So far in this series, we have been examining specific issues concerning the Catholic Church and its history during the Second World War. Through an examination of where the Vatican believed the Church stood, and by looking at the impact made on Catholic thought by the various ideologies that dominated the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I hope to have painted a backdrop against which the history of the Church in individual countries can be explored.
Although Germany was the main instigator and protagonist of the Second World War, from a Catholic perspective it is arguably more important to examine Italy first of all. As we all know, Italy is a predominantly Catholic country. This was the case in the first half of the twentieth century, but there was a complication. During the long drawn-out process of Italian unification, the Catholic Church had proved a substantial opponent to the liberals who wished to create a new country. For once, this was mainly for non-spiritual reasons: the Pope was also the monarch of a substantial slice of central Italy, including Rome.
It was not until 1871 that the Italians managed to wrest control of Rome away from the Papacy, which saw itself henceforth as ‘imprisoned’ in the Vatican. In retaliation, the new Italian state was effectively excommunicated, which prohibited Catholics from participating in its political process. This caused numerous problems, and lasted until the outbreak of the First World War. For Pope Benedict XV, the war was a real headache, and never more so than with regard to Italy. This was his homeland, and yet he had to maintain the Holy See’s strict neutrality. When, in 1915, the country joined the allies in the war, the Papacy made sure that its government realized that it had nothing to fear from the Pope.
The German-led coalition had already made promises to restore the Papal States in the hope of eliciting the Holy Father’s support, but the Pope made it clear that he would not accept a solution to the Roman question without the consent of the Italians. It was tantamount to a declaration of support for Italy. Italian Catholics responded by a whole-hearted participation in the war effort, which ensured their re-integration into the Italian body politic. When the war ended in 1918, there had grown a wide consensus that some sort of solution to the problem of the Church’s independence had to be found, well before the Fascists took over power in Rome.
In Italy, Catholics began to participate in politics, urged on by the Church’s teachings on social justice and worried by the inroads made by Marxism and other radical political ideas. It will not do to over-emphasize the threats posed to the Church by these movements in the years before the Fascist take-over: Mussolini’s supporters, including far too many Catholic bishops, used it as an excuse for his dictatorship. But some threats were real, and Pope Benedict XV knew all too well from what had happened in Russia that Communism proffered a very real threat to the survival of his Church.
The root-causes of the Fascist coup d’état are too complex to explore here in much detail. One element that may be highlighted is the brutal aspects of class struggle in Italy, both in the towns and in the countryside. In many ways, Italian Fascism tapped into the utopian ideals of Socialism, whilst at the same time exploring the strident nationalism of the country’s liberal past.
For some in the Catholic Church in Italy, these were powerful incentives to at least tacitly approve of the movement. It appeared that Mussolini managed to curb the excesses of capitalism against which various Popes had warned, and at the same time provide an end to both the conflict between the classes and the conflict between Italy and the Church.
This is odd in many ways, not least in the virulent anti-Catholic stance of many Fascists, including Mussolini. He had frequently referred to the Vatican as “a nest of robbers” and called priests “black germs”. Indeed, Pope Benedict XV had personally protested against the lies and blasphemy contained within Mussolini’s newspaper, Popolo d’Italia. Yet for all that the initial Fascist epoch brought a few small-scale benefits to the Church, culminating in a big price: the granting of a sovereign territory to the Church on the Vatican Hill.
Once they gained power in 1922, the Fascists quickly worked to ensure that the Church did not become too much of an obstacle to their grab for power. “The Fascist’s state”, wrote Giovanni Gentile on behalf of Mussolini in La dottrina del fascism, “does not attempt, as did Robespierre at the height of the Revolution, to efface God from the soul of man”. This was a clear peace offering, written by those at the very heart of the new ideology. And so it proved in reality, for the new regime required the support of the Church to consolidate its hold on power. One particularly helpful element was the abolition of the Italian Catholic Party, a major obstacle to Mussolini, in 1923.
There is no getting away from the facts: to many in the Church Mussolini and Fascism were an attractive option. We may even include Pope Pius XI amongst these, at least for the first decade or so of Fascist rule. To these men the sacrifice of Catholic political freedom in Italy was worth it if it brought the Church security and stability. Many were no strangers to nationalism either. The episode of Bl. Cardinal Schuster of Milan praising the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 as being a great Italian adventure and a great Catholic crusade are emblematic of this strand of thinking.
The price was a great one: the Lateran Treaty of 1929, in which Italy returned the tiny Vatican enclave to the Holy See as sovereign territory, and the concordat of the same year. This made Catholicism the religion of state in Italy, and gave the Church control over RE in schools. That, in particular, proved a great victory as the Fascists had tried to exclude the Church from the education of the young of Italy. It appeared as if the losses of the past century had been wiped out. It is in this context that one has to read Pius’ exclamation of Mussolini as a “great Catholic statesman”, the “man who gave Italy back to God and God back to Italy” and as “the man of providence”.
The Pope was, of course, being short-sighted – we have to remind ourselves that his infallibility does not extend into the realm of politics! He also did not have the benefit of hindsight. One of his concessions was that the state could control the appointment of bishops, which would horrify the modern papacy, as witnessed by the situation in China. Yet another major problem was the attempt by the Fascists gradually to remove all Catholic organizations from public life. This culminated in 1931 with a closing down of Catholic newspapers and an attempt to end Catholic Action, the non-political social organization.
This first conflict between Vatican and Mussolini since the concordat showed that both Church and Fascists were rather disappointed by what the 1929 agreement had brought, regardless of what was said in public speeches. The Duce tried to suppress the youth wing of Catholic Action, which led to a de facto break in diplomatic relations. Only the services of the fervently pro-Fascist, Fr. Tacchi Venturi S.J., working for Pope Pius XI, kept negotiations going. Mussolini, of course, was sorely disappointed that the concordat had not delivered a quiet and submissive Church, and vented his anger by hitting the Church where Pius felt it most: the young.
The Holy Father’s Non Abbiamo Bisogno, the encyclical of 1931 on Catholic Action, would have enhanced his disappointment. In the end, Mussolini backed down, but the honeymoon was over. The Church, her position in Italy consolidated, would from henceforth battle to maintain that position. As we shall see, she would also increasingly criticize elements of the regime believed to be in conflict with Catholic teaching.
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.