Conference Report: Pius XI and America, October 28-30, 2010, Brown University, Providence, RI.

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 16, No. 4, December 2010

Conference Report: Pius XI and America, October 28-30, 2010, Brown University, Providence, RI.

By Charles R. Gallagher, S.J., Boston College

An international conference on the connections and impact of Pope Pius XI on America was held on October 28 to 30 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Dr. David Kertzer was the lead organizer along with Dr. Alberto Melloni of the University di Modena e Reggio and director of the Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII in Bologna.

The compelling research motive for the conference was to gather scholars in one place who have been studying and examining the papers of Pope Pius XI which were opened by the Archivio Segreto Vaticano in 2006. The conference was the third in a series of conferences organized by the European Network of Scholars on Pope Pius XI and the Secret Vatican Archives. Over forty scholars from Europe and North America attended. It should be mentioned that his Excellency Romano Prodi, the 80th Prime Minister of Italy, set the tone of the historical reflection by pointing out during his remarks that the cultural history of Italy in the 1930s cannot adequately be written without assessing the important role of the Roman Catholic Church. It was Prime Minister Prodi’s hope that the archival research conducted by the scholars would shed light not only on Italian concerns, but also American matters and the worldwide scope of the papal diplomacy of the era.

As the organizers had hoped, the value of the conference was anchored in the new revelations and rich discoveries of the archives. David Kertzer showed, for example, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought a strong Papal denunciation of the Italian racial laws of 1938. Full diplomatic relations between the U.S.and the Vatican, a long-sought goal of many Catholic officials, was to be the reward for such a denunciation. But Roosevelt’s offer failed to shake the Holy See from its decision not to speak out. In the same vein, the paper of Lucia Ceci of the University of Rome showed that the United States also pushed Pius XI to speak out regarding the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and that in fact this initiative was perhaps the first full-scale diplomatic project between the U.S. and the Vatican during the 1930s, when there was no formal diplomatic relationship between the pope and the United States.

The conference was designed not only to gather new research on political and international relations, but also to delve into questions surrounding Catholic culture as well. Issues such as birth control, the economics of the Vatican, and the emerging Vatican position on human rights were examined. All of the scholars anchored their presentations in the Pius XII papers in the Secret Vatican Archives, and all generated new questions. The conference was fortunate to have a large number of scholars from Italy provide reporting on new evidence pertaining to Brazil,Iraq,Poland, and political activities in Italy during the 1930s. Since his role was central to questions connected to his later papacy, the behavior and positions of Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli were also examined. For Holocaust scholars, the research contained a great deal of material related to the comportment of the Holy See in the run-up to World War II, with much of the discussion reviving the Anti-Semitism/anti-Judaism debate.

The conference concluded with an update concerning one of the latest and most significant projects of the European Network or Scholars on Pope Pius XI, namely its initiative to draw-up a pan-European study of Catholic Action – Pius XI’s hierarchically-sponsored movement of spirituality and social reconstruction. Because each of the papers represented work in sources which were previously inaccessible, the revelations will be published as a compendium – with comment – by the Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII in Bologna.

A full conference schedule with participants and panel details may be found at its website: