Research team in Rome
Research team in Rome
© Annette Schreyer/laif

Between laptops and ancient tomes

Those who have once held the folios and boxes covered with the dust of the centuries in the Vatican Apostolic Archives (the former Vatican Secret Archives) or in the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in their hands will always come back. It is like an addiction that leads to an ever more passionate search for answers to unresolved historical questions. The staff of the Department of Medieval and Modern Church History are conducting research for several major research projects and numerous theses on site at the Vatican and other archives. The Research Centre for Diocesan History (Forschungsstelle für Bistumsgeschichte) and the Institute for Religious Folklore Studies (Institut für Religiöse Volkskunde) primarily focus on regional history. Several projects are currently being carried out by the department together with their collaborating partners.

"Asking the Pope for Help"

Petition from Hilde Schmahl
© 2022 Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Segr.Stato, Commissione Soccorsi 296, fasc. 120, fol. 46r. - per concessione dell’Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, ogni diritto riservato

Asking the Pope for Help

During the time of the Nazi regime, many persecuted people sought refuge in flight, but often lacked the necessary financial means or other support. In their desperation, thousands of Jews - both converts to the Catholic faith and non-converts - turned to the Catholic Church and its head, Pope Pius XII. In the project "Asking the Pope for Help," the estimated 15,000 petitions sent to the Holy See and kept in the Vatican archives are being systematically recorded and made accessible to the public in a digital edition. The research project was only made possible by the opening of the Vatican holdings pertaining to the pontificate of Pius XII. The preliminary work, which began two years ago, was financed by the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation. Now the EVZ Foundation is funding the project together with the German Foreign Office and Bayer AG. The development and expansion of a digital working environment and publication platform is supported by the software group SAP. 

Long-term projects with the German Research Foundation (DFG)

Title copper of an index
© Titelkupfer des Index librorum prohibitorum von 1758

Book censorship by the Roman Inquisition and the Congregation of the Index in modern times

Until 1998, the Archive of the Roman Inquisition and Index Congregation was one of the best-kept secrets of modern history. The archive is now in the care of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A large-scale long-term project, funded by the German Research Foundation, has worked on a reappraisal of the centuries-long history of censorship institutions. The project team has developed an international and interdisciplinary tool for the history of Roman book censorship from its beginnings in the 16th century to the end of the Index in 1966.

Portrait Eugenio Pacelli
© Gemeinfrei

Critical Online Edition of the Nuncial Reports of Eugenio Pacelli (1917-1929)

Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), decisively influenced Vatican politics as a Papal Nuncio in Germany from 1917 to 1929. Since 2003 and 2006, his reports from this period have been accessible in the Vatican Archives. They have opened up a new perspective on the Catholic Church during the Weimar Republic, but also on politics and everyday culture in Germany and Europe. The long-term project producing an edition of these documents was financed by the DFG and ran from the beginning of 2008 to the end of 2019. In cooperation with the Vatican Apostolic Archives (formerly the Vatican Secret Archives) and the German Historical Institute (DHI) in Rome, the edition team has recorded, critically edited, annotated and evaluated almost 21,000 documents that are now available online. The text genesis of the drafts is vividly presented in the digital edition. Work on this project is continuing even though the funded term has come to a close. In January 2022 the English homepage went online to make the edition more usable internationally.

Portrait Michael von Faulhaber
© Gemeinfrei

Critical Online Edition of the Diaries of Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber (1911-1952)

Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber (1869-1952) was Archbishop of Munich, an eminent theologian and an articulate advocate of political Catholicism as well as a champion of Church interests. This project aims to provide a critical edition of his comprehensive diaries and to publish them online. The German Research Foundation (DFG) agreed to finance this long-term project, which will span over twelve years, in July 2013. Prof Andreas Wirsching from The Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History Munich-Berlin (IfZ) and Prof Hubert Wolf are working together to coordinate the project in cooperation with the Archiepiscopal Archives of Munich (Erzbischöfliches Archiv München), where the diaries are housed. Faulhaber mostly wrote in "Gabelsberger" shorthand and as this script can only be deciphered by a handful of experts, extensive archival holdings are in danger of becoming illegible. By also offering Gabelsberger courses, the project is providing an important contribution to the preservation of this cultural skill.

Further current projects and cooperations

Portrait Pius XII
© Von Fratelli Alinari, Florence. Unknown photographer. - Ernst Breit: Der Weg der Kirche. Wibbelt, Essen 1939., Gemeinfrei,

Pius XII and the Jews (1939-1958)

The previously closed archival holdings related to the pontificate of Pius XII, i.e. from the years 1939 to 1958, have been accessible to researchers since 2 March 2020. The Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation is supporting Prof Hubert Wolf and his team undertake their work in the Vatican Archives by providing almost 250,000 euros in funding. The central question of interest is: What did Pius XII know about the Shoa, and why did he not condemn it loud and clear? Other research focuses include Pius XIIʼs handling of the question of guilt and his refraining from a clearer protest against the Nazi crimes after the end of the war; the escape aid for Nazi criminals provided by representatives of the Church; the attitude of the Holy See towards the founding of the State of Israel; and fundamental theological reflections on the relationship to Judaism.

Cover of the volume
© Schöningh

Systematic Repertory on Book Censorship - Congregation of the Index 1607 to 1700

The DFG long-term project "Roman Inquisition and Congregation of the Index from 1542 to 1966" has spent twelve years developing basic tools for researching book censorship in the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The volumes covering the periods from 1814 to 1917, 1701 to 1813 and 1542 to 1700 were published in three stages. The Repertory for the Inquisition for the 16th and 17th centuries, the most recent volume of the series, was published in early 2020. Thanks to a grant from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, work on the last volume of the series, the Repertory for the Congregation of the Index, can now also be completed rapidly. Dr Judith Schepers and Hedwig Rosenmöller are involved in this project, as is Paul Krämer, a student assistant. PD Dr Thomas Brockmann and Dr Barbara Schüler are also supporting the completion of the volumes.

