A Misunderstood Legacy: The Papacy and Facsist Italy

Following the end of World War II (WWII), de-Nazification in Germany and Europe was essentially instantaneous—a process which included the removal of Nazi books and newspapers from libraries, systematic physical destruction of Nazi statues and monuments, and the West German government banning the use or display of the swastika in any form. This destruction of symbols coincided with the destruction of Nazi officials, who were buried in mass unmarked graves in order to prevent their inclusion into the Nazi faith as a holy place. This immediate rejection of their Fascist past following the war begs the question—how come in Italy, Germany’s closest ally during the war, and one of Hitler’s greatest inspirations, there still stands monuments dedicated to Benito Mussolini and his Fascist government? From the Esposizione Universale Roma (EUR) district and the “Square Colosseum”—meant to be the site of the 1942 World’s Fair, and the future headquarters of the Fascist government—to the obelisque standing outside of the Foro Italico (formally known as Foro Mussolini) that is engraved with “Musolini” on the front, Fascist architecture is still prevalent in Italian, especially Roman, society. And eight decades later, Italy has yet to make a movement for the mass removal of Fascist symbols, buildings, and statues from their country. Many contribute this simply to the mass amount of objects and buildings dedicated to Fascism by Mussolini, as he was instrumental in the building of not only Fascist monuments, but also in ushering Italy into the modern age. For example, he was instrumental in the construction of the first subway lines, and Rome’s current main train station, Termini. This gives the ancient city of Rome a fairly peculiar combination of futurist Fascist influence in conjunction with its everlasting Roman and Catholic architecture. And it is the latter, the Fascist connection with the Catholic Church, that is the driving question behind this paper. If Fascist monuments still stand, undisturbed, alongside the seat of power for most influential religion in the history of the world in Vatican City, what should be concluded about the relationship between the Catholic Church and Fascism during the reign of Mussolini? This research begins in the origins of Fascism, its roots in Italian nationalism, and its role as a “political religion,” and ends with the legacy of both Pope Pius XI and Pius XII and the analysis of their reactions to the rise of Fascism in Europe. While much has been made of both Pope Pius XI and Pius XII and their lack of strong, vocal, outward action against totalitarianism throughout the rise of Fascism to the end of WWII, their position in history is largely misunderstood as able actors who knowingly turned away and ignored the challenge of totalitarianism and Jewish persecution. The rise of the Fascist “political religion” in 1922, during the papacy of Pius XI and into the papacy of Pius XII, made it next to impossible for the Catholic Church to make any strong moves against Mussolini and Fascism. While the Catholic Church is seen as an infallible force of omnipotent influence in society, it is during this period of twentieth century totalitarianism where their power is overestimated. They were outmatched by Mussolini and his Fascist religion, and later, through the axis alliance, by Hitler and Nazism. So while it is true that they were far from these dictators’ loudest and most aggressive vocal adversaries, it is difficult to place a lot of blame on a party that hardly had the power to institute meaningful change. Both Pius XI and XII knew they could do nothing to stop Mussolini, and so they had to cooperate on his terms—especially if they wanted to preserve not only Vatican City’s sovereign status, but also the reduced influence they had left.

The legacy of the Holy See and its relations with Fascism and Mussolini, from the March on Rome in 1922, until the end of WWII, is one that has slightly changed relative to the release of further primary source documentation from within the Vatican—but has seen a consistent general thesis. Historians, especially those who have studied the history of the Catholic Church, have looked with intense scrutiny at the Pope’s relationship with world governments since the early 20s and 30s. For example, William Teeling, an Irish Catholic historian, wrote a biography of Pope Pius XI in 1937 that established that there was an uncomfortable relationship between Mussolini and Pius XI—a relationship that saw, “Pope Pius become more and more friendly with the leader of this Totalitarian State.” Interestingly, there is one essential element to this history that was quite understated until fairly recently—Pope Pius XI died in 1939, replaced by that of Pope Pius XII, who was the Cardinal Secretary of State under Pius XI. The most well known version of the debate between Fascism and the Catholic Church over the first 50 years following WWII had been that of the relationship between the Holy See (specifically Pius XII), totalitarianism, and the Holocaust. But this is only part of the story, and more modern scholarship has focused on trying to give context to these decisions. The roots of the attitudes of the Vatican toward Fascism, Nazism, and the eventual atrocities committed against the Jews before and during wartime, were set into motion decades earlier—with the rise of Fascism, its development into a “political religion,” and the relationship between the Pope Pius XI and Mussolini. This distinction between the two popes, their differing policies, attitudes, goals, and relationships with foreign governments is essential to the understanding of what happened between 1939 and 1945. Whether or not Pius XI and Pius XII should be remembered as admirable heroes in the fight against totalitarianism, compliant bystanders, or somewhere in between, is the core of the debate—and one that historiographers still struggle with.

