Doctoral student researches history of Catholicism, American liberalism at Vatican archives
Adriana Perez | Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Between study sessions, doctoral candidate Susanna De Stradis takes breaks at a small, private courtyard cafe of the Vatican Apostolic Archive to drink coffee, meet other scholars and “zoom back to the present day.”
De Stradis recently started conducting research into the Vatican’s archives for her dissertation during her third year as a doctoral student of history at Notre Dame. Her investigation explores the relationship between Catholicism and principles of American liberalism like religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Her studies focus primarily on Vatican perspectives on post-war Catholicism in the United States, that is, between the end of World War II and the Second Vatican Council.
During that time, the Church is learning to deal with American democracy through a closer, geopolitical relation with the United States, De Stradis said.
“But also, the United States is rethinking the terms of its own First Amendment and what it implies, both in the courts, but also in Congress,” De Stradis said.
The archives open at 8:30 a.m. every day. Whenever she goes to the Vatican, De Stradis arrives at the Porta Sant’Anna around 9 or 9:30 a.m. and shows her entrance badge to the Swiss guards. Then, she passes through a metal detector and heads to the archive; before entering, she leaves her belongings in a locker — even her phone.
“It’s not a normal Hesburgh Library-type thing, obviously,” she said.
There is no signal inside the Vatican Archive and no photos are allowed, anyway.
“This slows the process quite a bit,” De Stradis added, “but it also forces you to really think critically about what you’re seeing on the spot.”
Her research is being funded by a Peter R. D’Agostino research travel grant through the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism and the Center for Italian Studies, as well as by a “Religion, Spirituality and Democratic Renewal” fellowship from the Social Science Research Council.
De Stradis initially became interested in the historical tensions between the United States and Catholicism when she studied history as an undergraduate student at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and as a Master of Arts student at the University of Pisa.
“As I started to delve deeper into this kind of history, I realized there had been frictions between the Vatican and the United States, something that I was not necessarily aware of before I entered college,” she said.
She called her particular interest an “exotic topic to pursue” in Italy, but not so much in the United States where she was told even sociologists, political scientists and lawyers would be interested in the questions she wanted to ask.
“I was interested in the history of American Catholicism, so Notre Dame is pretty much the best place in the world to pursue this kind of studies,” De Stradis said.
In fact, she said, a book that drew her to this research topic was “Catholicism and American Freedom: A History” by John McGreevy, professor of history and De Stradis’ mentor and dissertation adviser at Notre Dame.
“I lived in South Bend for three years, and now the time has come to finally go do some research — or should I say come do some research — over here, in Rome,” she said.
De Stradis is originally from Apulia, the “heel of the [Italian] boot,” but she said she had not been feeling homesick before returning to her country.
“I can’t say that I’ve missed Italy while I was in South Bend,” she said. “I really loved the U.S. … But Rome is sort of exceptional.”
De Stradis said her plans fell into place, time-wise, since Pope Francis opened in March 2020 the archives of Pope Pius XII’s papacy — which lasted from 1939 to 1958, when World War II took place.
For doctoral students, De Stradis said, their academic credentials and a letter of recommendation are often enough to apply for and gain access to the archives.
“I don’t know of anyone who has applied and has been rejected for obscure reasons,” she added.
De Stradis said most documents that can be accessed through the Vatican Archive were produced or received by the central organs of the Roman Curia — the different branches of the Vatican’s central bureaucracy. Of particular interest to her, though, was the collection of the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See to the United States.
“Every kind of communication between the American Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican had to go through the Apostolic delegate,” she said. “Since I want to look at Rome’s attitude towards mainly domestic developments in the U.S., this is the place to look at.”
But the archives are not as well sorted as she expected, so “you have to rely a lot on the goodwill of the personnel there,” De Stradis said. She, for one, has been collaborating with an archivist to overcome these hurdles.
“He’s basically bringing folders to me that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to locate and ask [for] through the normal system,” she said.
Due to COVID-19 health and safety precautions, the archives can accommodate only 25 scholars every day in a room that would normally accommodate 60, De Stradis said. But the effects of the pandemic can be seen outside of Vatican City and throughout Rome, as well.
“The city is empty,” De Stradis said.
There are few tourists — particularly, very few Americans — and the subway is not crowded.
She said she expects her research at the Vatican and her stay in Rome will last for at least seven months.
“I do realize that I’m in a very uniquely privileged position as an Italian [and] as a graduate student who’s still able to go to the archives,” she said.
De Stradis arrived in Italy on Sept. 14.
“Which is exactly the date I had planned to be here, so this is not COVID-related, it’s just as planned,” she said. “Again — I feel very blessed.”