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Pope Leo XIII opens the Vatican Secret Archives

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"Whoever looks with a calm and unprejudiced mind at the unadulterated records of the past, must see that these spontaneously supply a splendid defence of the Church and the Papacy."

Thomas
Lester

In a published letter dated Aug. 18, 1883, Pope Leo XIII writes to the Vice Chancellor and to the Librarian of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, to express the importance of providing access to the archive and its collections.

Pope Leo XIII was born Gioacchino Vincenzo Pecci in Carpineto, Italy, on March 2, 1810. He studied theology, as well as both civil and canon law, before being ordained in 1837. The following year, Pope Gregory XVI appointed him delegate to Benevento, and later Perugia, where he demonstrated his abilities as an administrator by helping the local economy to improve, building roads, and establishing a savings bank for the local farmers.

Influenced by the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as Thomism, he established the Academy of St. Thomas in 1859. Part of this school of thought was about adapting St. Thomas Aquinas' teachings to current generations, and he urged the Church to adapt to the modern world. He continued to be an influential figure, and was eventually elected to succeed Pope Pius IX in 1878.

Two years before the letter was published, in 1881, Leo XIII opened the Vatican Archive to researchers. His decision was probably influenced by two factors: his following of Thomism, and the tense relationship between the papacy and the unified State of Italy which had persisted for a number of years.

From his following of St. Thomas Aquinas, Leo XIII encouraged the review and implementation of doctrinal teachings at seminaries to ensure they were sound. Opening the archive to scholars, and allowing them access to historical documents, was seen as a way to help meet this goal.

The second reason was politically motivated. Since Italian unification, it was the desire of Rome, which had been part of the Papacy's temporal kingdom, to be the capital city of the new nation state. Leo XIII continued the stance of his predecessors, and was unwilling to surrender the temporal power of the Catholic Church in Italy, which is the main underlying theme of his letter. He writes that, "Whoever looks with a calm and unprejudiced mind at the unadulterated records of the past, must see that these spontaneously supply a splendid defence of the Church and the Papacy."

The root of the problem, he insists, is with inaccurate portrayals of the Catholic Church, the papacy, and their relationship with the Italian people. He specifically cites the press, stage productions, and textbooks for their misrepresentations of the past. The latter, he notes, is most concerning because they ingrain these misinterpretations in the minds of youths.

He argues that history proves Italy and Europe should be grateful to the papacy for the roles it has played in international relations, particularly as a peacemaker, and that preserving the temporal power of the pope will allow for religious unity to continue "in spite of civil discord." He also speaks to the importance of the city, having been blessed with museums, libraries, schools, universities, "so that Rome has come to be honoured by the universal voice as the Mother of the liberal arts."

He closes with "For, every page of history, in a certain way, proclaims aloud that it is God who, by His most wise providence, guides the varied and continual movement of human events, and turns them to the advancement of His Church, even against the will of man."

Leo XIII's tenure as Roman Pontiff is generally well-regarded despite these tensions. It featured a renewed focus on Catholic missions around the world, particularly in India and China, and he was an outspoken advocate for the abolition of slavery. He also attempted to create a stronger bond between various Christian sects. Though unable to do so in his own country, he eased church-state relations in other nations, encouraging Catholics to accept their national governments and become actively engaged in politics.

Pope Leo XIII would serve until his death on July 20, 1903. The question over the pope's temporal power was finally resolved in 1929, when the Vatican City State was created within the geographic boundaries of Rome.

Thomas Lester is the archivist of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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