The first scholarship on the Vatican’s actions, or lack thereof, during WWII was a focus on the WWII era and Pope Pius XII—there would not be an investigation into the origins of Vatican Diplomacy and Pope Pius XI until more modern times. The first wave of scholarship began with Father John F. Morely, who published Vatican Diplomacy and Jews During the Holocaust 1939-1943 in 1980 in response to the release of the eleven volumes of Actes et Documents du Saint Séige by the Vatican between 1967 and 1981. These WWII era volumes documented some of the foreign policy of Pope Pius XII, and his relationship with Mussolini and the Third Reich. His findings were profoundly negative—he saw Jews being systematically deported across the continent, and found no profound reaction from the Holy See. Using both these documents and firsthand accounts from Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, he concludes that, even as a Catholic himself, the Church did not do enough to curb the suffering of both Christians and Jews under totalitarian rule. “While highly active in defense of Church rights, their involvement in the Jewish problem was tangential at best, and minimal at worst…They were captives of a profession that bound them more to the institution of the Church than to the ideals of the brotherhood which it averred.” According to Morely, the Vatican could have affected the outcome of the Jews in Catholic countries throughout Europe with “few words.” Critics of his work, such as John S. Conway in his review of Morely’s book, point out that perhaps the perceived power of Pius XII and the office of the papacy is possibly well overstated. Citing Helen Fein’s book, Accounting for Genocide, he mentions that the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews varied from country to country, and that not much could have been done to stop their end goals—the influence of the Vatican was arguably, according to Conway, “only a minor variable,” in the suffering of Europe.

It was only later on in the 1980s that scholars began to rightly look into Pius XI and his relationship with both Fascism and the questionable actions of Mussolini leading up to WWII as a supplement and context to the actions of Pius XII. In Peter C. Kent’s article in the Journal of Contemporary History entitled “A Tale of Two Pope’s: Pius XI, Pius XII, and the Rome-Berlin Axis,” Kent asserts that, “Pius XI denounced Hitler and the nazi regime at every opportunity—for violating the German Concordat, for their ‘statolotry’, and for their racism.” He follows this statement up with the conclusion that Morely previously had explored, that Pius XII had abandoned the anti-nazi agenda of Pius XI, and went on to push policy of that of an appeaser. “Pius XII rejected his predecessor’s combative stance against the nazi and fascist regimes in favour of a politically disinterested position from which the Pope could act as a mediator to ensure European peace.” Pius XII, as Kent explores, believed that only an “open and friendly,” relationship between all the great powers of Europe could allow the Pope to wield his influence correctly—for the purpose of avoiding conflict and achieving peace in Europe and the world. This stance that Pius XI was a vocal leader against Nazism and Fascism during the 1930s presented by Kent is somewhat rebuted in more modern scholarship of the subject, but the consistent stance that Pius XII sought a diplomatic approach to the totalitarian regimes of WWII is essentially confirmed.

The most prolific of modern insights into this relationship between both Pius XI and Pius XII came in the beginning of the twentieth century, continuing into this decade, with the 2006 opening of the Vatican archives of the Papacy of Pius XI. David I. Kertzer’s book, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism published in 2014 is the culmination of all of the previous literature—it is an examination of the relationship of the Holy See and the Italian Fascist government through the lens of their respective leaders—Mussolini and Pius XI and Pius XII. Utilizing personal documents of both popes, Kertzer concludes that while an aging Pius XI began to reconsider his begrudging alliance with Fascism in 1938—following the institution of the racial laws and manifesto—it does not cancel out the previous decade of support and tolerance of Mussolini, a view that is particularly in conflict to that of Kent. “Each [Pius XI and Mussolini] came to be disillusioned by the other, yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end.” His primary source for this conclusion comes from that of a “secret deal” made between Pius XI and Mussolini only a few weeks prior to the introduction of the 1938 antisemetic laws in Italy. In a reflection of his work, Kertzer explains this deal succinctly when questioned on its basis in historical evidence in a series of book reviews, “There is a rich body of documentation in the Vatican archives offering a day-by-day account of the negotiation of this secret deal, by which Mussolini offered to let up his pressure on Italian Catholic Action in exchange for a papal promise not to allow any Church criticism of his upcoming antisemetic campaign.” But this criticism of Kertzer’s work is not the only one, as perhaps the most recognized Fascist historian, Emilio Gentile, also provided a response to The Pope and Mussolini. Despite Gentile’s recognition of the aspects of the Holy See Kertzer unveils with his exploration into the archives, he has one central concern to his argument, “…the book entirely neglects or only hints at certain questions, like totalitarianism and the “Fascist religion,” which are essential in order to understand the motives for which an agreement that seemed solid and based on mutual interests of the two protagonists and of the two institutions.” Gentile was a pioneer on the subject of the “Fascist religion,” and its relationship and development under the Catholic Church, explored first in his 1996 book The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy.

On March 4th 2019, Pope Francis announced that next year (March 2nd 2020), the Vatican will release its WWII-era (1939-1958) secret archives of Pius XII’s pontificate—consisting of letters, cables, and speeches. Pope Francis supplemented this announcement by saying that the criticism of Pius XII, demonstrated in the decades of scholarship presented in this paper, has been greatly exaggerated, “I am sure that the serious and objective historical research will know how to evaluate it [the release of the pontificate] in the right light…The Church is not afraid of history, on the contrary, it loves it.” This development is part of a new push by organizations like Pave the Way Foundation, founded by the first Jews to be knighted by the Vatican, to vindicate Pius XII of assertions by historians that he was an enemy of the Jewish people. He claims that, citing Israeli historian and diplomat Pinchas Lapide and apparently over 76,000 primary documents, that the Catholic Church, under the pontificate of Pius XII, acted to save the lives of 867,000 Jews—making him the greatest hero of WWII. This defiant stance, from an influential voice in the Jewish community, is surprising to say the least after looking into the decades of scholarship on the subject—as while there were some minor disagreements, there seems to be a consistent thesis of inaction from both Pius XI, and Pius XII, before and during WWII, concerning the treatment of the Jews and the hostile actions of Mussolini. But as there has yet to be a published work involving these documents supporting this thesis of fearless heroism by Pius XII that is deemed credible by academics, this paper will instead place a focus on the role of the Fascist religion in diminishing the influence of the Catholic Church and the pope, to differing effects on both Pius XI and Pius XII. 

The origins of civic religions can be traced back to that of the French Revolution, but it is in the twentieth century that is definitively the period in which politics became truly sacred. This idea of a “political religion” is most coherently defined by that of Emilio Gentile in his essay, “Fascism, Totalitarianism, and Political Religion,” as, “…a type of religion which sacralizes an ideology, a movement or a political regime through the deification of a secular entity transfigured into myth, considering it the primary and indisputable source of meaning and the ultimate aim of human existence on earth.” This definition is absolutely necessary in proving the “conversion” of the Italian people to the Fascist religion. This is because it is easy to create a connection between political movements and traditional religions through their rituals and symbols—but far more difficult to prove that these political liturgies were a result of genuine faith and conviction. In other words, in order to prove that the Fascist religion intruded upon the followers and influence of the Catholic Church and the papacy, it has to be shown that the rituals and symbols of Fascism were not just propaganda, but true belief in the eyes of the people. The Fascist religion had stages of development, the first of which was the establishment of symbols, rituals, and festivals that set the basis of its political liturgy—a process which culminated in the building of temples for its faith, and the creation of its god, Benito Mussolini. 

One of the most essential aspects in proving that Fascists placed a focus on sacralizing an ideology is studying their creation of state symbols, and their role in creating the “cult of the nation” that turned into the liturgy of the Fascist religion. In September 24, 1923, only a year after the March on Rome, a decree was instituted that made the use of the Italian flag compulsory for all public events, such as funerals and festivals, and all public offices—this was a strong first step in building Fascism on the basis of nationalism. One of the most important uses of this “cult of the flag” in the Fascist religion was its use in schools. As we will also see later, there was an incredible amount of focus placed upon influencing the youth of Italy for Mussolini, and symbols were an important part of this plan. From Gentile’s Sacralization of Politics in Italy, “Every Saturday, at the conclusion of classes or on the eve of holidays, students were to pay homage to the flag with the Roman salute. The ritual was to be accompanied by choral singing of patriotic songs.” This reverence of the flag really began the feeling of Fascism as a true religion, and nowhere is that seen more than its role in Squadras, the paramilitary wing of the Fascist party, otherwise known as the “blackshirts.” As one member of the blackshirts who joined the Mussolni government in 1922 wrote, “A flag is always a symbol of faith, and above all of sacred duty. When with indomitable ardor I blessed it, I felt a religious sense that the mission of Italianhood contained in that symbol would be pursued by all of you with purity.” This was far from the only religious aspect of the early Fascist government, however. The “cult of the fallen” was a ceremonial ritual in which Fascists honored and venerated that of Fascists killed in action, using such methods as public prayer before a priest, and the “roll-call.” In a quote from Mussolini in the party’s Dictionary of Politics in 1940, he expresses the connection of this ritual with religion, “The rite of the roll call is part of our recognition that there are spiritual forces beyond the physical. In religion we express these by venerating saints; throughout civilization, the people has venerated heroes.” Establishing these symbols and rituals was necessary to build up the power and influence of Fascism, but this was only the first step for Mussolini.

