Friday, November 12, 2010

Report of the Conference on Pius XI at Brown University, Rhode Island

This news article from the Watson Institute on the recent conference at Brown University gives an overview of some of the areas covered in what looks to have been an excellent two days of discussion and sharing of information.

I have taken the liberty of correcting several (very) minor errors in the text, with the exceptions of the banner, which is, I think, rather misleading, and a rather surprisingly bald statement in the text (my comments are in a different colour).  Questions related to Pius XII were raised - that was to be expected, but the conference remained focussed on what Pius XI, his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli and the Vatican did (and did not) do in the years prior to 1939, the year of Pius XI's death.

Conference on Pius XI Debates Papal Role in WWII


November 10, 2010

A two-day conference, “Pius XI and America,” recently brought international scholars to Brown to discuss newly released documents from the Vatican archives. They discussed the papacy of Pope Pius XI and his relationship with the United States and Nazi and fascist leaders in Europe.

Scholars who attended the conference came from Italy, Canada, England, and the United States. It was the third of three conferences since 2006, when current Pope Benedict XVI opened the Vatican pre-WWII archives. This conference was hosted by Provost David Kertzer and conducted in Italian and English. Kertzer is one of four scholars who initiated the network and the series of conferences.

Conference discussion was intended to focus around Pius XI, who led the church from 1922 until his death in 1939, the church in Rome, and the relationship with the United States. Inevitably, comparisons were drawn between Pius XI and his successor Pius XII, Kertzer told the Providence Journal. Prior to archives being opened, most scholars had believed with some certainty that Pius XI was the “Good” Pope while Pius the XII has historically been called “Hitler’s Pope.”  I am somewhat aghast at this last statement!  Did Ms Check check her sources, read some history, do some research?!  Such a blunder may have been forgivable in the late 1990s after Cornwall's book was published, but it is not so in 2010.  I have written to the editors of the Watson Institute Press Center.

But since the opening of the records four years ago information has been found which contradicts these labels. Conference attendees raised questions of which church policies were truly Pius XI’s and which were Pius XII’s. At the conference, scholars debated about whether or not Pope Pius XI truly did enough to speak out against the Holocaust. Again, this is problematic.  Does the journalist mean German action against the Jews during 1933-1939?  I presume this is the case.  Accuracy in reporting is essential if the pseudo-histories are to be laid to rest.

Scholars point to Pius XI’s relationship with Pietro Tacchi Venturi when calling his reputation into question. Venturi was a Jesuit priest and historian who served as the unofficial liaison between Pius XI, Pius XII, and Benito Mussolini. With the unsealing of records, more documents were found that illustrate this relationship as friendlier than previously thought, said Harry Kashdan, attendee and Kertzer’s assistant.

The existence of the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge is the reason most scholars believed Pius XI spoke out appropriately against the Holocaust. He commissioned and published the encyclical that condemned Nazi ideology and it was read to church congregations from the pulpit. Pius XII, by comparison, is often viewed as too “silent” about the holocaust for not initiating something similar. However, scholars at the conference had lively debate around this issue, according to Kashdan.

Much of the scholars’ debate revolved around three documents, the encyclical and two documents released with the unsealing in 2006. These two documents, the Syllabus of Errors and Humani Generis Unitas, were commissioned by Pius XI but never published. The documents were completed while Pius XI was on his deathbed. Debate surrounds whether or not Pius XI would have still wanted them published had he recovered and if Pius XII should have published them to honor Pius XI’s wishes.


The network of scholars around Pius XI was established in 2006 by Kertzer, Alberto Melloni of Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII in Italy, Charles R. Gallagher, SJ of Boston College and author of Vatican Secret Diplomacy, and Professor Hubert Wolf of University of Münster in Germany.

Conference attendees were a part of the research network because of scholarly work they had done around Pius the XI. During the conference the scholars shared and discussed works and grad students were also given the opportunity to present their research and receive feedback.



Melloni delivered concluding remarks in Italian, summarizing the current body of work that has occurred since the first conference. He spoke specifically about the network, and research around Catholic Action, a Vatican initiative under Pius XI that sought to educate Italian youth as an alternative to the Union of Young Fascists. Kertzer asked for suggestions and ideas from the network as they continued their research. Catholic Action in Italy was established in the 19th century and adopted by the popes as the preferred way for the Catholic laity to work "in the world".  Pius XI adopted CA with enthusiasm.  Politics and political life were the prerogative of the laity, not the clergy.  From the beginning of his pontificate, Pius XI made it clear that priests were to have no role in the political life of a nation. CA spread throughout much of the Catholic world through the first half of the 20th century.

The two earlier conferences were held June 2009 in Milan and a March 2010 in Münster. Alberto Melloni was host of the second conference. Wolf, host of the first, could not attend this third conference.


By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Brittaney Check ‘12









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