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How the Vatican Aided Mussolini
A new account of a grievous historical record
Redacted from a much more detailed, must-read publication
By Kevin J. Madigan
COMMENTARY, APRIL 2014
NATIONAL MEMORIES, like personal ones, tend to be self-flattering, soothing, and often glorious. So it comes as a shock when historical research shows those memories to be false. It is even more shocking when research unearths new historical narratives that are awkward, shameful, or even intolerable. Since the end of the Second World War, both the Catholic Church and Italy have treasured heroic memories of their supposedly contentious relations with Benito Mussolini, his Fascist regime, and the anti-Semitic racial laws of 1938.
The traditional, self-consoling narrative goes something like this:
The good people of Italy opposed Mussolini’s Fascist regime and the racial laws it produced. The Catholic Church in Italy resisted Italian Fascism. Its cantankerous pope, Pius XI, fought Mussolini and his dictatorship, as did other high-ranking Vatican churchmen. When Italy’s racial laws were published in 1938, church leaders protested them vigorously. They were appalled that Jews would be disenfranchised, marginalized professionally and educationally, ostracized socially, defined by race, and declared ethnically and culturally inferior to their European neighbors. Only semi-heathen and politically illiberal Germany could possibly have championed this sort of pre-Christian tribalism and discrimination.
David Kertzer, the distinguished historian of modern Italy at Brown University and author of the brilliant, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, (Vintage, 1998), tells a much different story in his latest, meticulously researched, and captivating book.
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House, 529 pages) is based in large part on tens of thousands of documents made available only in 2006 in the Vatican Archives, covering the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939), as well as a treasure trove of newly available sources for the same period in the Jesuit archives, along with the rich Fascist archives for these years.
Among Kertzer’s conclusions are that the Vatican bureaucracy, far from resisting Mussolini, enabled and sustained led the Mussolini dictatorship. Several important Jesuits, including the order’s Superior General, helped support the Fascist regime and tried to muzzle papal criticism of Hitler. These Jesuits also did much to sustain the notion that there was a worldwide conspiracy of Judea-Bolsheviks intent on subverting healthy Christian society and establishing a Communist empire in the West. Not only did the Church fail to resist the 1938 racial laws; church-approved writings provided much of the rationale for discriminating Italy’s tiny Jewish population.
Among those who suppressed criticism of the Italian racial laws and sought to ease tensions between the pope, Mussolini and Hitler was the Vatican secretary of state, Pacelli, who would succeed Pius XI in 1939!
Most of all, Pius XI and the dictator, who both came to power in 1922, depended on each other for support and for achieving mutual goals. They shared many political ideas; both loathed democracy and Communism.
Pius gave sacred legitimacy and removed obstacles to Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Mussolini restored many ecclesiastical prerogatives that had been lost over the previous decades. Only near the end of Pius Xl’s pontificate, when the aging pope grew enraged with Mussolini and his friend and ally Hitler, did the unholy union begin to unravel. But the unraveling was knit up after Pacelli became Pius XII.
… Eventually, Pope Pius XI concluded that it would be best to throw his support to the Fascist Party. In 1922, he had his secretary of state send a letter to bishops forbidding priests from joining any party, and in 1926 the Popular Party was disbanded altogether. Pius XI had done a critically important favor for Mussolini, and upon Il Duce’s assumption of power in 1922, the new leader was eager to communicate his gratitude to the new pope. He ordered his men to kneel in prayer for a moment.
As Kertzer observes, Mussolini was well aware that the support he had received from the church was “priceless.” Pius XI made sure that never again would the Vatican-vetted Jesuit journal, Civilta Cattolica, denounce Fascism. Indeed it would legitimatize it. Just before the first election held under Mussolini, in 1924, the journal reminded readers of all the benefits provided by the Fascists and of how tirelessly Mussolini had already worked to improve church-government relations.
…When Pacelli was elected Pius Xl’s successor,”Kertzer reports, “Mussolini and the other Fascist leaders felt as if they had woken up to find an irritating sore that had long plagued them was miraculously gone” Within 48 hours of his election, Pius XII summoned the German ambassador, Diego von Bergen and said he was eager to assure the Nazi government that he sought a new era of understanding. After telling Bergen how close he felt to the German people as a result of his many years in Munich and Berlin, the new Pope came to his main point. He understood, he said, that different countries adopted different forms of government. Amazingly, he concluded that “it was not the pope’s role to judge what system other countries chose”
While much attention has been paid to Pius XII’s relations with the genocidal Nazi regime, until now very little has been written on the same man’s earlier role in quelling criticism of the Nazi and Fascist regimes and in preserving the Vatican’s good relations with Mussolini. Indeed, there is a serious movement within the Catholic Church to make Pius XII a saint!
Will the new material Kertzer has uncovered and expertly analyzed make it into his canonization dossier? Not very likely. More likely, Pacelli’s apologists, ever alert to protect Pius XII no matter what the evidence suggests, will (if recent history is any guide) accuse Kertzer of all manner of scholarly dereliction.
On the other hand, intellectually honest historians who have the requisite philological and historical expertise will credit Kertzer with a remarkable achievement in bringing to light, through researches wide in scope and profound in depth, a previously hidden history.
And Roman Catholics eager to purge their church of all vestiges of anti-Semitism will welcome his expose of this unhappy and deliberately ignored history. Perhaps Francis I — Pope, Jesuit, and philo-Semite — will finally enable historians to uncover this history in all its fullness.
KEVIN J. MADIGAN is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School and the author, with Jon D. Levenson, of Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale University Press, 2008).
PS (It never ceases to amaze me how these evil Church and Lay leaders, these perpetrators of awful deeds against their own people, conveniently find a way to blame the Jews — no matter what their number or total lack of power. The Jews of Italy happen to constitute 1/10 of 1% of the entire Italian population!) jsk
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