The idea of a common myth is essential to organized religion. For Catholicism, this is represented in the Bible, but in Fascism, Mussolini used Ancient Rome as his touchstone of faith with the idea of romanitá. When Fascism was first established by Mussolini, he took on the symbol of the fasces—a bundle of sticks with the head of an axe on top, which was also the symbol of the power Ancient Rome—as its predominant symbol. Another outward example of romanitá was the aforementioned “Roman Salute”—later co-opted by the Nazis, turning it into the far more recognizable Nazi salute—which many historians argue was never even “Roman” at all. But it was Mussolini’s discourse that connected the Fascists to the Ancient Romans more than anything else. One of the first examples of this was during the inaugural celebration of the “Birthday of Rome” holiday created by Mussolini in 1922. This homage to Ancient Rome replaced the traditional Italian “Labor Day” festivities on May 1st with the celebration of the foundation of Rome on April 21st. “Rome is our point of departure and reference; it is our symbol or, if you wish, our myth. We dream of a Roman Italy that is wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of what was the immortal spirit of Rome, resurges in Fascism.” Mussolini made constant references like these to Ancient Rome, and his architectural and memorial choices within the ancient city only confirm the Fascist obsession with connecting the two cultures through a common myth. 

This use of architecture in politics is an essential part to the “aesthetics of politics,” which is the idea that political power is not only connected to the people through words and actions, but through symbols and buildings as well. It was shown architecturally in Fascist Rome through the adoption and merging of the needs of a modern state—in terms of traffic, hygiene, and infrastructure—with the display, and emulation, of the archeological prowess of ancient Rome. Via dei Fori Imperiali for example, built in 1932, became a famous parade route for the Fascist regime and connected the palace of Mussolini in Piazza Venezia (in front of the famous Altar of the Fatherland monument) to the ancient Roman Coliseum. The building of Via della Conciliazione, built in 1936, cleared out every structure between the Tiber and the Vatican, symbolically connecting Rome with its Catholic center. The construction of the latter hints at what will be covered later in this paper, as the connection between Rome and Catholicism was never far away from Musslini’s domestic policies. The most extravagant of these futuristic yet nostalgic archeological decisions came with the creation of the dramatic EUR district for the World’s Fair in 1942, which demonstrated the exact idea of the connection between the past and future Mussolini wanted for Fascism. It is here where, “this constant tension between an exalted past and an idealized “Fascistisized” future is the most palpable.”  

The final aspect in proving Fascism as a true political religion is to show that the Italian people considered it, “the primary and indisputable source of meaning and the ultimate aim of human existence on earth.” And while previous aspects of the Fascist religion have shown the commitment of, for example, the paramilitary squadristas to Fascism, the final piece that established this religion was the “cult of the Duce,” and its role in making Mussolini Italy’s “god.” The myth of Mussolini and the cult of the Duce only came to the forefront of Fascism after Fascism itself had already been established as the power of the land—the exact date could be argued, but after Mussolini’s  title was changed from “President of the Council of Ministers” to “Head of Government” in 1926 seems like a fairly reasonable starting point. But perhaps it was not until the early 1930’s that he became inseparable from the Fascist religion—in many ways, he became Fascism. Nowhere was this shown more than in the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution put on in Rome in 1932. This Exhibition was a history and collection of symbols of Fascist faith put on over the course of a multi-year display, and at the center of it was Mussolini. Not only was the Exhibition opened and closed with great celebrations that involved Mussolini being greeted by the Fascist hymn as he paid homage to the martyrs of the Revolution, but the air of the Exhibition itself was described by writers and visitors as having a religious quality. A Sardinian visitor wrote, “the wonderful feeling induced by the sacred, meditative atmosphere. . . living among memories that communicate with overwhelming eloquence the presence and words of the Duce.” And a Tuscan visitor wrote in the newspaper Il Telegrafo that people moved inside the Exhibition moved with, “a murmur worthy of some solemn ceremony in Saint Peter’s.” Perhaps the most blatant of accounts connecting the Exhibition to Mussolini’s god-like position within society was that of Giuseppe Botai, an Italian journalist and founder of the Fascist periodical Critica fascista, “Between the Exhibition of the Revolution and the People there is now a high-tension current. This appears to be, and is, fed by a force not easily defined, a force mysterious, mystical, religious,” describing the unity between the Duce and the mass crowds as, “the sea of human . . . bodies all breathing as one.” Mussolini and Fascism had become one and the same by the end of the 1930s, an attitude shown by that of an account by the Florence police or “Carabinieri” in June of 1939 who noted that, “For the overwhelming majority, Fascism without Mussolini is incomprehensible, although a Mussolini without Fascism would be perfectly possible. In any case, it is the fate of a genius to take such close control over an idea that he replaces it with his own personality.” While it is hard to prove precisely that the majority of citizens of Italy perceived Fascism itself as “the primary and indisputable source of meaning and the ultimate aim of human existence on earth,” it is where the Fascist liturgy fell short of this that Mussolini himself filled that gap as the country’s sole source of faith and knowledge, diminishing or even replacing the influence of its traditional Catholic roots.

The reaction of the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XI to the rise of Fascism throughout the 1920s was that of uncertainty—but by the time of the signing of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, they had shifted to rhetoric of negotiation rather than that of defiance. In order to understand the priorities of the Catholic Church going into the age of Mussolini, it is necessary to look back to Italian Unification and its effect on the Holy See. The “Holy See” represents the Bishop of Rome, who is the Pope, and also refers to not only the Pope himself, but also to where he resides and has jurisdiction—and up until 1870, this included that of the Papal States. The Papal States were a series of territories in the modern-day Italian peninsula under direct sovereign rule of the Pope, and from the eighth century until Italian Unification, they were representative of the Pope’s temporal—non-secular—influence on the world, to go along with his divine power. On September 29, 1870, Italian troops marched into the seat of power for the pope in the Papal States, the ancient city of Rome, with the intention of taking the city for the Kingdom of Italy. Despite the small size of Pope Pius IX’s defenses, he decided to put up a symbolic fight against the Italians in order to show the world that the Italians were acquiring Rome by force. This quote from Pius IX during the siege demonstrates the unwillingness of the Pope to give up his power in favor of a unified state, “They dispute me this grain of sand under my feet. They will not dislodge me. This corner of the earth is mine; I received it from Christ; to him alone I will render it again.” On September 20th, Pope Pius IX was deposed as the King of Rome, and for the next sixty years, each of the three popes prior to Pius XI would be self-proclaimed “prisoners of the Vatican”—grudgingly retreating behind its walls, not even showing their faces to the outside world—continuing to fight against the government and the Kingdom of Italy with the goal of reattaining their previous influence. The response of the Church to the new Italy would come to be known as the “Roman Question.”

After Mussolini became Prime Minister in 1922, essentially replacing the power and influence of King Emmanuel III, it allowed the Church to renegotiate the terms of their place in Italian society. But it was not only a new era for Italy. Six months prior to the October 28th Fascist March on Rome, Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti would be named Pope Pius XI, the new head of the Catholic Church. Two years later, on Christmas Eve of 1924, he would appear in St. Peter’s Square, “symbolically removing the seal from the Holy Door,” that had existed for the previous six decades. There is no doubt that this marked a revitalized effort from the Church to regain their lost influence in unified Italy—beginning the battle for the hearts and minds of the Italian people, a battle fought between Benito Mussolini and Pius XI. 

Throughout his first few years in power, the Catholic Church was seen by Mussolini as the last large road block for complete influence over the entirety of Italy, as it not only was the national religion of the country, but also represented over 400 million people across the world at the time. Instead of fighting the Church outright, Mussolini wanted to use its power and influence to make sure the Italian people had no divided loyalties. Mussolini took multiple steps to accomplish this goal. For example, the school reform of 1923, enacted by the Fascist party, reintroduced the study of religion in primary and secondary schools and allowed the display of crucifixes in public places, was received quite positively by the Church. In 1924, Mussolini also raised the annual government payments to bishops and parish priests from 6,000 to 12,000  and 1,500 to 2,500 lire per year, respectively. And as an act of goodwill in 1927, Mussolini, who had grown up as a member of the national socialist party in Italy, had himself baptized by a Roman Catholic priest, despite never becoming a practicing Catholic. While it is clear from the aspects of the Fascist religion explored previously that it could not operate to its fullest extent if Italian citizens were committed to both Catholicism and Fascism, Mussolini and Pius XI began a contentious yet stable relationship that would become necessary for both of these two leaders to accomplish their goals—an accord that could not possibly end with both sides reaching their ultimate objective. 

The primary goal of Pius XI after “reopening” the Vatican became the “re-christianization of society,” and while the Church recognized the growing influence of Fascism, and its utilization of  the elements of traditional religion, Pius XI saw this ideology as the lesser of evils in comparison to liberalism and socialism. The Church rejected the notion of a separation of Church and State in Italy, and its agenda was to support the “creation of a more Christian society and the formation of a new generation of Catholic lay leaders,” shown in its network of Catholic Action youth groups across the country as its main tool in the “re-christianization” process. Perhaps one of our most useful tools in analyzing the Church’s changing views on Fascism are the publications of L’Osservatore Romano, which was acquired by the Vatican after its founding in 1861, and the Italian Jesuit periodical, La Civilita Cattolica (LCC), which both served as an “unofficial spokesperson” for the Pope according to historians. One of the primary instances of the LCC, for example, supporting the work of Mussolini was prior to the elections of 1924. In their rhetoric, they state that while there has been plenty of “misbehavior of some anticlerical members of the Fascist Party,” it should be noted how much work Mussolini has done to improve relations between the government and the Church. The LCC was also always outspoken in the importance of Catholic Action, and its necessity in the, “intellectual restoration, which is above all moral and religious, of modern society.” However, despite Mussolini’s willingness to allow the Church to operate within the Fascist framework, he could not avoid competing with the Church directly if he were to build his new religion. After the Fascist Party had taken control of the government in 1922, it had started forming Fascist youth groups, instilling its own values also for the purpose of creating future leaders and insuring future influence. This dichotomy between the two groups, and the issue of influence over Italian youth and education, would come to be a main source of contention between the Church and State, and its importance would be outlined in the climax of 1920s Fascist-Church relations with the 1929 Lateran Treaty.   

