New edition on Knights Templar: No free copies

To a medieval historian, it was a real temptation.

Franco Cardini, one of Italy’s most renowned experts on the Middle Ages, candidly confessed as much during a press conference last week. In front of him on the speaker’s dais stood a copy of “Processus Contra Templarios,” the facsimile collection of Vatican documents with an $8,400 price tag.

History professors generally aren’t rich, Cardini said, and they have a tendency to kleptomania. If the book hadn’t been so imposing and precious, he said, it would have already been in his briefcase.

He was kidding — we think. Certainly there were no free copies floating around at the volume’s unveiling. More than a book, it was an elaborate artifact, with parchment reproductions and cardinals’ seals, all wrapped in a goatskin binding. The centerpiece was the Chinon parchment, which detailed a papal investigation of the Knights Templar in 1308.

Who was buying up the 799 copies of this limited edition? The publisher wouldn’t say (“right to privacy”) but it was a good bet that no one at the Vatican could afford it. Pope Benedict’s copy was a gift.

Cardini was just one of the highlights of the press conference. Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, started it off with a sharply worded criticism of the false claims that have swirled around the documents ahead of the book launch.

That put him at cross purposes with the book’s publicists, who sat impassively on the stage next to him. The word around the Vatican is that Bishop Pagano, a rigorous academic, has no time for pseudo-scholars seeking to hype speculation or move product.

Bishop Pagano had a similar reaction when the Vatican Secret Archives recently opened its files relating to the pre-World War II period. The appetite was high for a “smoking gun” piece of evidence showing that the future Pope Pius XII — then nuncio to Germany — was somehow cooperating with Hitler. But after initial research of the Archives material failed to produce anything dramatic, curiosity gave way to disinterest, the prefect said.

I thought something was odd at the Templars press conference when Cardinal Raffaele Farina, the Vatican archivist, failed to show up on the rostrum as scheduled. Then Bishop Pagano, after slamming the publicity hype, walked out of the room before the presentation was half-over. Too bad he missed Cardini’s call for a less magnificent edition of the documents, one that an average academic could afford.

Vatican press conferences are usually long-winded, tedious, and a bit Politburo-esque: a line-up of church officials reading speeches that say much the same thing. This one was different, and it was a breath of fresh air.

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