By Luis Granados | 8 February 2009
This Wednesday, February 11, will mark the 80th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Treaty and related agreements, in which Benito Mussolini’s Italy recognized the Vatican as an independent state and showered it with money and other benefits. Mussolini got what he paid for.
For well over a thousand years prior to 1929, Popes exercised absolute civil authority over central Italy, a region known as the “Papal States.” Their power was based on a document called the “Donation of Constantine,” in which the 4th century Roman emperor Constantine was supposed to have granted the successors of St. Peter control over this portion of his domain. It was later conclusively proven that this document was a crude forgery, and Constantine had done no such thing. Mere historical facts were not allowed to get in the way of the Popes’ power, though.
By the mid-19th century, the Papal States had become the most backward part of Europe. This happened in part because of the refusal of Popes to permit the introduction of satanic contraptions like the railroad and telegraph, which might cause confusion among the subjects by facilitating the spread of Enlightenment ideas. Periodically the people would revolt, only to be suppressed by troops supplied by Austria or France. A series of wars that led to the unification of Italy from 1848 to 1870, though, shrunk the area of Papal control to the 109 acres occupied by Vatican City today. Referenda were held among the people of the former Papal State territories, in which they overwhelmingly approved joining the rest of Italy under a constitutional monarchy with a freely-elected parliament.
The Pope of the day, Pius IX, refused to accept this diminution of his power. He announced to the world that he regarded himself as being held prisoner in the Vatican by the Italian government, and would not budge from it until his kingdom was restored. His appeals for outside military help fell on deaf ears, though, and he never ventured outside the Vatican complex again. Neither did any of his successors – for nearly 60 years.
The Italian state had no interest in imprisoning the Pope, or in exercising any control over Catholic religious doctrine. It simply wanted to govern Italy, in accordance with the will of elected representatives. Shortly after the victory of 1870, the government enacted a “Law of Guarantees,” protecting the Pope and exempting him from all jurisdiction of Italian courts. The Law of Guarantees also forbade the government inspection of Papal departments with purely spiritual functions, while awarding the Pope himself a generous annual income. The Popes, though, refused to accept the money, because doing so might acknowledge the validity of a status they rejected; in fact, they never recognized the sovereignty of the Italian state at all. An infallible Pope, who maintains earth’s only direct line to God, could not allow himself to be subject to the will of any other mortal; unlike every other religious leader on the planet, the Pope insisted on the need to govern all aspects of his own earthly kingdom. So the standoff continued, Pope after Pope, even though the government scrupulously adhered to its policy of non-interference in spiritual affairs – “a free Church in a free state,” as the Italian statesman Cavour had put it. Even the Pope admitted when the Lateran treaty was ultimately signed that “For the last sixty years the Vatican has in fact governed without any special complications.”
In 1922, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party seized power in Italy. Not through free elections, as Hitler later did, but through the threat of a violent uprising that caused a timid government to buckle. Mussolini had never been terribly religious; in 1908 he had dismissed priests as “black microbes who are as fatal to mankind as tuberculosis germs,” and he later wrote a scurrilous novel called The Cardinal’s Mistress. In 1910 he introduced a resolution urging members of his party to “avoid religious marriage and the baptism of their children.” As recently as 1920 he railed against what he called the “rival Vaticans” of Rome and Moscow. “We are the heretics of both religions. We have torn to pieces all the revealed truths, we have spat upon all the dogmas, rejected all the paradises, scoffed at all the charlatans – red, white and black – who market miraculous drugs to give happiness to mankind.”
Nonetheless, his coup was quietly backed by the Church, which bet that Fascism’s drive for lockstep “unity” as the ultimate goal of social organization would result in the Church being united in rather than squeezed out. The Church even caused Italy’s Catholic political party to disband rather than to oppose Mussolini.
The Church guessed right. One of Mussolini’s first acts was to re-install crucifixes in classrooms and courtrooms that had been removed during Italy’s short-lived attempt to separate Church and state. In 1926, secret negotiations commenced over a series of agreements that ultimately included a “treaty” in which Italy would recognize the 109 acre Vatican City as an independent country, a concordat establishing Catholicism as Italy’s official religion and granting the Church enormous power, and a financial “settlement” in which the taxpayers of Italy forked over millions of lire, equivalent to well over $1 billion in today’s money, to soothe the Pope’s anguish over the loss of his lands. Over half the price was paid in bonds rather than in cash, to keep the Church dependent on future government willingness to honor the arrangement.
The financial settlement was the most galling aspect of the deal. The people of central Italy had revolted successfully against a monarch claiming to rule by divine right, exactly as the people of the North American colonies had revolted successfully against another monarch in 1776. Did it ever dawn on George Washington, et al. that it might be fair to pay a billion dollars to George III to compensate him for his loss? For that matter, did the Church ever contemplate reimbursing the government of Italy for having appropriated the Papal States in the first place based on a forged document? Mussolini knew that Italian taxpayers were simply bribing the Church to support his Fascist unity; only by eliminating all dissent at home could he move forward with his dream to re-create a Roman empire.