The Lateran Treaty was signed on February 11th, 1929, and while it marked the creation of the sovereign nation of Vatican City, it also publicly and officially marked the begrudging acceptance and tolerance of totalitarianism by the Catholic Church in Italy—an attitude that was necessary in order for the Church to continue operating freely within the country. Signed by both Mussolini and the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the treaty was made of three specific parts—a political treaty, a financial convention, and “concordat,” which refers directly to an agreement between the Holy See and that of a secular government for matters of mutual interest. Most importantly for Pius XI, while the Catholic Church had multiple issues with the Fascist Party, its main purpose for signing the treaty was to settle the matter of the “Roman Question.” With the creation of Vatican City as the new Papal State, Pius XI had regained what his predecessors had lost—a temporal seat of power for the papacy. 

The Holy See and Italy have recognized the desirability of eliminating every existing reason for dissension between them….by assuring to the Holy See in a permanent manner a position in fact and in law which guarantees it absolute independence for the fulfilment of its exalted mission in the world, permits the Holy See to consider as finally and irrevocably settled the “Roman Question”, which arose in 1870 by the annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy under the Dynasty of the House of Savoy.

But at what cost was this achieved? The second of the three parts to the treaty was that of reparation, a sizeable cash settlement of 750,000,000 lire, an atonement for the forced annexation of Rome by the Italian army decades earlier. This treaty claimed that both sides desired to eliminate “every existing reason for dissension between them,” yet it seems as though it was the Catholic Church that gave up far more in the treaty than it received—with Mussolini appeasing them with land and money, pushing the Catholic Church further away from their original goal of the “re-christianization of society.” Perhaps the most important aspect to this concordat for Pius XI was that concerning the fate of Catholic Action youth groups in a Fascist Italy. When the Lateran negotiations were beginning in 1926, they had coincided with increased street violence between Catholic and Fascist youths—and Mussolini wanted nothing else than to silence that of Catholic Action. As O’Brien explains in The Catholic Historical Review, “Twice during these negotiations, Mussolini attempted to suppress all youth groups under Catholic Action, and both times Pope Pius XI suspended talks on the premise that Catholic Action was an integral part of any general settlement between Church and State.” This integral aspect of the treaty became Article 43, which focused on the conditions in which Catholic Action could exist going forward. “The Italian State recognizes the organizations dependent from the Italian Catholic action insofar as the Holy See has disposed that they carry out their activity outside any political party and under the immediate dependence of the Hierarchy of the Church for the diffusion and exercise of Catholic principles.” In other words, this article allowed for groups under the umbrella of Catholic Action to be officially recognized by the Italian State, and in exchange, they had to remain apolitical, and under the “Hierarchy of the Church.” While this seems like a major concession for Mussolini, and a big win for Pius XI, the aftereffects of the treaty and events later on in the decade would prove otherwise.

  Following the signing of the treaty, there were two years of vicious conflict over the role of Catholic Action and Facsist Youth groups, conflicts that mirrored and escalated that of the 1926 clashes. Mussolini immediately increased the amount of police surveillance of Catholic Action groups. They were to provide reports to the Ministry of the Interior on the leaders of Catholic Action clubs, and their attitudes towards the Fascist regime. This increased tension came to a climax when Young University Fascists and young Fascists across the country, “damaged Church property, rioted in the streets, scribbled anticlerical slogans everywhere (including obscenities directed at the Pope), and wildly assaulted Catholic youth.” Mussolini followed these events by disbanding all Catholic Action groups. However, due to the amount of pushback he received from the Vatican—they refused to even see the Italian ambassador—by the end of 1931, had reinstated them with certain restrictions, showing his commitment to retaining influence over the Catholic Church and Italian youth. This struggle over the youth of Italy seems small in the grand scheme of twentieth century totalitarianism, but it became representative of the unwilling, yet necessary, relationship held between Pius XI and Mussolini over the following decade—one of inequality, regret, and compromise. 

The final section of this paper will explore the topic of WWII and the relationship between Pius XI, Pius XII, and the rise of anti-semitism in Italy—to what extent did they condemn this troubling trend of racism, and how did it relate to their foreign policy during WWII? After signing the incredibly controversial German Concordat in 1933, Pius XI would go on to be a staunch opponent, as much as he could be, of Nazism in Europe. But when it became clear that there would be a “Rome-Berlin Axis” formalized in Mussolini’s proclamation in November of 1936, there was little Pius XI could do to stop Mussolini, Hitler, and their alliance. 

The 1930s would prove consequential to the growth of totalitarian power in Europe—shown most explicitly by Hitler rising to power in Germany—mirroring the rise of Fascism in Italy a decade prior. But political religions were not the only ideologies increasing in popularity. The Church was willing to work with that of Mussolini, as he at least allowed and supported, in a symbolic sense, the idea of a national Catholic religion. Atheistic communism, on the other hand, posed the greatest threat to the Church during the 1930s in the eyes of Pius XI. Not willing to put his faith solely in democratic governments to stop that of communism, specifically that of the Bolsheviks, the Pope had a, “readiness to employ any possible means, even dealing with the Devil himself, if it would accomplish some good.” There is no doubt the Church recognized the rising power of Nazism as totalitarian, and the leadership of Hitler as peace-threatening and dangerous. However, since there had been a considerable amount of success in preserving the rights of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy using the Lateran Pacts, Pius XI hoped to negotiate with Hitler in a similar way—he believed him to be another Mussolini in terms of his willingness to allow the Church to operate freely within the country. Signed by the future Pope Pius XII Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Reichskonkordat (German Concordat), occurred on July 20th 1933, and it is perhaps the most controversial of Pius XI’s foreign policy during his time in the papacy. In Article 32 of this concordat, similar to that of Lateran Treaty, guaranteed the rights of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, in exchange for the exclusion of members of the Catholic clergy in any form of politics. One of its major caveats, listed in Article 16, was also consequential in the recognition of the power of the Nazi party by the Vatican. “Before bishops take possession of their dioceses they are to take an oath of fealty either to the Reich Representative of the State concerned, or to the President of the Reich.” One month following the signing of the concordat, Pacelli maintained the position that it was the German government and Nazi leaders who sought the concordat, and forced them to make concessions in order for the Catholic Church to continue within the Reich. However, even if this position were true, it does not change the fact that the Vatican and Pius XI were complicit in the recognition of the Nazi Party in its early days. 

The Vatican quickly identified their mistake—there is a reason there is no official text of this concordat on the Vatican’s current website unlike the Lateran Treaty. Hitler never intended for any organized religion or ideology to exist alongside that of Nazism, and simply had a “blatant disregard for the Concordat.” This was shown by the implementation of multiple laws by the Nazi regime, including that of the “Sterilization Law,” and with the arrest and execution of the head of Catholic Action in Germany as a part of Hitler’s 1934 “Long Knives” initiative. Says British historian Anton Gill in his book, An Honourable Defeat, “It quickly became clear that [Hitler] intended to imprison the Catholics, as it were, in their own churches . . . Catholic schools and newspapers were closed, and a propaganda campaign against the Catholics was launched.” Pius XI and his successor Cardinal Pacelli would spend the last three years of the papacy of Pius XI condemning the actions of Hitler, and the alliance of Italy and Germany. Speaking to Spanish refugees in September of 1936, Pius XI would issue a warning to Hitler, saying that, “war on the Catholic Church is war in alliance with communism.” And in a reference to perhaps both Italy and Germany, speaking at the International Congress of Catholic Journalists in Rome, also in 1936, Cardinal Pacelli said there was a, “need for combating paganism whether it took the form of international Bolshevism or that of nationalistic-religious movements.” This rejection of “nationalisti-religious movements,” would be ultimately tested in 1938, with the institution of the Racial Laws by Mussolini, outlined by the publication of the Manifesto della razza (Manifesto of Race).

While it may be up for debate as to the motivations behind Pius XI condemning the Racial Laws—some historians argue that it was for the selfish benefit of the Church itself—there are multiple examples of the pope pushing back against the actions of Mussolini and Hitler. The institution of the 1938 Racial Laws in Italy were a sweeping disenfranchisement of Jews in Italy, mirroring the Nuremberg Laws instituted by Nazi Germany in 1935. Among other aspects to the Manifesto della razza, as described and translated by the University of Florence professor Stefano Luconi, “Italian Jews were expelled from the Fascist party, state schools, and universities, were dismissed from positions with state and local administrations, were banned from the army, could not own or manage companies that employed more than one hundred people, and were allowed to marry other Jews only.” The laws also called for Jewish immigrants and unnaturalized citizens to leave the country by March of 1939. Two years before the laws were even proposed,  L’Osservatore Romano, the unofficial voice of the Vatican as stated previously, would analyze the current political situation in Europe with respect to the rise of racial intolerance in Germany, and conclude, “state boundaries do not correspond with racial boundaries. They have, in fact, never corresponded with them and never will, but the divergence is today one of the chief pretexts of unrest.” In 1937, Cardinal Pacelli would also assist Pius XI with the writing of the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, which condemned the Nuremberg Laws not by name, but in context, by stating:

Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.

