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Does the Vatican need a Freedom of Information Act?

Opening up would be the best way to tackle tedious but popular conspiracy theories around

By on Monday, 27 February 2012

Inquisition documents in the Vatican Archive. The reality is far less exciting than internet fantasists would have us believe Photo: AP/Arturo Mari, L'Osservatore Romano

Inquisition documents in the Vatican Archive. The reality is far less exciting than internet fantasists would have us believe Photo: AP/Arturo Mari, L'Osservatore Romano

Does the Vatican need a Freedom of Information Act? The Act supposedly gives us British citizens the right to know what information the government is holding about us, or indeed about other matters, with certain safeguards. It does have its disadvantages, I suppose: time-wasters can make a lot of work for civil servants in this way; however, freedom of information does mean that government is held accountable to the people, and it does help do away with the culture of secrecy that often seems to attach itself to government.

But why might the Vatican need to embrace a Freedom of Information Act? I can think of several reasons. First of all, the current “Vati-leaks” scandal. According to this recent headline, the supposed whistleblower  claims that the Vatican is “ruled by [an] ‘omerta’ code of silence”. This sort of language, which equates the chief organs of Church governement with a criminal conspiracy, is pretty maddening for normal Catholics like myself. But if there were freedom of information, it would be much harder to claim that the Vatican was addicted to cover-up.

Then there is the matter of the Vatican refusing to release the secret files it holds on paedophile priests. You know the secret files? You can read about them here, in an article dating from earlier this month. The trouble with these secret files, which are often mentioned in internet comments, is that they are secret, and as such, may not exist at all. Freedom of information requests, I assume, have to be specific; and a freedom of information act would mean an end to this misleading insinuation that the Vatican is sitting on mountains of information which may not, in fact, exist.

If this were not enough, there is the endless stream of newspaper articles dealing with the Vatican’s refusal to release more supposed secret archives which someohow or another will reveal the truth about Pope Pius XII, the Nazis and the Second World War. The trouble is that the Vatican secret archives are not really secret. They have been the subject of an exhibition (hardly the best way to keep a secret, I would have thought) and they are regularly opened to scholars who are doing research. Disappointingly for conspiracy theorists, Wikipedia describes the Secret Archives as follows:

The use of the word “secret” in the title “Vatican Secret Archives” does not denote the modern meaning of confidentiality. Instead, it indicates that the archives are the Pope’s personal property, not belonging to those of any particular department of the Roman Curia or the Holy See. The word “secret” was generally used in this sense as also reflected in phrases such as “secret servants”, “secret cupbearer”, “secret carver”, much like an esteemed position of honor and regard comparable to a VIP.

In fact, credit where credit is due, the Vatican is a fairly transparent organisation considering most of its employees are Italians, and that Italy does not have a long tradition of public accountability. Moreover, most Italians are less than enamoured of the supposed right of the public to know what they consider, with some justification, none of their concern. True, Italian has no word for privacy; but it does have numerous phrases, some of them rather robust, meaning the equivalent of “Mind your own business.”

Even if transparency became the order of the day, and every request for information was answered fully and thoroughly, this might be no guarantee against the numerous conspiracy theories that are a staple of Italian life, and which have been popularised in the Anglophone world by people like Dan Brown. Take the case of Emanuela Orlandi, the teenage girl who disappeared in Rome in 1982. (There is a good Wikipedia summary here in English, and a fuller Italian version here). Reading the accounts, and given that witnesses saw the teenage girl get into a man’s car, it seems overwhelmingly likely that the 15 year old was the victim of a sex attacker who murdered her. But because she was the daughter of a minor Vatican official and had, most unuusally, a Vatican passport, her tragic disappearance has been spun into part of a huge web of intrigue, and numerous suppositions, some by people who have had no first hand knowledge of the affair, and who were in one case clearly mentally ill, have been allowed the status of quasi-unchallenged facts. Given that so simple and tragic a case can become so bloated a tissue of monstrous supposition, and still exert its hold thirty years later, what hope is there that anyone will ever believe the Vatican, even when they tell the truth?

  • Anonymous

    While transparency is a good thing in its own right, I suspect that father Lucie Smith is absolutely right
    when he says it will make no difference to the conspiracy theorists, or indeed those with an agenda against the church.  Conspiracy theorists want to believe in their theories and nothing the church does is going to make any difference to them.  The revelation of the last secret of Fatima did nothing to silence them on that matter.

  • GFFM

    No it doesn’t need such an act. It needs to depose those who are corrupt. Period.

  • Parasum

    “Does the Vatican need a Freedom of Information Act? The Act supposedly gives us British citizens the right to know what information the government is holding about us, or indeed about other matters, with certain safeguards.”This sounds like something the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church wants:

    “A. Basic Human Rights
    and Responsibilities

    All Catholics have the basic
    human rights e.g., (a) freedom of action, (b) freedom of conscience, (c)
    freedom of opinion and expression, (d) the right to receive and impart
    information,….” you suggest would come under section II.1.A.(d) of ARCC’s “Proposed Constititution of the Catholic Church”.

    Britain, unlike the Vatican, is a democracy, however imperfect – whereas the Vatican is ruled by a Priest-Emperor who is the last absolute monarch in Europe; as our cousins across the Pond are so fond of saying, “The Church is not a democracy”. Indeed it’s not – a better comparison would be with the USSR; the CC is a totalitarian autocracy, with a few concessions to more humane ways. I don’t recall the USSR providing a  FoI Act; though its constitution provided for freedom of religion (pity about the reality !). From Putin’s Russia, we have this:

    “The absence of a law on freedom of information essentially renders
    meaningless the right to access information enshrined in Article 29 of the
    Russian Federation Constitution. With its traditional authoritarian habits,
    the executive branch generally has demonstrated an unwillingness to follow
    the spirit and the letter of the constitution. Officials who retain their
    old obkom arrogance have sought to obscure realities of government and in
    effect invalidate the citizens` rights to obtain information concerning the
    activities of the bureaucracy.Free Speech in Putin’s Russia
    Russia’s Media: Back to the USSR?
    Director, Citizens` Watch
    With a few changes, the author could be describing the Politburo & Presidium – sorry, Vatican & Curia. 
    The notion that bishops & their Vatican handlers will ever be “accountable” to the Great Unwashed who are the vast majority of Catholics on earth, is simply ludicrous.

  • Peter D.

    No. It does not need such an act. Why does the Catholic Church have to be trendy? Who is so caught up in these conspiracy theories? Have you ever seen the jubilant faces of those who visit the Vatican to see the Pope give mass? The people of faith do not want these trendy secular laws shoved down our throats. The Church is our rock. We love the Church as it has been for the last 2000 years and as it is now and do not want to see these types of changes. 

  • Peter D.

    Those who hate the Church will continue to hate it not matter  what the Church does to try to appease them. The enemies of the church will not rest until the gates of hell have prevailed. Those who try to shove this, for lack of a better way of saying it, secular waste down our throats are the same individuals that support other trendy rules such as individualism, same sex marriage, abortion, female priests, etc. Even if the Church does all they want tomorrow, and she is sacked and closes her doors forever, she will still be blamed for all the ills of the world. Stand firm. The Church is our rock. Stand firm.

  • believer

    Never heard of Emanuela Orlandi, but then I knew nothing about the’ Stolen Spanish Babies’ either until a few months ago – nor about problems with the Belgian catechism. Nor do I think a Freedom Of information would resolve the questions raised here:

  • theroadmaster

    Yeah, that is right, Parasum.  The Church is like the USSR.  Dissidents are rounded up and jailed and sometimes murdered if they step out of line.  Your comparison is really ridiculous and so out of sync with reality.  The pope oversees the Church in concert with his Cardinal colleagues and the episcopal conferences of the world.  As you say, it is not a democracy but the Church is a transnational body whose ultimate raison d’etre is beyond the earthly remit of nations i.e the saving of souls.  Truth for the truth cannot be simply decided on a majority of hands as it is something which is hierarchical and eternal.

  • Anonymous

    >> We love the Church as it has been for the last 2000 years and as it is now and do not want to see these types of changes.

    Do you mean you love witch burnings and you think scientists proclaiming ideas not in sync with Catholic teachings should be burned on fires? 

    I hope you do not, and will agree, that all the changes that has Church done over the course of 2000 are only for good.