Into the Archives
The speed limit for motor vehicles inside Vatican City is 20 miles an hour. The forward motion of the curial bureaucracy is slower, as you'd expect with gerontocrats at the wheel. The Holy See takes its time. In 1979, the historian Carlo Ginzburg wrote a letter to Karol Wojtyla, who had recently been installed as Pope John Paul II. Ginzburg, who is Jewish, had firsthand experience of hatred and persecution. His father, Leone, was an anti-fascist agitator who was beaten to death by the Nazis, and young Carlo spent the war in hiding with his non-Jewish maternal grandmother, under the name Carlo Tanzi. In his letter, Ginzburg petitioned the pope to allow outside scholars to conduct research in the Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede — the main repository at the Vatican of documents relating to the Inquistion. Ginzburg no longer has a copy of what he sent — it is probably under seal in the archives somewhere — but he remembers that it began like this: "Chi le scrivo e uno storico ebreo, ateo, che ha lavorato per molti anni sui documenti dell'Inquisizione" — "The writer of the present letter is a Jewish historian, an atheist, who has been working for many years on inquisitorial papers."
He heard nothing for nearly twenty years, until, in 1998, he received a letter from Cardinal Josef Ratzinger — noe Pope Benedicy XVI — inviting him to the opening of the Archivio. Ah, bad luck: he had a conflict, Ginzburg wrote back. Then came a phone call from a monsignor at the Vatican. Ginzburg again demurred. "That's a pity," said the monsignor, "because your letter played a role in the opening of the Sant'Uffizio archive." "Which letter?" was Ginzburg's reaction. The monsignor said, "Your letter to the pope." "What a memory!" Ginzburg replied. He found a way to change his plans.
The Archivio was not opened fully — scholars could examine documents only up to the death of Pope Leo XIII, in 1903. ("Naturally," said a Vatican official, without elaboration.) But it was a start. "We know all the sins of the Church," Cardinal Ratzinger said in making the announcement, "and I hope more will not be added to them."
In the academic and religious worlds, the partial opening of the Archivio was a very big deal. It was marked in Rome by two conclaves of Inquisition scholars. Ratzinger was present at the first of them, and the pope himself welcomed participants at the second. The ravages of Parkinson's disease hampered John Paul's speech, and those who heard him didn't quite know what he had said until a transcript was made available the next day. Among other things, John Paul asked the historians not to "overstep the boundaries of their discipline and give an ethical verdict" on the Church's behavior. Two years later, on Ash Wednesday 2000, the pope led a penitential procession through the streets of Rome to apologize for errors and misdeeds of the past — including, prominently, the Inquisition. Pointedly, the apology referred to deeds done by followers of the Church rather than by the Church itself.
The man who today presides over the Archivio is Monsignor Alejandro Cifres Giménez, fifty-one, a diminutive Spaniard from Valencia (the city where, as it happens, the Spanish Inquisition's last execution took place). Cifres is mild-mannered, genial, and competent. He sometimes displays a dry sense of humor. When I asked him whether the magazine I work for was being considered for papal condemnation, he said, "Not yet." He listens to country-and-western music, has a CD player in his car, and once revealed that among his favorite movies is Happy, Texas, a comedy about convicts on the lam who disguise themselves as gay beauty-pageant coaches, which would probably have earned two thumbs down from the Papal Index. Cifres is not a historian. He is by training a theologian, and also a certified archivist and paleographer. He was brought to the Archivio to be an administrator, his superiors recognizing that the superannuated clerics who had long overseen the Inquisition's documents were not what an open archive demanded. Cifres obeyed the orders of his bishop and came to work at the Congregation, and directly for Josef Ratzinger. It was Cifres who made the call to Ginzburg. The first time I met him, he led the way down a hall to his office near the stacks. I dawdled a little, to read the writing on the document boxes. The Archivio consists essentially of two parts. One is the historical archive, the Stanza Storica, which contains the old files of the Congregations of the Inquisition, the Holy Office, and the Index. But the Congregation is also a living administrative entity — it does Church business and generates paperwork every day, which becomes part of the active archive. A lot of that paperwork — about theological issues, about problems with the clergy — is highly sensitive.
Theologians are still called to Rome, and are disciplined or silenced, sometimes after procedures akin to trials. Walking down the hall, I paused at a few shelves of modern files. Msgr. Cifres came back, took me by the elbow, and led me along. When I asked him what the fi les pertained to, he replied, "How do you say? Defrockings?" On that visit, I didn't see as many defrocking files as I had imagined there would be, given the immensity of the pedophilia scandals. The shelves are surely groaning now.
