Friday, November 12, 2010

When "Secret" Doesn't Mean "Secret:" The Vatican Secret Archives

It's true: the Vatican has Secret Archives!

There's a link on the Holy See's English-language home page ( that's clearly labeled "Vatican Secret Archives." When I read that, I thought that maybe someone at the Holy See was being snarky. Turns out, that's actually what the Secret Archives are called, when the name is translated into English.

Which reminds me of an old, old joke about some old coot who didn't like newfangled translations of the Bible: "If King James' English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"

I'll get back to what "Secret Archives" really means. But first:

Change Happens

As I explained in a footnote last year:
"Don't get me wrong: I love the King James translation of the Bible. And I have a certain respect for the English king whose name is now attached to it. I'm aware that it's been revised a time or two, but it is still, I think, one of the apex achievements in English literature. The language is beautiful, almost poetic.

"The English language, however, has changed a bit in the intervening four centuries. And, although I'm sure that the Euro-British scholars working on the project were as smart and talented as their contemporary counterparts, they were working in the first decade of the 1600s They didn't have the resources we have available today.

"Yes, screwball theologians of the 20th century came up with whoppers: but so did their predecessors in the first through 19th. Newer isn't necessarily better, but it's not necessarily worse, either.

"So, although I respect and enjoy the beautiful and archaic language of that translation, I don't rely on it for my study of the Word of God."(footnote 1 (August 27, 2009))
Which gets me back to the "Vatican Secret Archives." But first, a little background.

Latin, Language, and an Ancient Institution

Something that I think doesn't help many Americans feel comfortable about the Catholic Church is that it's so old.

A Couple of Months, Centuries, Millennia - There's a Difference

We live in a culture where 'long-term planning' can mean thinking about what may happen five business quarters ahead. The way we live, 15 months really is a long time. For folks dealing with information technology, the industry they're in may have changed almost beyond recognition in that time - or have become obsolete.

Our country celebrated its 234th anniversary this year: how can someone whose frame of reference is strictly limited to the United States of America feel at ease with an institution that's been around for almost two millennia?

I do: but I focused on ancient history for my degree, and try to keep up to date with what the folks who study cosmology are finding out about this creation. I'm not your "typical" American. Or "typical" Catholic, either. (see "Unity, Diversity, and Being Catholic" (August 26, 2010), "Not All Catholics are Like Me - Thank God" (March 18, 2009))

And I'm getting off-topic again.

Latin: It's Simply Not British

Another thing that I think doesn't help many Americans relate to the Catholic Church is that its official language isn't English.

Jesus founded the Church while Rome controlled a great deal of real estate around the Mediterranean. At the time, and for over a dozen centuries after, Latin was the sort of semi-universal language that English is today. (Why isn't there More Mandarin on the Web?," Apathetic Lemming of the North (April 4, 2008))

Some languages spoken today are fairly closely related to Latin: Like Italian or Spanish - the Romance languages. English, although it's heavily influenced by the version of French spoken by the Normans (who were Vikings - it's a long story), and contains words from a smorgasbord of languages, is a Germanic language.

A Mississippi Riverboat Pilot and Latin Terms

I think that's one reason for Mark Twain's missing the boat when he made a wisecrack about the "invention" of the True Cross. In that case, "invention" doesn't mean 'something created by someone.' It means 'discovered.' (July 12, 2010) In American English, someone will occasionally use "discover" to mean "develop" - like 'Charles Goodyear discovered the process of making vulcanized rubber. No wonder it's been so hard to get an artificial intelligence that can make sense of 'natural language.' And that's yet another topic.

Vatican Secret Archives: When "Secret" Doesn't Mean "Secret"

Remember that crack I made about King James' English? The language I speak has changed - quite a bit - in the last four centuries. And remember: The Catholic Church's language isn't English. It's Latin.

Turns out, that "Vatican Secret Archives" isn't someone in Rome being snarky. It's an effort to translate the name of the Archivum Secretum Vaticanum into a Germanic language, without sacrificing too much of the real name. Here's how the Holy See's website explains it:

"...When in 1610 Paul V founded the new Archives in the Vatican, thus transferring to the new premises in the Vatican Palaces the volumes and the documents until then preserved in the Archive of the Apostolic Camera, in the Vatican Library and in Castel S. Angelo, we can start talking about the 'Vatican Secret Archives' (Archivum Secretum Vaticanum) and in some cases they were also called «Apostolic Vatican Secret Archives». This was due to the analogy with the Apostolic Library, called «Bibliotheca Secreta» since the XV Century.

"The term «secret» (secretum), besides, since the XV Century, was used in both secular and ecclesiastical courts, for people or institutions close to the prince (in our case to the pope) and to his «familia». As a matter of fact, the trusty person of the prince, with whom he discussed the most reserved or delicate matters and it was often the person who prepared the respective documents, was called «secretarium». Therefore, in the family roles of the prince, apart from the secretarii, there was the «secret servants», the «secret cupbearer», the «Secret squire» etc. The same phenomenon could be seen also within the papal familia: where there were the secretarii, the camerarius secretus, the sacrista secretus, the secretus carver and other figures called in the same way.

"Therefore, the term described mainly the people who were immediately and directly at the service of the prince (or the pope). The same thing happened with offices and institutions of the court, and therefore we have the «bibliotheca secreta», the «camerae secretae», the «capella secreta» and, therefore, also the «archivum secretum»...."
I thought that was fascinating - but I read dictionaries for fun. Like I said, not everybody's like me. For which we should all thank God. It's like what someone said about married couples: If you're the same as each other, one of you's redundant.

I suppose someone could have called the Archivum Secretum Vaticanum the "Vatican Personal Archives" - but although that'd keep the idea of 'closeness,' it would introduce notions of personal property which really don't apply here. "Vatican Private Archives" would have the same problem.

As it is, "Vatican Secret Archives" is a cool name, and the website's explanation for the name was pretty easy to find. As for folks who seem determined to feel that those "Jesuit Ruling Priests of Baal"1 are up to no good? I think "my mind's made up, don't confuse me with the facts" applies. (April 11, 2010)

Not-altogether-unrelated posts:
1 I am not making that up. (November 12, 2008)

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.