Freedom of Information and the Vatican archives

On 23 March, the Vatican Press Office published the following:

On the opening of the Vatican archives regarding Argentine dictatorship

Vatican City, 23 March 2016 – The director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., in response to questions from journalists, confirmed this morning that for some time Pope Francis has expressed his intention to open up for consultation the Vatican archives relating to the period of dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983). This naturally presupposes the cataloguing of the material.

This task is proceeding in a regular fashion and it is expected to be completed during the coming months, after which the times and conditions for consultation may be studied, in agreement with the Argentine Episcopal Conference. So far, Fr. Lombardi explained, the intention is to respond to specific legal questions requested by rogatory [written requests from courts in other jurisdictions] or matters of a humanitarian nature.”

Vatican Secret Archive

Many peoples’ perception of the Vatican Secret Archives will be coloured by Chapter 49 of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons or its depiction in the associated film. However, the official Vatican description is as follows:

“The Archivio Segreto Vaticano pursues it specific activity aimed at preserving and enhancing the deeds and documents related to the government of the Universal Church. It primarily serves the Roman Pontiff and the Holy See and secondly offers its services to scholars of all faiths from all nations.

The current name, the Archivio Segreto Vaticano has been documented as from the mid 17th century, when, like today, it was given to the pope’s private (secretum) archives over which he exercised supreme and sole jurisdiction.

The documentary heritage housed in its vast storerooms spans about twelve centuries (8th to 20th centuries). It consists of over 600 archival fonds [aggregation of documents that arise from the same source] and is stored on over 85 linear kilometres of shelving, some of which is in the Bunker, a two-storey underground vault below the Cortile della Pigna of the Vatican Museums.

After Pope Leo XIII opened the doors of the Archivio Segreto Vaticano to scholars back in 1881, it has become one of the most famous history research centres in the world.

In accordance with a practice established in 1924, the pope grants free access to the documents «grouped into pontificates» currently running up to the end of the papacy of Pope Pius XI (February 1939). Nevertheless, Paul VI departed from this practice and granted scholars access to the Archives of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) after the Council came to a close in 1965; Pope John Paul II granted access to the fond Ufficio Informazioni Vaticano, Prigionieri di Guerra (Prisoners of War) (1939-1947); lastly, the fonds Commissione Centrale per l’Arte Sacra in Italia (1924-1989) and Censimento degli Archivi Ecclesiastici d’Italia (1942) have been made accessible to the scholars.”

Research in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano is free of charge and open to qualified scholars conducting scientific studies. However, all researchers must have a university degree or an equivalent university diploma, and clergy must possess a licentiate degree or PhD. There is no equivalent of the Bodleian declaration requiring an undertaking “not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame” although its Rules for Scholars are nevertheless quite restrictive.

Articles in Crux and The Guardian include photographs from within the Secret Archive and of selected items respectively.


Whilst the subject matter of the material to be made available beyond the scope of L&RUK, the availability of such material to scholars from the Vatican Archives will of more general interest. However, as David Kertzer, anthropology professor at Brown University, indicates in Crux that the Archive’s holdings are not easily accessible:

“Scholars enter through the Porta Sant’Anna, pass Swiss Guards, walk through the Cortile del Belvedere, and present credentials that must be renewed every 6 months. Journalists, students, and amateur historians aren’t welcome. Once admitted, there’s no browsing. Instead, researchers request specific documents, using bulky catalogues, some handwritten in Italian or Latin. They can request up to three folders each day.

If in just a few minutes they realize that what they’re seeking isn’t in the requested folders, they’re forced to pack up for the day – a challenge for scholars on a deadline or those who have travelled long distances. Computers are allowed, but photos aren’t, which means long sessions in the third-floor reading room typing notes”.

The article concludes:

“Pope Francis is considering when to open the full archives of Pope Pius XII, the man dubbed “Hitler’s Pope” by some, but whose cause for canonization is championed by Church traditionalists who say he hid Jews from the Nazis.

For the Vatican, mystery and palace intrigue come with the territory. But for a department whose official name includes the word secret, there is transparency around many items known to be housed there.”

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Freedom of Information and the Vatican archives" in Law & Religion UK, 2 April 2016,

One thought on “Freedom of Information and the Vatican archives

  1. Pingback: Vol. 9, no. 32 |

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *