I'm pleased to share with readers the following review of David I. Kertzer's book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (NY: Penguin, 2014) by Father Emmett Coyne. Emmett is a retired priest of the diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire. His review of Kertzer's book follows:
While a seminarian, from time to time, someone would remark to me that the church is "political." In my naiveté, I instinctively defended the church as being purely spiritual. In retrospect, the persons making the comment weren't academics but ordinary people, mainly Roman Catholic. How did they come to that perception? I was the slower learner.
Any lingering doubter who doesn’t believe the church is political might have an epiphany in reading David Kertzer's new book, The Pope and Mussolini. He documents how political the church is in revealing behind the scenes political intrigue that consumed clerics and the curia of the papal household of Pius XI in dealings with Mussolini.
Kertzer, a Brown University professor of Italian Studies, has authored numerous books on Italian history, culture and the Roman Church, bringing a formidable background to investigate this specific period. He took advantage of the 2006 opening of the Vatican archives of the reign of Pope Pius XI, expending seven years of research and writing of the political drama from which emerged: the creation of a political identity for the Roman Church, the State of Vatican City, and solidifying Fascism as the sole political party in Italy. The 1929 Lateran Treaty would not have succeeded without the collaboration of odd bedfellows, whose reigns coincided, Pius XI (1922-39) and Mussolini (1922-43). Mussolini joked that they shared the same bedroom but separate beds. Both had irascible personalities and would pound desks to emphasize their point. Both shared discomfort around priests, oddly, at least for Pius XI!
Kertzer contends Pius XI’s Vatican was key in enabling the Fascist regime to be embraced by loyal Catholics, and provided continuing support. Catholic Action (Pius's pet organization) ultimately collaborated with Fascists, enabling repressive police policies. Critically, the church provided underpinning for the imposition of harsh measures against the small community of Italian Jews.The Vatican made a secret deal with Mussolini to mute opposition to anti-Semitic "racial laws" in exchange for preferential treatment for Catholic Action.
Kertzer notes, "This fact is largely unknown in Italy and despite all the evidence presented in this book, I have no doubt many will deny it." In his 549-page book, he provides 1169 footnotes, and an extensive bibliography to support his research of this period, which is now under wider scrutiny. Papal support for Mussolini would be cemented when "The Roman Question" (the political dispute between the Italian Government and the Papacy from 1861 to 1929) was resolved. The Lateran Treaty was initiated by Mussolini, affirmed by Pius XI, signed by King Victor Emmanuel III, who functioned in a ceremonial role, providing window dressing for Mussolini and the Fascists.
The Lateran Treaty would have failed under a parliamentary form of government which existed prior to Fascism. Each (Pius and Mussolini) saw himself heading a "totalitarian" organization, a term they both embraced. Theirs was to rule from the top down. The Roman Church since the French Revolution resisted democratic governing impulses. II Duce’s Fascist government rubber stamped his dictates.
The author recreates the behind-the-scenes activity of Pius's Vatican and Italy's Mussolini. Here we witness the political maneuvering of both. Secret emissaries carried messages between the two totalitarian leaders who eventually concurred on the final accords. Pius XI dubbed "II Duce" – "the one sent by Providence."
The first accord bestowed defined the Roman Catholic Church as the only religion of the state. Subsequently, Pius XI enforced this by making it difficult for the small minority of Protestants. Pius perceived Protestantism as threatening as Communism.
Mussolini's "miracle," the Lateran Treaty, resurrected the dead political body of the papal states by creating the State of Vatican City. As a result, the Roman Church achieved what no other world religion can boast – a political entity enabling it to have status in the United Nations, receiving and sending ambassadors and participating with UN Committees, seen recently with the Committee of the Rights of the Child. With membership comes responsibilities The author doesn't question this split personality – claiming to be a spiritual organization and operating as a political one as a member of the Roman Church.
Since Constantine, the gradual evolution of the Papal States emerged, providing the Roman Church with a political façade, acting as a political entity, making partisan alliances, etc. With the unification of Italy the Papal States were no more. Mussolini's Treaty gave the Vatican a second political wind in recognizing the State of Vatican City. In time, the United Nations allowed it a non-member state permanent observer status, allowing it to participate and speak but not vote in General Assembly meetings, now recognized, nonetheless, as a "de facto” political entity, for a price as a moral authority. Less pre-occupied with politics it wouldn't have made deals with devils of the likes of Mussolini and Hitler.
The Treaty underscored the political maneuvering between Pius XI and Mussolini. They would remain restless bedfellows. Each did not want to be perceived as a patsy for the other, seeking rather to dominate the other. Since Constantine, the Roman Church has been involved in the same political jousting match. Who was to dominate, pope or king?
Few clerics emerge as independent of the pope and his positions as Fascists party members were reluctant to buck "II Duce." Totalitarian systems breed sycophants. A rare dissenter was Luigi Sturzo, a priest and a founder of the Popular Party, the only strong resistance in the rise of Fascism. Sturzo was problematic for Pius and Mussolini. Pius exiled him. Later, in Germany, the Center Party, largely Catholic, was a thorn in the side of the Nazis. Through the efforts mainly of Cardinal Pacelli, Pius's secretary of state, its influence too was largely eliminated, removing the last serious obstacle for the Nazi ascendancy.
The author devotes significant examination of the Fascist racial laws and particularly how they impacted the Jewish community in Italy. In this context, he portrays an anguished Pius XI wrestling with this issue. Pius sought to distinguish between Italian and Nazi racism, finding the former more digestible. To his end, Pius resisted Nazism.
Pius's sensitivity to the issue is evident in his awareness of the book, Interracial Injustice, by the American Jesuit, John LaFarge. Pius summoned him and "left him with a shocking mission. He was to secretly draft an encyclical on what the pope considered to be the most burning questions of the day: racism and anti-Semitism." Alas, it was never to see the light of day due to the delaying tactics of Vatican officials, notably Pacelli. It was to be found on Pius's desk when he died. Pacelli would become Pius XII, whom many Fascists and Nazis saw, to their delight, as "fresh air," and a pope who equated Communism with democracy.
The long range effect of the Lateran Treaty and its subsequent adoption in democratic Italy's Constitution solidified the Roman Church's role as a political actor, at expense to its role as a moral agent. One example is how the Church failed in the clerical sexual abuse scandal, roiling without resolution. The Vatican muddies the water in using its position as a political entity as a foil in avoiding responsibility for the abuse of its most vulnerable members, children. "And one of the revelations from Wikileaks reveals was that when the Murphy team approached the Vatican for information to help with its investigation it didn’t receive a response-church authorities said that as it was a sovereign state it would only communicate with other governments."
The legacy of Pius XI in exchanging papal influence over Catholic voters for special treatment of the church continues. The coming elections for control of the US Senate, and hence, its impact on the Supreme Court, are crucial for the hierarchy to have its agenda implemented. One can well imagine the behind-the-scenes papal maneuvering going on and which party has the ear of the pope. In its present incarnation, the Roman Church is more of Caesar than Christ. The question today is not whether the Roman Church is political but is it spiritual?