The Vatican Library: On Keeping Records to Keep the Record Straight | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 10, 2011 | Ignatius InsightThe Vatican Library: On Keeping Records to Keep the Record Straight | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | January 10, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

"While it is an eminent place of the historical memory of the universal Church in which venerable testimonies of the manuscript tradition of the Bible are preserved, the Vatican Library nevertheless has another reason for being the object of the care and concern of the Popes. Since its origin it has preserved the unmistakable, truly 'catholic' universal openness to everything that humanity has produced down the centuries that is beautiful, good, noble and worthy..."
Benedict XVI, Letter at Reopening of the Vatican Library, November 9, 2010. [1]

"In recording everything that the Roman people has experienced in successive wars up to the time of writing, I have followed this plan—that of arranging all the events described as far as possible in accordance with the actual times and places. But from now on I shall no longer keep to that method: in this volume. I shall set down every single thing that has happened anywhere in the Roman Empire. The reason is simple. As long as those responsible for what happened were still alive, it was out of the question to tell the story in the way it deserved. For it was impossible either to avoid detection by swarms of spies, or if caught to escape death in its most agonizing form."
Procopius (490-560 A.D.), The Secret History. [2]


The manuscript text of Procopius of Caesarea's famous Secret History of the late Roman Empire was discovered in the Vatican Library in 1623. Though it was known indirectly from other sources before then, this discovery was considered a great find and witness to the importance of the Vatican Library. I cite the introductory passage from Procopius' book because it is an example of the wide breadth of interest in every area for which the Vatican Library is famous. As can be seen from the first citation, the reason for this interest is a main topic that Benedict addresses in his November 2010 Message to the present Vatican Librarian Raffaelle Farina.

Though the Vatican Library, or more exactly, the Vatican Apostolic Library, is well known, many might be surprised about the care that the popes have taken over the centuries to establish and keep it growing. The library was closed in 2007 for repairs and updating. It was reopened in the Fall of 2010. No doubt libraries today all have high-tech facilities of all sorts. Much of the material that can be found in a library can now be found on-line. Large portions of the Vatican Library itself are filmed and made accessible on-line in some form or other. The library's web site gives instructions what to do if you want to have a copy of a page or so from one of its book holdings.

Both as pope and as a scholar, Benedict obviously has a special fondness for this library. The library building itself and its rooms, designed by Dominico Fontana, are themselves works of art. Benedict recalls that Pope Sixtus V (1520-90) placed a Latin inscription on the entrance to the library. Sixtus proclaimed that the library was founded by popes "who listened to the voice of the Apostle Peter." The library is necessary to this "listening." The pope adds: "This idea of continuity through a 2,000-year-old history contains a profound truth: the Church of Rome has been linked to books from the outset: first of all they would have been those of the Sacred Scriptures, then books on theology and concerning the discipline and governance of the Church." The Church is linked to books. It keeps records to keep the record straight.

The Library in a more formal sense was founded in 1475. But popes had their own libraries long before that. Benedict even states that "The Apostolic Library, like the neighboring Secret Archives, is an integral part of the means required to carry out the Petrine Ministry and is likewise rooted in the exigencies of the Church's governance." Evidently, our more recent Library of Congress was itself founded with a similar understanding of the relation between a library and governance. The Vatican Library is not just an interesting collection of important books and manuscripts. Rather it enables the pope to see problems in historical perspective. With it, he is not a prisoner of his own time.

The Library obviously keeps as much of the historical record of Scripture as it can and as are available. But its interests are broader. "The Vatican Library has another reason for being the object of the care and concern of the Popes. Since its origin it has preserved the unmistakable, truly 'catholic,' universal openness to everything that humanity has produced down the centuries that is beautiful, good, noble, and worthy."


Catholicism is not interested in destroying books, but in keeping them. In this sense, the books and writings of the "heretics" and agnostics are as important as the books of orthodox theologians. But beyond that, the vast part of the world that does not arise from the inspiration of faith is also fundamental to what it is to be Catholic. The Vatican Library is thus a source of Greek and Latin classics, of things medieval, of things from almost anywhere. In a passage worthy of emphasis, Benedict wrote: "Nothing truly human is foreign to the Church."

It is because of its openness to all that is that institutions like libraries are built and developed by Christian institutions. The Church has "always sought, gathered, and preserved, with a continuity rarely matched, the best results of the effort of human beings to rise above the purely material to the conscious or unconscious search for the Truth." The very constitution of any human being, when sorted out, is a search for truth. This search is what unsettles him and keeps moving him when he does not find it and knows that he does not find it. In Benedict's mind, this search for truth exists in the soul of every human person. It grounds the notion of freedom of religion. It explains the duty of revelation to address itself to philosophy and to the nations.

On this basis, the pope observes that on the right wall of the Vatican Library is pictured the "orderly sequence" of the Ecumenical Councils. On the left wall are the great libraries of the ancient world. On the middle pilasters are portraits of inventors of alphabets. This arrangement is not "accidental." All of these belong together—what the church knows, what man knows, what language tells us.

Once we grasp this arrangement of the building itself, we notice, in addition, that "all converge towards the figure of Jesus Christ, 'celestis doctrinae auctor—(author of heavenly doctrine'), the Alpha and the Omega, the true Book of Life." It is for Christ that "all humanity yearns and strives." What a remarkable way to teach us that the whole world order includes within it, as the direction of everything else, the Incarnation!

This is how Benedict concludes his reflection on the structure of the Sistine Hall: "The Vatican Library is therefore not a theological or predominantly religious library; faithful to its humanistic origins it is by vocation open to the human being." We are not, of course, "faithful to our human origins" if we think we can have a library or university which does not include the scriptural or theological sides of humanity. But the opposite is true also. Both the secular books and the theological books belong in the same place, under the same roof.


We should not be surprised that the Library of the Vatican has known this truth all along. In this context, Benedict cites the words of Paul VI in 1975, when the Library was five hundred years old. Paul said that human growth begins from "within" us. The faculties we are given by the Creator are designed, when used, to make us "more of a man." They are to make us more like God. A library is considered "female." It nourishes us.

The openness of the Church is addressed both to past and to present. Moreover, "in the Vatican Library all seekers of the truth have always been welcomed with attention and respect without any confessional or ideological discrimination; all that is asked of them is the good faith of serious, disinterested and well-qualified research." The popes understand that "every partial truth is part of the Supreme Truth of God and every thorough and meticulous investigation to ascertain it is a path to reach it." So any library in its most fundamental workings is not just a place where books are stored.

A library, at its best, is a place where truth is actively pursued. Truth, in its own logic, will lead the soul from one truth to another. "Love of literature and historical and philological research are therefore interwoven with the longing for God." This latter was a theme that Benedict developed and recalled from his Lecture in Paris in September 2008 at the Coll¸ge des Bernadines, itself a former Benedictine monastery.

In Paris, Benedict recalled that the very purpose of monastic life was to seek God. This seeking included the love of letters. Why? "Because in the biblical Word, God comes towards us and we turn towards him, we must learn to penetrate the secret of language, to understand it in its construction and in the nature of its expression." The sciences are driven by this search for the truth of things. Monasteries thus always had libraries to preserve the Word. Schools followed. The ultimate aim of learning is "how to serve God."

"The Vatican Library is then the place in which the loftiest human words are gathered and kept, the mirror and reflection of the Word, the Word that enlightens every man." What is in the Library is saved from our past, for our present. We hope it is handed on. To do so, we must keep them as they were first spoken and written. All words, to repeat, mirror and reflect the Word, the Word that enlightens. All being looks to what is. All words look to the Word. The Vatican Library not only assists the popes in governing, but in recalling and knowing the truth, lest we should forget it.


In his book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Leo Strauss remarked that authors often had to write under fear of political repercussions. This situation means that they had to be careful what they set down in print. Sometimes they had to hide what they were thinking under obscure language. Some argue that apocalyptic language in the Bible was written in this way. Surely, that is what Procopius meant also in his Introduction about his not being able to write while certain people were still alive. As Strauss worried, he too had to write "secretly," as the title of his book suggests.

All libraries and archives have certain restrictions about materials in their collection. Often, the private papers of people cannot be open till a certain number of years after their death. I remember being in Rome when Fathers Schneider, Martina, and Graham were publishing the Vatican documents dealings with the Germans during World War II. These papers were published early because of accusations against Pius XII that he did not do enough to oppose the Nazis. It turned out that he did a lot. What he did do had to be kept secret lest any effort be closed off. Had he done what his later critics suggested, he probably would have caused much damage by Nazi retaliation. Again, this is the point of Strauss and Procopius.

In Christopher Morley's novel The Haunted Bookshop, we read: "'I should have thought,' said Gilbert, 'that living in a bookshop would be delightfully tranquil.' 'Far from it. Living in a bookshop is like living in a warehouse of explosives. Those shelves are ranked with the most furious combustibles in the world—the brains of men.'" [3] Somehow, as I read the remarks of Benedict on the Vatican Library, these lines of Morley seem like a better way to describe the place. The library is but a big bookstore, in a way. And the Vatican Library exists to be sure that an accurate memory of the most explosive idea that was ever addressed to men be not forgotten, the reality that the Word, made flesh, did dwell amongst us. This truth is what the popes are commissioned to keep before us all days, even to the end of the world.

While a library may be made for the peaceful reflection of scholars in pursuit of truth, the fact is that truth is itself "explosive." It wakes us up out our slumbers, dogmatic or otherwise. Truth does require that we pursue it to the end, to what is true in itself. On failing to do so, many a man has, instead, torn up the world seeking to construct his own truth. The writings of such men are also in the Vatican Library along with those of our kind who have wanted to keep everything all together—what is in Scripture, what the Councils of the Church say, what is found in the ancient libraries, what the inventors of language tell us.

In short, we want to keep all things directed to reason including faith. "Nothing truly human is foreign to the Church." Even our errors and our sins are human. This is why records of these too will be found in libraries, including the Vatican Library. A successor of Peter who does not know what men are at their worst, at their ordinary, and at their best is unfit to rule the Church. This independent memory of what men hold and do, of what incites them to pursue what is true, is, as Benedict notes, what is found in the Vatican Library. No wonder the popes have taken such care of it.


[1] Benedict XVI, "The Truth Open to Researchers," Letter to Vatican Archivist, Cardinal Raffaelle Farina, L'Osservatore Romano, November 17, 2010.

[2] Procopius, The Secret History, translated by G. A. Williamson (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 37.

[3] Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop (Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1919), 25.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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