Bistum und Hochstift Münster um 1750
© Schnell & Steiner, Gatz, Atlas zur Kirche in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Regensburg 2009

Research Centre for the History of the Diocese of Münster

The Research Centre at the Faculty of Catholic Theology offers one course per semester on the history of the Diocese of Münster. The research aim consists in collecting, exploring and evaluating the files relating to the history of the diocese conserved in the Vatican holdings that have become accessible with the opening of the archives in March 2020. The seat of the research centre is located on the second floor of Aegidiistraße 67, and the contact person is Dennis Hartjes, Pia Wontorra is also involved in the project as a student assistant.

Pietà in Our Lady of Grace Chapel, Telgte
© Per aspra, alte Postkarte, Gemeinfrei,

Institute for Religious Folklore Studies (registered association)

The Institute for Religious Folklore Studies, in accordance with its statutes from 1964, promotes academic research in the fields of religious folklore and Rhenish-Westphalian church history. In order to promote junior researchers, the Institute annually awards the "Alois Schröer Scholarship".

Current projects and cooperations

“Awakening” or “breakdown”? Catholic Theology and the 1968 Student Movement

1968 meant a break for many Catholics, especially with regard to their religious faith and their attachment to the Church. But what was the relationship between the movement of 1968 and the very different forms of being Catholic? And above all: What role did Catholic theology play in this? Together with Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Hubert Wolf, Stephen Wißing and Benedict Dahm address these questions in the project "Catholic Theology and the 1968 Student Movement", which is coordinated by Dr Michael Pfister. It is part of the German Research Foundation's research group "Being Catholic in the German Federal Republic. Semantics, Practices, and Emotions in Western Germany’s Society 1965–1989/90", which is based at the Bonn Commission for Contemporary History.

A critical online edition following up the genesis of holy texts through magisterial decisions of the Catholic Church (Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics", project C3-19)

This digital theology project inquired how the reception of Scripture and tradition in normative documents of the Catholic magisterium of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as dogmatic constitutions or encyclicals, can be recorded, evaluated and presented for the first time with the help of digital methods without immense expenditure of time. As part of the new interdisciplinary and interreligious research focus of the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics", the project has helped to illustrate different layers of history of formation and transmission and trace the historical emergence of theological texts that are considered binding.

Cooperative Project "Johannes Baptista Sproll, Bishop of Rottenburg, 1927–1949"

Johannes Baptista Sproll, born in 1870, served from 1927 until his death in 1949 as the bishop of the diocese of Rottenburg. During his tenure, he experienced several political upheavals: the fall of the monarchy and World War I, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and World War II, and the subsequent period of occupation. Sproll became known beyond his own diocese when he demonstratively refused to participate in the plebiscite and parliamentary elections following the annexation of Austria in 1938. In an unparalleled act in the history of the German episcopacy, the National Socialists succeeded in staging demonstrations to drive the bishop—who had been a thorn in their sides for years—from his diocese as a "traitor." Only after the end of World War II was the bishop—now seriously ill—able to return from his exile in Bavaria.

Institute for the History of the Diocese of Münster

The Institute for the History of the Diocese of Münster was founded in 2004 as a cooperation project between the Diocese and the University of Münster. The aim was to make the history of the local Church of the Westphalian Münsterland accessible and present it in teaching. The Institute was also the point of contact for associations and institutions of the diocese. One focus of its work was the reconstruction of stocks of files that had been lost in the Second World War. The book series "Junges Forum Geschichte" (Young History Forum) focused on the first works of young authors on the history of the diocese. In further projects the archival documents relating to the "Visitatur Ermland" were recorded, the "Westfälisches Klosterbuch" was continued and the history of the "Wandering Church" during the time of National Socialism was examined. In addition, the Institute contributed to the exhibition "Frieden. Von der Antike bis heute" (Peace. From Antiquity to the Present Day) with a third-party funded project. In Münster, the section "Frieden. Wie im Himmel so auf Erden?" (Peace. As in heaven, so on earth?) dealt with Christian ideas of peace and the connection with Judaism and Islam. The project team consisted of the curator Dr Thomas Fusenig, the curator Viktoria Weinebeck, Elisabeth Lange and Katrin Toelle. In 2020, the Research Centre for the History of the Diocese of Münster, which is in the tradition of the Institute, was established at the Department of Medieval and Modern Church History.

Papal Ceremony in Early Modern Times (SFB 496, project B6)

In the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 496, whose funding phase ended on 31 December 2011, Prof Hubert Wolf and the Department of Medieval and Modern Church History were represented with the project "Papal Ceremony in Early Modern Times (1563-1789). Courtly Representation, Theological Contention and Liturgical Symbolism" (B6). The reciprocal shaping of theological concepts and symbolic practices was the central focus of the research pursued by the project.

The Vatican and the Legitimisation of Physical Violence: The Example of the Spanish Civil War (Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics", project D9)

The holdings of the Vatican Apostolic Archives offer an almost inexhaustible source of information. The archive enabled this project to examine the Catholic Church’s global policy of the first half of the 20th century paying particular attention to the theme of "religion and violence" from a new perspective: How did the Vatican observe and evaluate physical violence in different countries? With the example of the bloody conflict that tore apart the deeply Catholic Spain in the thirties, the explosiveness of these questions becomes particularly clear.