In secular matters, a string of Popes has found the best course of action is to stand apart, neither praising nor condemning. In matters of the church against the rulers of Italy and beyond, the church seems to generally prefer a light touch.
However this is not always the case behind the scenes, and while the Pope is often portrayed as a benevolent figure, spiritual father to millions of Catholic Christians, we sometimes get a glimpse behind the curtain and see a markedly different pontiff.
Such is the case with Pope Pius XI, head of the Catholic church in the 1920s. Far from standing back from the increasingly radical politics he was observing, the Pope decided to take a stand. And so, secretly, he brought the support of the Catholic church to the newly minted fascist dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini.
What can be seen of the public impact of this discreet alliance comes almost entirely from Mussolini, who often spoke of the importance that the Catholic church held in the country. Pius XI, it seemed, was looking to advance his position, and the position of his church, while ignoring the moral dangers of positioning themselves with a brutal dictator.
The Pope And Mussolini
By January of 1923, the Pope and Mussolini had organized a secret meeting between a top cardinal and the secretary of state, where it had been decided to open a direct personal channel between the two influential Italian leaders. To bolster his fascist regime, Mussolini would depend on the Church for support and also give his own support to the Church.
Both the Pope and Mussolini were not in favor of parliamentary democracy which made them natural political allies. Moreover, the two wanted the dissolution of the Popular party, in opposition against Mussolini, so that the event could lead to the further promotion of Catholic values and interests as the fascists were cemented into power.
There were many discussions about the status of the Church in Italy, and this was brought forth with the discussions about the stature of the Papacy in the state. But perhaps the most stark evidence for Catholic support of the fascist regime and of the friendship between the Pope and Mussolini was the Lateran Treaty of 1929.
The Lateran Treaty recognized the Vatican as a sovereign territory that was solely ruled by the Pope and regulated solely by the rules of the Church. The treaty gave the Pope and Church its autonomy in Vatican City within Rome. The treaty allowed the Pope to preach Christian values in Italy as he wished and permeated Italian society with Christian Values.
In 1925, Mussolini had imposed a one-party dictatorship in Italy. Some were surprised that this radically destabilizing shift in the power dynamics of Italy did not dissuade the Pope from showing his support for Mussolini’s regime.
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He continued to bring religious support for Mussolini and his ideas. But with the Lateran Treaty four years later, things seemed to become clearer: the Pope had supported Mussolini, and now the Italian dictator had granted Pius XI his own independent fiefdom.
Even though the Pope and Mussolini were close allies, there were occasional conflicts between the two strong-headed men, each with his own cause and purpose. However further arrangements and agreements from Mussolini bound the church even closer to him, such as a guarantee on salaries to bishops and a promise to pay compensation for church property supposedly confiscated by the state since 1860, where a sum of 1,750 million lira ($100 million) was arrived at. The Vatican would be rich as well as free.
But the relationship was more seriously tested in October 1935, when the Italian regime invaded Abyssinia. Although the Pope himself was critical of the war effort, he took a neutral stance when it was clear that many of the Catholic clergymen and bishops were all for the war effort.
The Pope wanted to keep the relationship between Church and Italy amicable and supportive. He did not want to lose the support of Italy’s Christian community and political power, and so he held back from condemning Italy’s unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation.
The Decline of the Alliance
Italy and the Church of the Vatican, therefore, had a long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship. The Lateran Treaty was really only one aspect of this association. However, it was the developing relationship between Germany with Italy that finally caused the mutually beneficial relationship to fail.
With Hitler building a dictatorship along Italian lines in 1930s Germany, the Pope also approached him to reach a pact of agreement and support. However, Pope Pius XI found that Hitler was less supportive of the Church than Mussolini.
The Nazis under Hitler were entirely prepared to make promises to the Pope, but unlike the Italians it seemed these were insincere, with the deal being ignored whenever it became inconvenient for Germany.
As Germany and Italy became closer and closer allies during the 1930s, by 1936 the Pope was afraid that Italy would follow Germany and persecute the Church and its bishops. The Pope tried to dissuade the Italians from having close links with the Germans.
By the end of 1936 and the start of 1937, the Pope had identified the Nazi mindset and actions as a greater threat to Christianity than communism and other smaller revolts that happened in the society. But by this point it was too late.
Germany and Italy were by this point politically aligned, and Mussolini invited Hitler for a state visit in the year 1938. Mussolini knew of the Pope’s views about Hitler and feared that the Pope would excommunicate Hitler to show his displeasure in public. If this happened during the state visit, it would negatively impact Hitler’s public image and German-Italian ties.
In 1938, another important development happened. Mussolini introduced anti-Jewish legislation in Italy to support Hitler’s vision. The Pope was not in favor of such developments.
He secretly commissioned American Jesuits to draft an encyclical opposing racism. The Italian racial legislation came in direct conflict with the treaty between the Church and the Italian government when Mussolini ruled that the Catholic community was not allowed to marry and convert into the Jewish community.
The Pope spoke against the rule, but the fascist regime threatened other branches of Catholic action to stop him from criticizing the government in public. By this point the Pope had realized the downside of his deal with the devil, and the friendship between Mussolini and Pope Pius XI started unravelling.
Many of the people who were party to the relationship between Pope and Mussolini and acted as channels of communication tried to preserve the friendship because the Papacy needed the support of such a strong political leader. However it became increasingly clear in private that the Pope had compromised the moral position of the Catholic church through fostering these ties.
The Pope however did manage to find a moral backbone, going on to be critical of the anti-semitic actions of Mussolini. The LaFarge encyclical, a paper sponsored by the Pope, was created to deal a blow to the Italy and Germany alliance.
However, the regimes were too strong by this point and criticism of Mussolini’s regime at the hands of the Pope was suppressed. In August 1938, there was a new agreement between Mussolini and the Church and suddenly open criticism by the Pope of Mussolini’s racial legislation was seen as inappropriate, again.
The LaFarge encyclical was never widely published therefore, as it never reached the Pope for his approval.
The Last Speech of the Pope
The Pope and the people of Italy, however, were against the ban on mixed marriages. The Pope planned to speak up against the violation of the Lateran treaty on the 10th anniversary of the treaty.
However, one day before the celebration and religious gathering that the Pope had planned, he passed away from ailing health. If Pope Pius XI had delivered his prepared speech, history could have been different.
His successor Pius XII tore the original speech and opposed the new views of Pius XI. Following in his predecessor’s earlier footsteps, he tried to restore the relationship between the Vatican and the Mussolini regime.
He even tried to improve relations with Nazi Germany. If Pius XI had not died on a fateful day, the world would may know a different end to the friendship between the Pope and Mussolini.
Top Image: Pope Pius XI may have won autonomy for the Vatican, but he came to regret his deal with Mussolini. Source: Philip de Laszlo / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri