Does the Vatican need a Freedom of Information Act?

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?