Church studies: Vatican fosters research, welcomes scholars

VATICAN CITY - Every year, the Vatican conducts research on church law and practice, offers scholarships to Orthodox and Muslim students, designs academic programs for church workers and maintains vast libraries and archives consulted by scholars from around the world.

Jesuit Father Norman Tanner, dean of church history at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, said no one should be surprised by the range of the Vatican's scholarly interests or its interest to scholars. After all, he said, Jesus was interested in everything about human life and the world; and St. Paul's letters show he not only preached to the ancient Greeks, he knew their culture and philosophy.

A variety of studies conducted by the Vatican or about the Vatican are highlighted in "The Activity of the Holy See," an annual publication of reports from every Vatican congregation, council and office.

The Vatican Secret Archives are a mecca for scholars of church history, and during the 2010-2011 academic year, the archives issued 1,321 entrance permits to scholars from 54 countries. But other Vatican offices also make their archives accessible to researchers.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reported that 97 scholars consulted its archives last year. The most popular topics of research included: bioethical questions; Christianity and Islam; censorship and the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books; the relationship between the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions; sainthood causes and relics; and the Jewish community in the Papal States.

Father Tanner said the church sees no reason to hide some of the less illustrious moments in church history from serious scholars or from itself. "The church is a church of sinners; even though we have God's grace and guidance, we remain fragile human beings," he said. Study, reflection and prayer can help future generations of Christians "see a false path from a good path."

The doctrinal congregation's archives reported preparing for scholars' eventual access to papers from the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. The Vatican Secret Archives, which holds the bulk of the documents related to the wartime pope, has been working for years to get its own material ready. Scholars, particularly those interested in Catholic-Jewish relations, have pressed the Vatican to open the archives and allow a full study of Pope Pius' actions during the war, including what he did or failed to do for Jews during the Holocaust.

Over at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the archives document the church's missionary work throughout the centuries. But a greater focus there is on preparing missionaries and bringing some of them to study in Rome, especially if their home country has no university offering advanced degrees in theology. The congregation runs a seminary, the Pontifical Urbanian College, as well as two residences for priests studying in Rome: the pontifical international missionary colleges of St. Paul and of St. Peter. The three institutions were home to more than 450 seminarians and priests from more than 50 countries last year.

The congregation does not ignore the educational needs of religious women and laypeople either. It sponsors the Mater Ecclesiae Missionary College, which was home to 107 sisters from 32 countries, and the St. Joseph International Missionary College, which hosted 25 laypeople from 19 countries.

Studying in Rome gives students access to a variety of specialized Catholic theological studies and a daily encounter with the universal reality of the Catholic Church through contact with students and professors from around the world.

The Vatican is interested not only in improving Catholics' understanding of their faith, but also in promoting an educated dialogue with others.

In the 2010-11 academic year, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity provided scholarships to 73 Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox students doing course work at pontifical universities in Rome or focusing on ecumenism at other universities.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue gave scholarships to five Muslim students from Egypt, Indonesia, Iran and Pakistan for their studies in Rome.

Father Tanner said the scholarships are partly expressions of "human courtesy" in helping others pursue knowledge. And in light of the Second Vatican Council's recognition of good and holy elements in other religions, "the church itself is very interested in what people from other faiths believe and how they think," and sees their faith experiences as something to learn from. In addition, the church teaches that the more believers know about one another, the greater the chances for mutual respect and dialogue.

Of course, some of the studies reported in the Vatican book are for the direct benefit of the church itself.

The Congregation for the Clergy reported that in 2011 it began a study of the permanent diaconate, asking each bishop in the world to evaluate his diocese's experience and to offer suggestions. The congregation said that as the year ended, it was compiling the results and would share them with other Vatican offices.

One of the biggest studies the Vatican is conducting is the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts' ongoing review of several sections of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

In its 2011 report, the council said four working groups continued the studies and meetings they have held since 2009 to determine whether parts of church law need to be updated. The council reported that one group already has drafted norms regulating the financial operations of Catholic charitable agencies. The results of other studies, including one on the relationship between the Latin church's Code of Canon Law and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, have been sent to consultants around the world for review.

The variety of studies going on all the time at the Vatican is a sign of the value the church places on human reason and intellectual pursuits, Father Tanner said. "The Catholic Church has always been courageous - well, more or less always - in wishing to listen to the various human and intellectual challenges" of the world and to find better ways to respond to them.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970