Neither angels nor demons

Hans
Hans Rollmann
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Recently I saw Ron Howard's adaptation of Dan Brown's bestselling novel "Angels and Demons," again with Tom Hanks in the lead role playing the Harvard-based "symbologist" Robert Langdon. Those who saw or read "The Da Vinci Code" are already aware of his claims as a diviner of ancient and medieval symbols. In "The Da Vinci Code" we were treated to a revisionist reading of church history through Gnostic lenses and an arcane conspiracy theory involving Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their alleged descendants.
In this new film, the plot and its twists are so far out-of-this-world that only devotees of Indiana Jones or James Bond can truly appreciate its implausibility. The film focuses on only one overriding ideological issue - the conflict between science and religion - but it never rises above obvious or simplistic images and predictable, pedestrian rhetoric about the difficult historical relations of scientific investigation with claims of revealed truth.

Little theological pretense
In "Angels and Demons" much of the theological pretense is gone, and we wind up with a hybrid of adventure and mystery in an ecclesiastical setting. Langdon becomes a driven tour guide to Rome's Renaissance art and churches, hounded by a timeline that places him just a few steps behind a sadistic murderer seeking retribution for the Vatican's suppression of scientific truth. The obvious perpetrators behind these actions appear to be a secret scientific brotherhood, the Illuminati, an assumption that in the end turns out to be deceiving. Langdon must struggle to save four kidnapped frontrunners in a papal election while at the same time trying to find a vial of antimatter that threatens to annihilate the Vatican in an incinerating flash of lightening.
The key to finding this threat to the Vatican's survival lies in the Secret Vatican Archives, where the church has hidden a lost publication of Galileo Galilei, his Diagramma della Verita (Diagram of Truth), a treatise of suppressed scientific facts printed in Holland but then allegedly destroyed, with only one copy remaining in the Vatican, kept away from scholars such as Professor Langdon. This book contains the key to unravelling the plot of the Illuminati and is crucial for discovering where the cardinals will be killed and where the vial of antimatter is hidden.

Secret Vatican Archives
In this film, as well as in the book, I found especially amusing the mystique surrounding the Vatican Archives. Not until the 19th century was this treasure of ancient, patristic, medieval, and modern sources and literature open to scholars, but the claim that Robert Langdon - in the film a bona fide Harvard scholar - would repeatedly be denied access to the archives does not match present day reality. The term "secret" attached to these archives, while it heightens the mystique, should better be translated "private," since these were archives originally used by the papal administration. Today's Vatican Archives go back to Pope Paul V in 1610 and have been open to all serious scholars since the 20th century. As is true of many secular archives, the Vatican does, however, protect the privacy of living individuals and has thus imposed a 70-year rule of access so that today one may see materials produced before 1940. In my own research on Newfoundland Catholicism, I obtained on two occasions ready access to the Vatican Archives.

Bishop Carfagnini in the Secret Vatican Archives
On one occasion I wrote, together with the Italian scholar Dr. Matteo Sanfilippo, a biographical essay on the troublesome Italian Bishop Carfagnini of Harbour Grace, whose authoritarian rule and battles with his Irish Catholic flock caused serious conflict and strain in his diocese. Bishop Michael Francis Howley had collected a few documents on Carfagnini, which I studied in the Archdiocesan Archives in St. John's, now ably administered by archivist Larry Dohey. The few documents preserved in Carfagnini's own diocese of Harbour Grace, now Grand Falls, were more difficult to access, so that I had relatively little to rely on in reconstructing Carfagnini's career. This was not the case, however, with the Secret Vatican Archives, where my collaborator, Professor Sanfilippo, recovered a remarkable array of archival materials about the bishop and his troubled episcopate. At that time, it was much easier for us to find resources in the Secret Vatican Archives than in the Diocesan Archives in Grand Falls. Readers can view the results of our research by placing the name "Carfagnini" into the search field on the website of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online (DCB) - http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html.

Vatican co-operation
More recently, I again used the Vatican Archives - not the Secret Vatican Archives but those of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith - in connection with my work on Bishop Fleming and the Danish architect of St. John's Roman Catholic basilica, Ole Jorgen Schmidt. It was even possible for me by e-mail to request letters in the Vatican Archives written by Bishop Fleming. After receiving an electronic invoice and sending my payment, I only had to wait for the envelope with the documents to arrive. Neither angels nor demons kept me from working in the Vatican Archives. I have never experienced the anguish of repeated refusals and the difficulties of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon in my relations with the Vatican. These archives, especially those of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, have invaluable records pertaining to Newfoundland from the early 1600s and Lord Baltimore's Colony of Avalon. Professor Luca Codignola and his team have further eased our access to the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century materials by indexing the Vatican records pertaining to Newfoundland and Canada. Their index can be used in MUN's Queen Elizabeth II Library.

Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by e-mail: hrollman@mun.ca.

Organizations: Vatican Archives, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, Queen Elizabeth II Library

Geographic location: Vatican, Newfoundland, Rome Holland St. John's Grand Falls Avalon Canada

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