Vatican Opens Pre-WWII Papal Archive

Pope Pius XI

Pope Pius XI was the leader of the Roman Catholic Church from 1922 to 1939. The archives of his papacy are now open. Select scholars can request documents in advance and review them in a reading room, but no ballpoint pens are allowed. Bettmann/CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption Bettmann/CORBIS

The Vatican has opened the archives of Pope Pius XI, who presided over the Roman Catholic Church from 1922 to 1939.

Historians are eager to explore the contents of the hundreds of thousands of documents. They hope to learn more about how the Vatican dealt with the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe and how the Roman Catholic Church responded to the persecution of Jews.

The documents are said to stretch along nearly 50 miles of shelves, but browsing is not allowed. Selected scholars must ask in advance for precise documents which they can study in a large reading room that seats about 100 people. Ball-point pens are banned, but pencils and computers are allowed.

Historian David Kertzer notes that Cardinal Angelo Ratti became pope just a few months before Mussolini took power in Italy.

"He has to deal with European fascism through Mussolini, then through the rise to power of Franco and rise to power before that of Hitler," Kertzer says.

The documents of Pius XI should also shed light on Eugenio Pacelli, who would become Pope Pius XII. Pacelli was the Vatican's envoy to Germany and later its secretary of state under Pius XI.

The Vatican insists that as Pius XII, Pacelli worked hard behind the scenes to help save Europe's Jews, but many scholars accuse him of not having done enough to prevent the Holocaust.

Church historian Alberto Melloni says the newly available documents should provide greater context and help explain the shifts in attitude of Pius XI regarding Europen politics leading up to WWII.

"In the pontificate of Pius XI, there is a change from initial indulgence if not sympathy for totalitarianism as a way to contain the Communist threat, to a different attitude … against Nazism, and against fascism and racial discrimination, deportation, and extermination," Melloni says.

Pius XI was the first pope to officially recognize the Italian state. In 1929 he signed a formal treaty with Mussolini. Four years later, just after Hitler came to power, Pius XI signed another treaty with Germany.

Historian Kertzer says that Pius XI was aware he was making deals with devils in order to secure advantages for the Catholic church, but that his attitude changed toward the end of his papacy.

"The pope began to regret to some extent what he had done and he really had some crisis of conscience," Kurtzer says.

In 1938, as he was growing even more concerned over what was happening in Germany and the rest of Europe, Pius XI asked an American Jesuit who was known for his anti-racist views to prepare a draft encyclical directly condemning racism and anti-racism and anti-Semitism. The request went nowhere.

"The Jesuit hierarchy essentially buried this. The head of the Jesuits worldwide essentially was an anti-Semite himself, and it only got to the pope in his very last days. He was too frail to do anything."

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