Sitting behind his desk, in Roman collar and black, short-sleeved clerical shirt, Cifres tried to convey a sense of how complicated his position is. To begin with, money is tight. In earlier times, the Inquisition could rely on a certain amount of revenue from confiscations (though not nearly as much, historians say, as has sometimes been alleged). Confiscation, happily, is no longer an option. Cifres had created a Friends of the Inquisition Archives program — Tabularii Amicorum Consociato, to give it the official name — to raise money from private donations. He also charges a modest fee for use of the Archivio. He did not mention plans for a gift shop.
The filing system also presents challenges. There is a logic to it, but it is not a familiar logic. Nothing is classified according to any modern category, much less arranged alphabetically. What you need to know in order to find something is the bureaucratic structure and mental map of the Vatican itself — less technocratic Dewey decimal system than intricate "memory palace" of Matteo Ricci. Documents dealing with defrockings are in the Sacerdotal section. Documents dealing with apparitions, revelations, and other extraordinary phenomena are in the Disciplinary section. Documents dealing with censorship are in the Doctrinal section. A huge category under the Doctrinal rubric is called simply Dubia ("Doubts") — documents relating to intimate questions of faith as relayed by priests and bishops from around the world. Doubt occupies an oddly exalted status in Catholic theology. It's a state of mind experienced by everyone, but also an essential tool of philosophical inquiry: "doubting well" is a step toward truth, as Aristotle (and Aquinas) maintained.
Theologians love to slice and dice. What kind of doubt have we here? Is it positive or negative? Speculative or practical? Simple or methodical? Real or fictitious? Distinguished careers have been built on a bedrock of doubt. In practice, certainty has been more highly prized by the Church. Until 1920, a placard over the doorway to the Vatican Archives threatened excommunication for anyone entering without permission. The Vatican is committed, it now says, to free inquiry in the archives. Access to the historical files has gradually been expanded — scholars can now study materials dating up to the death of Pope Pius XI, in 1939. But you can't escape the reminders of censorship and other controversies. Wandering among the shelves in sections where the archival materials remain off -limits, I noticed rows of fat document boxes labeled "Küng," "Boff ," "Lefebvre," "Greene." The urge to reach out and pull one down was almost irresistible. Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff are prominent Catholic theologians whose work has frequently been targeted by the Vatican. Marcel Lefebvre, a breakaway right-wing archbishop, was excommunicated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II. Graham Greene's work came under intense Vatican scrutiny in the 1940s and 1950s.
One day, among the stacks, I came across two polished wooden boxes, resembling old library card-catalogue drawers, with hinged wooden tops. The boxes rested one above the other on a wooden rack of Victorian vintage. The lower box was labeled "A–K," the upper one "L–Z." Inside each box, well-worn index cards ran its length, their upper edges velvety from use. I took one of the boxes down and flipped quickly through the cards, seeing citations for works by Sade, Sartre, Spinoza, and Swift, among hundreds of others. "What's this?" I asked Msgr. Cifres, showing him the box. He took it from me, closed the top, and put it back on the rack. "That," he said, "is the Index of Forbidden Books — the very last one." I thought of the whispered horror from decades ago — the Papal Index! — and found it hard to imagine that it all came down to soiled cards in a shoebox. There is no longer a Congregation of the Index, once so closely associated with the Inquisition, and the much-feared Papal Index was discontinued in 1966. Its open coffin had rested briefly in my hands.
The Index was not, however, completely repudiated; the very document that abolished the Index also reaffirmed its "moral value." The CDF still looks closely at books and periodicals, and sometimes issues a monitum, or warning. The absence of an official Index does not mean the absence of things you should not read. Some will remember that although the Vatican has never taken an official position on the Harry Potter books, and certainly has not issued a monitum, Cardinal Ratzinger in 2003 raised an eyebrow in a private letter at the "subtle seductions" of the series. Ratzinger's comments came even before the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fift h volume, which introduced the character Dolores Umbridge, the High Inquisitor of Hogwarts. Umbridge is a skilled practitioner of thought control:
Very well, Potter, I take your word for it this time, but be warned: The might of the Ministry stands behind me. All channels of communication in and out of this school are being monitored. A Floo Network Regulator is keeping watch over every fire in Hogwarts — except my own, of course. My Inquisitorial Squad is opening and reading all owl post entering and leaving the castle.
The opening of the Archivio at the Vatican is one more development in what has, during the past several decades, become a golden age of Inquisition scholarship. Until the appearance of Henry Charles Lea's magisterial History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, in the late nineteenth century, most writing about the Inquisition had consisted of bitter polemics by one side or another. Even Lea's work, though in many ways unrivaled, exudes an undisguised animus against the Catholic Church. Inquisition history will never be totally "decanonized" — that is, uncoupled from sectarian agendas — but it has come a long way. In recent decades, using materials newly available in repositories outside the Vatican, and now including those of the Holy See itself, historians throughout Europe and the Americas have produced hundreds of studies that, seen as a whole, sharply revise some traditional views of the Inquisition.
Excerpted from God's Jury by Cullen Murphy. Copyright 2012 by Cullen Murphy. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.