Scholars gather to discuss pontificate of Pius XI

From Oct. 28-30, I was honored to attend a conference of the world’s leading Vatican historians at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies in Providence, R.I., to discuss the political, historical and diplomatic pontificate of Pius XI in the interwar period.

The group of just under 30 scholars was invited to Brown by noted author David Kertzer, provost of the Ivy League institution and author of “Prisoner of the Vatican,” and longtime Italian colleague Alberto Melloni, one of the preeminent church historians alive today.

Many members of the group, which had representatives from Cambridge, Rome, Bologna, Toronto, Harvard, Washington D.C., and elsewhere, had gathered in both Milan and Munich in recent years to discuss the relationship of the papacy and European leaders of the 1920s and 30s, including of course, the relationship of the Holy See to Hitler and Mussolini under Pius XI and his Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pius XII.

The meetings of the world’s most renowned historical scholars of this period have increased in frequency and importance after the Vatican Secret Archives made available many previously unreleased documents of this era in 2006.

The conference, which was bi-lingual in Italian and English, presented the study of the affectionately called Papa Ratti from a variety of angles, both praiseworthy and critical. An emphasis of many of the papers was the increasing rapprochement between the Vatican and American political and ecclesiastical leadership in the years leading up to the Second World War. During this period, the roles of Pacelli, Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, and Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, the Apostolic Delegate to the United States, as liaisons between the Holy See and America under FDR were explored.

Due to the increasing ease of global travel and communication, Pius XI was the pope to have the most intimate knowledge of American affairs up to that time, a rather new development of the period which is largely taken for granted today.

The transnational relationship of the Holy See to the countries of the world during this period had many previously unknown problems with which to deal: new forms of chemical warfare, the rise of totalitarian, fascist, and communist governments in formerly Christian countries, humanitarian efforts in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles.

We discussed Pius’ writings on everything from birth control (Casti Conubii), economics (Quadragesimo Anno) and anti-semitism (the so-called “Hidden Encyclical”) to human rights and the rising importance of radio communication in the Vatican’s dissemination of information and the Father Coughlin affair in this country. The issue of Vatican “silence” in the traumatic events of the period in Italy and Germany was of course a recurrent theme, as it continues to be in both scholarly and popular circles today.

Between sessions, the group was treated to a private tour of Brown’s most treasured curatorial possessions, including Italian art and manuscripts and the earliest known book printed in Peru, a religious text that is a remnant of the missionary efforts to New World.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

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