Bavaria, we have his papers from that period. But when he became pope, there’s no corpus of documents that say these are the papers of the man. We don’t know if they exist or not.”

As for why the records are open only until 1922, Blouin explained that the Vatican unseals records by pontificate. 1922 is when Pius XI was elected, so the next group of records to be opened will comprise the records accumulated during his pontificate, which ended in 1939, when Pius XII took over. It is the records from Pius XII’s pontificate that researchers most want to see. The lapse in time is intended to protect the confidentiality of people during their lifetimes.

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998