As it turned out, the sovereign independence of Vatican City has been of interest to more than just stamp collectors. Under the leadership of one Bernardino Nogara, the Vatican Bank that was capitalized with the proceeds of Mussolini’s payments became one of the major forces in Italian finance, owning several banks, munitions factories, and even Italy’s largest manufacturer of contraceptive devices that were officially banned by the Church. Cardinal Spellman exaggerated only slightly when he claimed that “Next to Jesus Christ, the greatest thing that has happened to the Catholic Church is Bernardino Nogara.” It didn’t take long to figure out that a Bank located on “sovereign” Vatican soil was regulated by no one other than the Pope, and could thus engage with impunity in activities that would be illegal anywhere else: evasion of currency expatriation laws, laundering of drug money, and by the 1970s securities frauds that would have made Enron executives blush. Whenever an American or Italian prosecutor would follow a money trail that led to the Bank, the investigation would have to stop, because no one other than the Pope had the right to inspect the Bank’s records. Some prosecutors who seemed to be closing in on the truth were gunned down on the streets. David Yallop’s book In God’s Name describes the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Pope John Paul I after only 33 days on the job, which Yallop portrays as a murder to prevent the Pope from making changes at the Bank. No prosecutor has ever been able to investigate that incident, either, because it occurred on Vatican soil. Had Italian law applied, there would at least have been an autopsy.
Mussolini, of course, foresaw none of this. What he saw was that if he was going to create a totalitarian state to replace liberal pluralism, he either had to crush the Church or to co-opt it. Co-opting it was easier.
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When the Lateran Treaty was signed 80 years ago, the Archbishop of Quebec claimed that “This historic event, prepared by the providential meeting of a great minister with a great Pope, can only augment the prestige of the Papacy and favor the expansion of Catholicism.” The Pope announced that “We have given back God to Italy, and Italy to God.” According to a shrewd German observer named Adolf Hitler, “The fact that the Curia is now making its peace with Fascism shows that the Vatican trusts the new political realities far more than it did the former liberal democracy, with which it could not come to terms.” The French press gloomily agreed with Hitler’s assessment, warning that the agreements represented “the alliance of the two Romes against the France of 1789.”
The treaties put Catholic indoctrination back into the public schools, recognizing the right of the Catholic bishops to remove any government-paid teacher of religion at will. Suspended priests were banned from all employment that would put them in contact with the public. Priests were exempted not only from military service and taxes, but even from jury duty; priests who committed crimes could be punished only by the Church, not by the state.
Mussolini also used tax money to pay for the salaries of the clergy and the repair of church buildings. When you pay for something, of course, you own it; the treaty made it clear that the Church could not appoint a bishop without advance approval of the Italian government. This power was critical in Mussolini’s eyes. “In the Italian State,” he bragged, “the Church is not sovereign, it is not even free.”
The only serious dispute after the signing of the Treaty involved Catholic Action, the network of labor and youth organizations maintained by the Church in its effort to permeate every sphere of human activity with Catholic thinking. Mussolini, though wanted Italians to think like Fascists, not like Catholics, and sicced his goons onto Catholic Action offices, meetings, and processions. After resisting for a time, the Church finally knuckled under; Catholic Action agreed to stop pursuing trade union or other political ends and limit itself strictly to religious devotions, while removing opponents of Fascism from its leadership positions.
The Church was amply rewarded for its docility. The Freemasons, the principal organization advocating separation of Church and State, was formally abolished and over a hundred Masonic officials were informally assassinated. Protestantism had never been prominent in Italy, but the 135,000 Protestants who spoiled Italy’s absolute religious unity were monitored, harassed, and systematically prevented from proselytizing. The American Catholic Monsignor Ryan cited these policies as a shining example of “Truth having rights, and error none.” Or as the Pope put it in 1932, “In this conflict, there is really question of the fundamental problem of the universe and of the most important decision proposed to man’s free will. For God or against God: this once more is the alternative that shall decide the destinies of all mankind in politics, in finance, in morals, in the sciences and arts, in the State, in civil and domestic society.”
Dictatorship only works when the public reveres the dictator. In Italy and around the world, the Catholic Church did everything it could to promote that reverence. The Pope called Mussolini “the man sent by Providence,” and the Cardinal of Milan referred to him as “the new Constantine.” The Bishop of Cleveland called him the “Man of Destiny,” and Cardinal O’Connell of Boston, who received a high Fascist decoration, exalted him as “a genius in the field of government, given to Italy by God.” Catholic newspapers filled their pages with official propaganda against democracy and praise for the Italian warlike spirit, reminding the faithful that Jesus himself had said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Fascism permeated Italian religious life down to the smallest detail: the protocol of Catholic processions was modified to match that of Fascist parades, Catholic publications displayed the year of the regime alongside that of the Christian era, and virtually every bishop’s pronouncement and sermon recited obsequious praise for the Duce, not just as a head of government but as a pioneer of civilization’s renewal.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the Church’s social teaching flattered Mussolini as well. A 1931 encyclical on “Reconstructing the Social Order” advocated an authoritarian, corporate state as a solution for the world’s economic ills. Advancing an economic program strikingly similar to Fascism, it denounced socialism explicitly, and called for an authoritarian labor movement to combat the left. Singling out Mussolini’s corporative organizations that prohibited all strikes and lockouts, the Pope said: “Little reflection is required to perceive the advantage of the institution thus summarily described; peaceful collaboration of the classes, repression of Socialist organizations and efforts, the moderating influence of a special ministry.”
The reason why Mussolini was so insistent on totalitarian unity at home was to strengthen Italy’s hand abroad. The Church cooperated as eagerly as it knew how. Prior to the Lateran Treaty, the Church had made nice to Soviet Russia, apparently hoping that the demise of the Russian Orthodox Church would create a vacuum it could fill. It sent missionaries to aid in Russian famine relief, and even spoke highly of the “Living Church” movement invented by the Bolsheviks in 1922 to provide a pro-government alternative to the Orthodox Church. The Church’s Soviet initiative may or may not have been naïve; in any case, after aligning with Mussolini, the Vatican’s rhetoric became passionately anti-Bolshevik.
Mussolini sought to break up Yugoslavia by sponsoring Croatian terrorists, who assassinated the Yugoslav king and who launched a Bay of Pigs style invasion from Italian soil. The Church fanned the flames with a stream of invective against the Yugoslav government for its alleged oppression of Croat Catholics. Catholic youth were even forbidden from participating in the Yugoslav national youth organization, because it lacked sufficient religious content.
Mussolini also sought to extend Italian influence over predominantly Muslim Albania by establishing Italian-controlled technical schools and other cultural institutions there. When Albania’s king responded by closing the technical schools and Catholic schools as well, Mussolini erupted. The king backed down and offered a compromise in which the technical schools would be reopened and the Italian language would be made compulsory in all secondary schools. Not good enough, replied Mussolini; the Catholic schools had to be reopened as well. The standoff continued until Mussolini invaded and conquered Albania in 1939, paving the way for the reopening of the Catholic schools.
Mussolini’s most famous foreign adventure, though, was his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The Church could barely contain its enthusiasm; the Cardinal of Milan crowed that “On the plains of Ethiopia, the Italian Standard carries forward in triumph the Cross of Christ, … and opens the way for the missionaries of the Gospel.” The Bishop of Cremona chimed in: “The blessing of God be upon these soldiers who, on African soil, will conquer new and fertile lands for the Italian genius, thereby bringing to them Roman and Christian culture. May Italy stand once again as the Christian mentor to the whole world.” The Archbishop of Torano exclaimed that “The war against Ethiopia should be considered as a holy war, a crusade” that would “open Ethiopia, a country of infidels and schismatics, to the expansion of the Catholic Faith.” On a specially-proclaimed “Day of Faith” priests turned over their offertory collections to support the war.
Catholic political parties around the world vigorously supported Mussolini’s crusade, and opposed the League of Nations sanctions against it. Church support never wavered when the army started using poison gas after encountering unexpectedly strong Ethiopian opposition, nor when it executed 30,000 prisoners after a failed attempt to assassinate the military governor. The war ultimately took over three quarters of a million Ethiopian lives. Neither did the Church have any official comment when Mussolini adopted his “Manifesto of Race” in 1938, banning both Jews and Africans from the professions and subjecting their property to confiscation.
After Italy attacked France in 1940, Italian bishops enthusiastically wired Mussolini their pious hope that he would “crown the unfailing victory of our arms by planting the Italian flag over the Holy Sepulcher.” In November, 1941, Italy conferred the title of “prince” on the Pope’s nephews.
A best-selling 1994 book by John Cornwell characterized Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” and made a case for Vatican complicity in the Jewish Holocaust. Cornwell’s argument is weak, and undermines the legitimate case that can be made against the Church’s promotion of Fascism. Hitler and Pius XII actually detested one another, and despite his anti-Semitism Pius in fact acted to save the lives of thousands of Jews in Rome. Whether a vocal opposition to the Holocaust would have done more good than harm is debatable and unprovable. What is not nearly as debatable is that Mussolini bought the Roman Catholic Church outright, which responded with grateful cooperation in all his despicable schemes.
Luis Granados is the director of Humanist Press, the publishing house of the American Humanist Association, and the author of Damned Good Company: Twenty Rebels Who Bucked the God Experts. He writes the Rules Are for Schmucks column for TheHumanist.com.
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