An Unexpected Jewel

We have all been warned not to judge a book by its cover – or its title. On the whole, it’s good advice. But given all the books and other things we have to choose among these days, it’s difficult not to try to take some shortcuts. A case in point: a few months ago The Catholic Thing received a review copy of The Vatican Secret Archives (VdH books, 2010), and for all its obvious and large beauty as a book of photos and information, I feared it was yet one more attempt to capitalize on the long and absurd suspicion in English-speaking countries of dark goings on behind the walls of the Vatican, an attitude that got another reincarnation in Dan Brown’s immensely successful The DaVinci Code and other works.

I could not have been more wrong.

Okay, maybe the publishers were using the old prejudices jiu-jitsu-style in the title to draw in those with prurient interests. But if they were, good for them. It’s about time that people of faith tone down the gentle-as-doves thing for a while – which has run to excess anyway – and taken up the neglected wise-as-serpents franchise.

If you have any interest in the kinds of materials that are housed in the Vatican archives – treaties, letters, drawings, other historical items – you will be fascinated with every one of the nearly 250 pages in this splendid volume. Rarely has such a sympathetic attitude towards the accumulated materials of the Church been combined with such a high level of book-making.

Indeed, the Vatican’s own archive specialists wrote the explanatory text, and the reproductions of documents and views of the archives themselves benefit from the high resolution photography widely available today. So if you want to cast an eye on Petrarch’s letter to Clement VI or Lucrezia Borgia’s to Alexander VI or the Holy See’s Dispensation for Boccaccio, they are here, as are pages on the Councils of Constance, Florence, and Trent, and the Papal Bull, Inter Cetera, written in 1493 to the king and queen of Spain in light of the discovery of the New World. Shortly after that, the Swiss Guards were created, and the charter establishing them is presented, as are the appointments of the great painter Raphael and of Michelangelo to papal positions.

If you’re feeling in a more militant mode, you can browse over the condemnation and excommunication of Martin Luther. Also on the Protestant side, it was particularly surprising to find that the letter of Henry VIII to Clement VII on “the king’s great matter” – a haughty missive by all sane estimation – was mislaid, and therefore lost to scholars, until it turned up in a chest in 1926. An institution that can mislay such a document probably still has many more unexpected treasures to be discovered.

I was also taken with a letter of St. Teresa of Avila reproduced in the book which shows a shrewd and well connected woman – engaged with a wide swath of the secular and religious leadership of her time in Europe – who at the very same moment as she was involved in serious practical affairs was also undergoing intense mystical transports and writing: “Our Lord does well. It seems to me that he wants to show his power in raising up such a poor person.”

The facing page shows a letter to Cardinal Galli from Queen Elizabeth I, a cleverly concocted plea for the liberation of one Fabrizio Pallavicino, then languishing in a Roman prison. The British queen had an interest in the case because Pallavicino’s brother, Orazio, was living in England – after abjuring the faith and escaping from Genoa to the island with a vast fortune purloined from the monies he had amassed as a papal tax collector. Despite an earlier papal condemnation of Elizabeth and her harsh measures against Catholics (partly as a result of the condemnation), she evidently believed she had the savoir faire to persuade the papal representative or, failing that, the leverage to strong-arm Rome into protecting her economic interests.

There are exchanges here with Persia, China, and the Dalai Lama of Tibet, already a papal correspondent in 1783; missives from St. John Bosco, Bernadette de Soubirous, a council of America Indians, and Edith Stein; the condemnations of Giordano Bruno and Galileo; letters from Voltaire and to Mozart, awarding the latter the Golden Spur, as well as to Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis – and Hitler; a text from the coronation of Napoleon; and original copies of the Proclamations of the Immaculate Conception and of the Assumption, as well as the call for the Second Vatican Council.

To read through these historical treasures takes you away from the daily portrayal of the Church as a shallow and narrow institution, obsessed with extreme moralism and theological hairsplitting, and into the concrete records of Her engagement with the world and its civilizations, over centuries as no other existing institution. In the welter of wild and ephemeral controversies, we are reminded of Belloc’s unforgettable phrase about the Faith: “Corporate, organised, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.