Inside the Church during WWIIFrom Stand-Off to Confrontation: Pope Pius XII and Mussolini, 1938-1943

The relationship between the Catholic Church in Italy and the country’s Fascist regime began seriously to unravel in the year 1938. Until then, two important considerations had mitigated the short-comings of Mussolini in the eyes of the Church: the signing of the Lateran Treaty and the Concordat. The first had ended years of strife between the Church and the country that had been the host of the Throne of St. Peter since the first century; the second had created Italy in the Church’s image, at least to some extent.

As noticed previously, since the Concordat, Catholicism had become Italy’s state religion, the Church supported financially by the state. All schools, and not just Catholic ones, taught Christianity from the Church’s perspective, and marriage had become reserved for the Church. Little wonder many in Italy’s Church believed Mussolini to have been ‘a man of Divine Providence’, for the contrast with Liberal Italy between the 1860s and 1929 could not have been greater.

The Church had paid a price, however, and the size of the payment grew as the years of Fascist rule accumulated. The first, and arguably greatest, price was the abolition of the Catholic political party. This had been a major factor in Italian politics and its sacrifice had been deemed to have been of lesser importance than the Lateran Treaty and Concordat. Of course, one needs to be aware that not all Catholics had welcomed the bargain: Italy’s Church contained Catholics with varying views on the world, with many emphasizing the cause of economic justice set out in the Encyclical Rerum Novarum, a cause which underpinned the Catholic Party in the Italian Parliament.

Others were first and foremost social conservatives, whose main concern was with the authority of the Church and with the prestige of Italy as a nation state. Some of these have been termed ‘clerico-fascists’. To Pope Pius XI, this cleavage presented a serious challenge: he wished for a unified Church and resented the incursion of political arguments within the ranks of the Church. In the Pontiff’s view, these squabbles detracted from what truly mattered, the Church’s task of spreading the Gospel. This task had been impeded by the rise of Liberal, Nationalist Italy, and the removal of that obstacle took precedence in Pope Pius XII’s eyes.

This did not mean that he embraced Fascism in the way that some of the clerico-fascists in the Church did, far from it. The Holy Father publicly described the Fascist oath as being incompatible with Catholic teaching, and this should have been a warning for the bishops and priests in the country whose patriotism overrode their sense of Catholicism. Pope Pius XII had finely-tuned antennae that picked up the merest whiff of ideologies that attacked the essence of the Gospel. In this series we have already seen that the Pontiff clashed with Mussolini over Catholic Action, the social organization that had remained in being after the abolition of the Catholic Party.

It was a clash that would repeat itself in 1938, as the dictator tried to move closer to the ideological world across the Alps in Germany. The two Fascist regimes had already found each other in Spain, where they supported General Franco’s nationalists. In 1938, two events removed the obstacles to greater co-operation and, finally, an alliance between Berlin and Rome. The first was the removal of Austria from the political map of Europe. To date, Italy had guaranteed the survival of the Alpine republic, where the regime mirrored the preoccupations of Rome. Yet Hitler was determined to incorporate what he saw as fellow Germans into his Reich.

To Mussolini, this was incomprehensible. After all, he had, correctly, described racism and the ideals of race as “a stupid mistake”. This was six years earlier, in 1932. The arrival of German troops on the Italian border made him nervous, for across that border lay southern Tyrol, a wholly German region which Italy had acquired as part of the Versailles Treaty in 1919. A previous German attempt to install a puppet Nazi regime in Vienna had failed precisely because Mussolini had opposed it. Now, however, the tables were turned. The Duce was convinced that Germany’s army could not be stopped by his troops, indeed, was no longer convinced this was desirable.

In the aftermath of the annexation in April 1938, the Catholic Church in Austria and in Italy, as well as the Papacy, all received a serious shock. Vienna’s Cardinal Innitzer and one or two of the Austrian bishops had urged the people to vote in favor of annexation. They believed that it would remove the threat of Marxism, and they believed Hitler would maintain the privileges of the Church as secured in the 1933 Concordat. They were sorely mistaken on the last count. Hitler closed all Catholic schools and silenced Catholic opposition. The final act was an open attack on Cardinal Innitzer’s residence, after the latter had fronted a demonstration against the Nazis.

One month later, Hitler was being fêted by Mussolini and the Fascists as he visited Italy. The shockwaves that emanated throughout the Italian Church could hardly have been more severe. True, there were still some clergy for whom nationalism played a more important role than their Faith, but their numbers were dwindling fast. The oppression of the Church in Germany had already caused Pope Pius XI to ask the man who was to succeed him, Eugenio Pacelli, to write the Encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, in 1937. What had happened in Austria had served only to underline the threat that Nazism posed to the Church and her teachings. It was dawning on many just what the price-tag was for the promise of Fascism to ward off the Church’s enemies: Socialists, Marxists, Liberals and Freemasons. That price-tag was a new enemy, more ruthless than any except for the Russian Bolshevists.

Hitler’s visit to Italy in April 1938 brought that new menace very close to the heart of the Church. Indeed, the German dictator was received by the Italian king in the Quirinal, the former palace of the Popes in Rome. It was followed by a renewed Fascist crackdown on Catholic Action in Italy. Mussolini’s advisors were convinced by now that Catholic Action served as an incubator for a generation of militant Catholics, unreached by Fascist teaching. They were right, for this is exactly what the Pope had in mind when he had prevented Catholic Action from following the Catholic Party into oblivion. A secret service source reported that Catholic Action was a political party in waiting, prepared for when Fascism and monarchy were to topple. He was right. From it grew the Christian Democratic Party, which ruled Italy from 1945 to its demise in the late 1980s.  

What caused most in the Church to abandon any remaining regard for the Fascists was Mussolini’s introduction of Anti-Semitic legislation in the autumn of 1938. Italy’s 70,000 Jews were amongst the best integrated in Europe, and had contributed to Italian life in all forms, from cuisine to politics. Amongst the founders of the Fascist party there had been many Jews, and one recalls Mussolini’s remarks on the stupidity of racism. In its early days, Fascism had been markedly free of Anti-Semitism, and the party had exempted the Jews from the rules of the Concordat, to the dismay of the more Anti-Semitic wing of Italy’s Church. All that came to an end with the stroke of the pen of a man desperate to ingratiate himself with Germany’s racist dictator.

Pope Pius XI’s reaction was typical of the man: he offered teaching posts to Jewish professors dismissed from Italian universities, and provided jobs for many other Jews. It convinced Pius that he had been wrong in seeing Mussolini as the man of Divine Providence; instead, he realized that the Italian strongman had been drawn into the vortex of Germany’s neo-pagan rulers. Of course, Mussolini’s own original dislike of the Church and the clergy resurfaced around this time, too. However, there were still those in the Church, true clerico-fascists these, who could bless the Italian army as it entered France in 1940, and some who remained staunchly supportive of the regime until its fall in 1943. Few went as far as the Archbishop of Palermo, who prayed for Divine intervention against possible British and American invaders, but many let their Italian hearts rule their Catholic heads, nonetheless.

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