Putting Out Papal Fires

In 1307, France’s King Philip IV owed a sizeable sum of money to the Knights Templar, the class of warrior-monks that functioned both as a powerful fighting force during the Crusades and a complex multinational lending network. Philip didn’t pay down the debt. Rather, he accused the Templars of heresy and burned their leader at the stake. Whether the Templars deserved this treatment—the king accused them of all manner of lewd activity, including kissing each other’s bodies “obscenely” (National Post)—remained a matter of hot debate for centuries. Now, questions over the group’s demise could be put to rest with the Vatican’s announcement it would sell copies (TIME) of a seven-century old report commissioned by Pope Clement V, detailing King Philip’s crackdown and answering charges that the Vatican was complicit in disbanding the Knights Templar.

Some analysts say the Vatican is releasing the document, recovered in its files in 2001, to soften its image internationally by clarifying its role in the demise of the Templars. (Despite the French king’s accusations, a group of Cardinals eventually cleared (AP) the knights of heresy charges.) These efforts gained urgency following the release of The Da Vinci Code, the best-selling novel and feature film that Catholic groups criticize (NYT) for historical fictions—among other things, the book holds that the Knights Templar lived on as a secret order and guarded the Holy Grail. More generally, the release of Pope Clement’s report follows a recent pattern that finds the Vatican seeking to counter what it says are misperceptions about both its past and present.

The Vatican’s strained ties with Islam illustrate the church’s challenges. Pope Benedict XVI offended many Muslims in September 2006 when he delivered an address that quoted the following statement from a medieval text: “Show me just what [the Prophet] Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” After Muslim leaders expressed outrage, the pope apologized for any offense that had been taken—though some Muslim groups said the apology was insufficient (BBC) because the pontiff stopped short of apologizing for the remarks themselves.

Recently, the pope has struck a more conciliatory tone. On October 22, he called for a meeting seeking “reconciliation (AFP)” among world religions. Muslim leaders embraced the pope’s push for peace, and 138 leading clerics sent him a letter welcoming mutual conciliation, a move that an op-ed in Lebanon’s Daily Star celebrated as a “groundbreaking event in Muslim-Christian solidarity.”

Experts also see Vatican efforts to better its image on other fronts. Prior to the contretemps with Muslims, Pope Benedict considered adding flexibility (Deutsche-Welle) to the Vatican’s ban on condom use for the prevention of HIV—long a theological sticking point for his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Yet the Vatican’s shift on the HIV issue was highly specific and somewhat semantic—only allowing for condom use for the explicit purpose of preventing HIV, and even then calling it a “lesser evil.”

Because of the incremental nature of these changes, theological experts do not expect a swift shift in church doctrine. Nor does Pope Clement’s report fully clear the air about the Templars—though the Church acquitted some of the knights of heresy, it convicted them on lesser charges. It thus remains unclear what the ramifications of the report’s release will be. And either way, stories about the Knights Templar seem likely to persist in popular lore, where the value of a good plotline has a way of superseding historical accuracy.