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The Church and il Duce

30 January 2015

Robert Nowell reads about Italian Fascism and the papacy

The Pope and Mussolini: The secret history of Pius XI and the rise of Fascism in Europe
David I. Kertzer
Oxford University Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18 (Use code CT597 )

HERE we have a thorough and detailed account of one of the least edifying episodes in the history of the modern papacy: the increasingly close and incestuous relationship between Fascist Italy and the papacy.

Cardinal Achille Ratti became Pope Pius XI in February 1922; at the end of October that year, Benito Mussolini became Prime Minister of Italy. In 1921, in his first speech in Parliament, Mussolini had surprised and shocked many who knew him by pledging that Fascism would help bring about the restoration of Christian society, and would build a Catholic state, as befitted a Catholic nation. All this appealed strongly to a Church that, to put it at its mildest, felt sidelined in the united Italy that had emerged in 1870.

Kertzer points out that Pius XI and Mussolini shared some important values: "Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat." Mussolini acted quickly to curry the Church's favour: the crucifix reappeared in school classrooms, and then in courts and hospitals; army chaplains were reinstated; and Catholic religious instruction was restored in primary schools.

Then, in 1929, came the Lateran Accords, which established Roman Catholicism as "the only religion of the state", recognised Vatican City as a sovereign territory under papal rule, and made generous financial provision in compensation for the loss of the papal states.

Increasingly, the Church became a supporter of the Fascist regime. Pius XI had serious misgivings about Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, and, before it began, warned that a war of conquest would be "an unjust war" and "unspeakably horrible". But these words to a meeting of nurses were watered down when reported in L'Osservatore Romano, and many leading RCs were enthusiastic supporters of the invasion: the Bologna Catholic daily L'Avvenire took the view that the war would bring civilisation - and Christianity - to the savages, blissfully unaware that Christianity had reached Ethiopia in the fourth century.

When Mussolini organised a Day of Faith, on which all good Italians would donate their gold wedding rings to support the war effort, to be replaced by steel ones, most of the bishops seem to have given this propaganda effort their enthusiastic support. Cardinal Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, personally blessed 25,000 steel rings in his private chapel.

Pius XI's disquiet with Mussolini came to a head when the latter started introducing anti-Semitic laws on the lines of those introduced by Hitler in Germany. In 1938, the pope commissioned the American Jesuit John LaFarge, an early opponent of racism in the USA, to draft an encyclical condemning anti-Semitism - at a time when the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica and much of the Italian Catholic press were openly anti-Semitic.

When Hitler was threatening Czechoslovakia over the Sudetenland, Pius XI told the staff of Belgian Catholic radio that it was "impossible" for Christians to participate in anti-Semitism. He concluded with the memorable words: "Spiritually we are all Semites." For a gathering of the bishops of Italy to mark the tenth anniversary of the Lateran Accords, he prepared a speech denouncing Mussolini. But he died the day before he was due to deliver it, and his secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli, who was to succeed him, as Pius XII, collected the printed copies of the speech and made sure that they did not see the light of day.

This is a distressing story, recounted in detail. The author does not seem quite at home with church language: it has an odd ring to say that Pope Benedict XV "took last rites" the day before his death. The publisher - Oxford University Press - has banished all the footnotes to the end of the volume, when at least half of them have to be read alongside the text to which they refer. I like to think that there is a special section of purgatory for publishers of this kind, where they are obliged to read the whole of Gibbon's Decline and Fall in an edition in which the footnotes are similarly banished to the end of each volume (which is so tightly bound that the pages snap shut as soon as you put it down).

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