Vatican Cracks Open Doors to Catholic Church's 'Secret' Archive

Galileo admission of heresy, Martin Luther excommunication notice on display in Rome, and on the Web

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The movie trailer is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster ripped from the pages of a new Dan Brown novel, complete with ominous background music, quick, furtive screenshots of secretive documents, and camera angles that draw you deeper into the inner sanctum of a seemingly endless vault that is clearly one of the most mysterious on the planet.

But it's not a movie. It's real, and the pictures are of famous or historical documents like the one with Galileo Galilei's signature "admitting" at the conclusion of the pope's Inquisition Tribunal in 1633 that he'd committed heresy by stating that Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. Galileo's signature condemned him to life in prison (later commuted to house arrest until his death), and a lifetime ban on publishing his scientific papers.

Welcome to the Vatican's Secret Archives.

In the film version of Brown's Angels and Demons, the Vatican archive is a mysterious, impenetrable fortress of secrets. In reality, it's just a really big underground basement with lots and lots of corridors and winding staircases.

Until March of this year, only a handful of credentialed, academic researchers had access to these documents, which span 12 centuries of Vatican intrigue and history. In order to view them, a researcher had to petition the Vatican for permission, and even then it could take a considerable length of time before you were granted access to even see the document you'd requested.

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There are no published indexes of the 35,000 volumes that are housed on 50-plus miles of shelves in the Vatican's Secret Archives. You have to go to the Vatican and dig through the Index Room.

But in an effort to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the archives, the Vatican decided to bring out 100 of its most famous, original papal documents and put them on display at Rome's Capitoline Museum from March to September of this year.

And if you can't get to Rome this summer to see them for yourself, you can go to the Holy See's modern website to view some of the documents and read about their history. The display is called Lux in Arcana. You can hit a button on your virtual entry that automatically translates from Italian to English.

Then, just like one of Dan Brown's researchers, you too can have a bit of virtual access to the Vatican's Secret Archives, which contain documents like the 1521 bull of excommunication of Martin Luther and the letter that Mary, Queen of Scots wrote while awaiting execution.

The Vatican's archive includes truly astounding documents. There's correspondence with Asian warlord Ghengis Khan's grandson. Letters from Michelangelo are there, along with documents stolen by Napoleon and later returned to the Vatican. It includes the letter from English nobles to the pope in 1530 demanding that Henry VIII be allowed to divorce Catherine of Aragon--which the pope denied, leading to the formation of the Church of England.

When Columbus came back from the Americas in 1493, there was a papal bull that divided up the New World between Spain and Portugal. The pope basically drew a line west of the Azores, from the North Pole to the South Pole.

Among the documents missing from the Lux in Arcana is correspondence between the Vatican and the Nazis during the Second World War, a sensitive topic for the church. But, in addition to the decree in 1521 excommunicating Martin Luther that launched the Reformation, the Lux in Arcana display does includes documents like a short note Marie Antoinette wrote from prison just before she was executed; some of the documents about the 1308 trials of the Knight Templars before Pope Clement V disbanded them; and a letter from Michelangelo complaining about delays in his work on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica.

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My personal favorite--perhaps because it parallels the modern, anti-science populism that suddenly seems to be in vogue again in some quarters of American society--is the Galileo document. Most kids in school have heard Galileo's story. But seeing it on virtual display in the Vatican's Lux in Arcana display brings that history to life.

Galileo--often called the father of modern science--was trained in physics and mathematics. He liked to study the stars. He perfected the telescope (which had earlier been invented in Holland) so that he could study them more closely. Galileo publicly supported the Copernican theory of the universe, which held that the Catholic Church was wrong to interpret certain passages from the Bible in a way that supported the view that Earth was "fixed" in place and that the sun and everything else revolved around our planet.

Galileo disagreed, and defended himself on four separate occasions throughout his papal inquisition. He eventually capitulated, however, and signed his name to a document admitting his heresy. You can see Galileo's signature in Lux in Arcana.

The Vatican treats Galileo's story delicately. "The guilty verdict was announced by the Inquisition cardinals in the capitular hall of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva," it writes in its description of his signature. "After addressing a few words to the judges, Galileo--holding a lighted candle in his left hand and touching the Scriptures with his right--knelt and pronounced his abjuration, thus accepting the verdict against him."

What is so striking about the Galileo signature in the Vatican's Lux in Arcana display is its analog in today's difficult times, where science for some is again a "belief" that can be ignored, maligned, or altered to suit those in positions of power--especially for subjects like evolution and climate change.

It makes you wonder if we learned anything from Galileo.

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