The Global Pontificate of Pius XII: Catholicism in a Divided World, 1945-1958

The "Global Pontificate of Pius XII" is a transnational research project examining the history of postwar Roman Catholicism from a global perspective. The overall project is led by Dr Simon Unger (DPhil, Oxford) at the German Historical Institute in Rome and is funded by the Max Weber Foundation. At Oxford, Professor Paul Betts leads the project, which supports postdoctoral fellow Dr Daniel McDonald as a joint appointee in the Faculty of History and the OSGA Latin American Centre.


St Peter Basilica, Pope Pius XII greets pilgrims

St Peter Basilica, Pope Pius XII greets pilgrims, Wikimedia Commons

This project analyses the global history of Roman Catholicism during the pivotal papacy of Pius XII (1939-1958). Funded by the Max Weber Foundation, the project unites historians from Oxford, the German Historical Institutes in Rome and Warsaw, Hebrew University, KU Leuven, Fribourg University, LMU Munich, and the University of Oxford. The project was inspired by the opening of the records of Pius XII’s papacy in the Vatican Archives in 2020.

While the opening of these records has been accompanied by strong media attention and many questions about the Church’s actions during the Second World War, this group expands on these concerns to explore the post-war period and the Vatican’s role in the global twentieth century. It asks how the Church shaped and reacted to the Cold War, to decolonization, the historical memory of the Holocaust, and to post-war democratization in Europe.

Ultimately, our project aims to transcend classical thematic labels such as ‘church history’ or ‘religious history’. Instead, it engages with newer approaches of global, transnational, and postcolonial history. Taken together, this research will re-introduce questions about religion into the modern post-war historiography. Our project demonstrates that an understanding of the Vatican’s profound political and cultural role is crucial to explaining the great transformative processes of the twentieth century.

Research Questions:

The research questions that our project addresses reflect the global scope of both our network of scholars and of the Roman Catholic Church itself. While our network regularly meets in Rome to consult the Vatican Archives, our scholars conduct research on Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Israel. Overall, our group covers four large research areas:

Together, these four themes form an interconnected field of research in which we face a multitude of questions: What were the major institutional, social, and religious changes in the global Catholic community under Pius XII’s papacy? What was the Vatican’s attitude towards democracy and human rights as well as totalitarian and authoritarian regimes? How did Pius XII and the curia cope with the legacies of fascism, collaboration, and the Holocaust within the Catholic Church? In what ways did they influence the formation of the Western alliance and the beginning of the Cold War with its nuclear arms race? How did the Holy See react to the foundation of Israel or to movements of de-colonization in Africa and Asia? How did the Vatican intervene in Latin American politics and to what extent did it support authoritarian regimes in order to prevent the spread of communism?

In addition to these political questions, future scholarship should examine how Pius XII reacted as a theologian to challenges of secularization, technological progress, and rapidly changing gender relations. These issues, of course, gained particular importance in the Second Vatican Council that began only four years after Pius XII’s death in 1958.