DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Starting today, the Vatican is allowing scholars to access the archives of Pope Pius XII. His papacy began as Europe was on the brink of World War II, and critics have long accused him of remaining silent during the Holocaust. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: More than 150 scholars have applied to study documents covering 1939 to 1958. The Vatican's chief librarian is Cardinal Jose Tolentino Calaca de Mendonca. He says all researchers, regardless of nationality, faith and ideology, are welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOSE TOLENTINO CALACA DE MENDONCA: (Speaking Italian).
POGGIOLI: "The church is not afraid of history," he says, echoing Pope Francis when he announced the opening of the archives a year ago. Johan Ickx, a Vatican archivist, says scholars will have easy access to the files.
JOHAN ICKX: We have now passed 1,300,000 documents that are digitalized and interfaced with the inventory to help the researchers to go quickly.
POGGIOLI: Those researchers have been waiting a long time. A German play in 1963 sparked questions about Pius' wartime role and accused him of complicit silence in the Holocaust and attempts to beatify him are stymied by still vivid memories in Rome of his behavior during the Nazi occupation toward the city's Jews.
We're in front of a military college in Rome. A plaque commemorates the Nazi roundup of entire families of Roman Jews on October 16, 1943. One thousand two hundred fifty-nine Jews were brought here before being deported to extermination camps. Only 16 people survived. We're just 800 yards from St. Peter's Square and the residence of Pope Pius XII.
Under the pope's very windows, as the German ambassador reported to Hitler. Brown University professor David Kertzer has written extensively about popes and Jews. He came to Rome for the opening of the archives. Kertzer says a lot is known about what Pius did, much less about internal deliberations in the Vatican.
DAVID KERTZER: So we know he didn't take any public action. He didn't protest to Hitler but who within the Vatican might have been urging him to do so who might have been advising him caution, that's the kind of thing I think we'll find out or hope to find out about.
POGGIOLI: Massimo Faggioli teaches theology at Villanova University. Like many church historians, he's curious about Pius' role after World War II during the Cold War. In particular, did Vatican officials intervene in Italian elections in 1948 when there was a real possibility of a Communist Party victory?
MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: I would be curious to know what kind of communication there was between the secretariat of state and the CIA. Pius was certainly convinced that he had to defend a certain idea of of the Christian civilization in Europe against communism.
POGGIOLI: As for Pius' wartime role, professor Kertzer is certain the Catholic Church was horrified by the Holocaust. In fact, several thousand Jews found refuge in Catholic convents in Italy. But what he hopes to understand better from the Pius files is the role played by the church in demonizing Jews.
KERTZER: The main purveyors of vilification of Jews for many decades was not the state. It was the church. And it was vilifying Jews right up through the '30s and right up to the beginning the Holocaust and if not into it, including Vatican-related publications.
POGGIOLI: This is what the Vatican needs to come to terms with, Kertzer says, but still hasn't. Research in the Pius archives will take months, if not years.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.