When the Italian Racial Laws were instituted, Pius XI directly spoke out against them, citing not only that they breached the terms of the Lateran Treaty—as it prohibited racially mixed marriages, even between Catholics—but that they were, “altogether contrary to Catholic doctrine.” For Pius XI, these laws not only represented a “gross and grave error” against what Catholicism represented, but it also showed that Italian domestic policy was being brought into alignment with that of Germany. Because of this, the Pope hoped to use the support of opposition to the Racial Laws to destabilize the growing influence of the Reich in Italy—as he did not want the Catholic Church in Italy to suffer the same fate as its German counterpart. In September of 1938, Pius XI commissioned the writing of the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas (On the Unity of the Human Race) for the purpose of publicly, definitively, condemning racism, anti-semitism and the persecution of the Jews in Italy and abroad. In early February of 1939, Pius XI died of a heart attack—never getting the chance to give his possibly consequential encyclical. While Pius XI was never a very willing ally of Mussolini, something made clear over the course of his papacy, he never had the intention of officially and outwardly acting in direct opposition to him until right before his death. This is because the growth and power of the Fascist religion and the ascendance of Mussolini to the Italian’s god, partly due to the Church’s own policies and agenda, made it incredibly difficult for Pius XI to resist the will of Mussolini. In Gentile’s aforementioned review of Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini, Gentile reflects on the relationship between the Duce and Pius XI by saying, “ Over the years, their pact was increasingly imperiled by tensions, differences in opinion and public clashes, until they reached a clamorous breaking point, avoided only due to the death of Pious XI, a ‘convenient death,’ as Kertzer efficaciously defines it.” This leaves historians to only postulate at what the possible impact of the “secret encyclical” could have been on world politics on the eve of WWII. 

When the former Secretary of State for the Vatican, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, was elected as Pius XII, many expected him to continue the outspoken anti-totalitarian foreign policy of his predecessor. However, moving to a strategy of appeasement, Pius XII looked to establish peace rather than conflict, softening the language toward Mussolini and Hitler coming out of the Vatican. After the death of Pius XI, instead of releasing Humani Generis Unitas to the public as the last encyclical of Pius XI, Pius XII immediately ordered the destruction of all the copies of the text, fearing it would offend that of Mussolini, Hitler, and even the United States—in reference to racial segregation. The full text of the encyclical would not be seen again until its release alongside the opening of the Vatican Archives in 2006. While being far from the outright denunciation of Mussolini and Hitler that was expected, as they were not mentioned specifically by name, the encyclical features a harshly worded theological argument against the persecution of the Jews. “How utterly misguided is such a policy toward the Jews, how harmful and ineffective for the very purposes it seeks to accomplish, can only be seen when we compare it with what the Church has ever taught and practiced in this connection, and with the lessons of history.” Perhaps deservingly, the refusal to release the full text to the public before, during, and even after the war, has given Pius XII the label of an appeaser in the eyes of many historians. In his inaugural encyclical published in October of 1939, Summi Pontificatus, Pius XII would utilize parts of  Humani Generis Unitas, subtitling it, “On the Unity of Human Society.” This encyclical fails to mention the subjugation of the Jews directly, using “violation of others’ rights” as a stand in—but it coherently rejects totalitarianism, setting out his well-documented policy during WWII to achieve world peace.

The idea which credits the State with unlimited authority is not simply an error harmful to the internal life of nations, to their prosperity, and to the larger and well-ordered increase in their well-being, but likewise it injures the relations between peoples, for it breaks the unity of supra-national society, robs the law of nations of its foundation and vigor, leads to violation of others’ rights and impedes agreement and peaceful intercourse.

Using this new foreign policy strategy, according to Kent, “Pius XII saw it now as a vehicle for using Mussolini to restrain Hitler and to encourage the opening of negotiations.” Pius XII  did not tend to use as strong of language against totalitarianism as Pius XI, but in taking his step back towards neutral, he gave himself more credibility in the eyes of the Axis—allowing him to have more influence on both sides of the war. This approach was the culmination of two decades of papal policy in reaction to the power of the Fascist religion, as Pius XII saw firsthand as the Secretary of State, the lack of real influence the pope could have over Mussolini using confrontational language. Without the context of the Fascist religion, the interpretation of appeasement towards Nazism and Fascism could be seen as valid. But in reality, as noted in Helen Fein’s Accounting for Genocide, there was nothing the Vatican could have done to stop Hitler’s bloody march across Europe—and they could not allow the possibility of risking even more Catholic lives by making an enemy out of Hitler and Mussolini.  

The development of the Fascist religion had far-reaching consequences, consequences which frame Pius XI and Pius XII as being on the wrong side of history. This research began with the question as to why so many Fascist monuments still stand in Rome today. This led down the path of the Fascist religion, and its impact on that of the other prevailing religion in Rome, Catholicism—more specifically, on the influence of the pope himself during the era of Mussolini. In a direct reference to this Church-State relationship, Kertzer asserts, “The Church had long been in decline, stopped only because of his[Pius XI] efforts to shore it up. If Italians still attended mass, it was only because they knew that their Duce wanted them to go.” Fascist monuments still exist in Rome today because Mussolini’s religion converted the masses, taking power and influence from the Catholic Church. This right-wing conversion still exists in Italian society today, evident by the existence of the Forza Italia political party—and their current elected representative in European Parliament, Allesandra Mussolini, Mussolini’s biological granddaughter. If Fascism had not become a true political religion, Pius XI and Pius XII would have had far more influence and power over Mussolini and the Italian people, and perhaps they would not have allied themselves with Germany prior to WWII. This is the importance of the study of political religions in the twentieth century. What the masses believe and put faith in matters, no matter the legitimacy of the ideology, and whomever can “convert” them will have a lasting legacy and impact on society. 


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