Mussolini and the Vatican

This article was originally published in AskWhy! and written by Dr. Mike Magee.

Hitler and Mussolini in June 1940. (Credit: Wikipedia / Public Domain)

The religious right like to claim Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler were atheists. Italy was and still is a predominantly Catholic country, and the Italian gangsters of the US Mafia often were publicly meretricious Christians despite their distinctly un-Christ-like behaviour otherwise. It is true that Mussolini began his career showily atheistic. In a debate with a cleric in 1903, Mussolini had boldly declared God to be dead, and as proof took out his watch and gave Him five minutes to strike him dead instead. The five minutes passed with no undue consequences for Mussolini, just terrible ones for the world, thus proving that it was God who was dead!

He was trying to make the most of the rift between Church and state that had festered since reunification. Max Gallo (Mussolini’s Italy) explains to us that Italian fascism grew up in a freshly unified country in which political parties were torn by self-interest and corruption. The reason was that they were cut off from the people, largely because the Vatican, in 1871, forbade the faithful from participating in elections. The Islamic fundamentalist leaders opposed to democracy are following a path well trodden by Christians. Both Mussolini and the Church came to see that they mutually gained by ending the division.

Mussolini knew that the Catholic population of Italy would approve more of fascism if the Church were reconciled with it, and he claimed the credit for settling the rift. In 1921, he declared fascism not anti-clerical but rather was liberal in its political outlook, being against “economic determinism”, a euphemism for socialism, and therefore planted firmly on the political right. Fascism was actually opposed to liberalism of all kinds, and soon Mussolini was citing liberal ideas as the enemy:

The Fascist conception of life stresses the importance of the State and accepts the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with the State. It is opposed to classical liberalism [which] denied the State in the name of the individual; Fascism reasserts the rights of the State as expressing the real essence of the individual.

Mussolini thought it was unnatural for a government to protect individual rights. The essence of fascism, he believed, is that government should be the master, not the servant, of the people. Of course no state has a brain, so fascism in fact is the rule of the few people, the elite, who run the state.

Religious fundamentalism is religious fascism. Fascism is political fundamentalism. Both favour the in-crowd, and promote enmity to the out-crowd. “If you are not with us, you are against us.” Mussolini tried to do it by wooing the Vatican, to win over the Catholic vote:

The imperial and Latin tradition of Rome is represented today by Capitalism… Italy should provide the Vatican with material help, give it the facilities to build schools, churches, hospitals…
Cited by Max Gallo, Mussolini’s Italy.

Catholics supported the Popular Party. So Mussolini aimed to emulate S Paul in being all things to all men, though to anyone able to think, his stance was clear. With the death of Benedict XV on 22 February, 1922, monsignor Ratti, archbishop of Milan, was elected pope on 6 February. Ratti had willingly blessed the fascist banners at Duoni three months earlier, and Mussolini greeted his election with joy. Ratti had told the writer, Luca Valti:

Mussolini is a remarkable man… The future belongs to him.

Mussolini played vigorously to the new choir! He suggested that the Chamber should pay homage to the dead pope, even though, during WWI, Mussolini had declared him a coward. In a secret meeting with the Papal Secretary of State, Pietro Gasparri, Mussolini promised the pope temporal authority in Rome. Gasparri objected that the Chamber would never vote for such a measure and it was, in any case, illegal being contrary to electoral law. Mussolini replied by promising a Chamber that would comply, and a law that permitted it! Gasparri famously concluded:

If this man came to power, one could do business with him.

The Catholic Church indeed did business with Mussolini after he came to power in 1922, Pius XI preferring to establish good terms with him because a communist revolution was more of a threat to the Church. By then, Mussolini had abandoned his revolutionary atheism.

A Catholic priest, Don Sturzo, ran the Popular Party which he hoped to mould into a mass Catholic political movement—effectively a Christian Democratic party—and he was staunchly anti-fascist. The newly biblicized Mussolini responded by denigrating him as “the anti-pope” and “the instrument of Satan”, and the Popular Party as anti-Christian. Mussolini wanted to make the fascists the mass Catholic party. After the march on Rome, in June 1923, the Popular Party split, a significant faction supporting the fascists. These people plastered the walls of Rome with posters declaring “complete harmony with fascism, which honours the religious and social values that constitute the foundation of any healthy political system”. Several leading Catholics had signed it. Don Sturzo was forced to resign.

Gallo observed that “the church and fascism embarked on an adroit strategy, each seeking to get the most from the other”. At noon 11 February 1929, Cardinal Gasparri and Mussolini signed the Lateran Accords. They:

1. restored the Pope to temporal power in the Vatican City,
2. made Catholicism the sole religion of the Italian state, guaranteeing religious instruction in schools, and restoring marriage to the authority of the Church,
3. compensated the Church for losses in the nineteenth century to the tune of 750 million lire in cash and a billion lire in state bonds.

Pius XI described Mussolini as “the man of Providence” who had “given God back to Italy, and Italy back to God”. Anti-fascists judged that the pope had “nailed down the lid on the coffin of Italian freedom”. Pro-fascists hailed “Il Duce” as “a prophet in word and deed” who had “raised the cross of Christ still higher before the world on its rightful throne”. Gallo says “the church took part every day in the life of fascism”. On official occasions, priests, including bishops, were seen raising their arms in the fascist salute.

Yet Mussolini made no bones about the subject position of the church in his scheme of things:

The church is not sovereign in the state. It is not even free… We have not resuscitated the temporal power of the popes. We have locked it up… The state is Catholic but it is fascist. It is fascist above all else, exclusively and essentially.

He also observed that although the Christian religion was born in Palestine, “it became Christian in Rome”. Pope Pius XI did object but not too loudly, for he was well pleased with the Lateran Accords.

In 1931, a Catholic lay society called Catholic Action apparently defied the Pope and challenged the fascists on youth activities. It quickly seems to have been obliged to confine itself to purely religious matters, but continued low level activity in the face of fascist militarization of the youth.

Church leaders were less principled. Fascists must always have a war to distract the attention of the masses, and Mussolini dreamed of an African empire. He attacked Ethiopia. The Catholic hierarchy approved. Bishops blessed the embarking troops and pulpits resounded to the announcement of the civilizing mission of conquest. Cardinal Schuster of Milan extolled it as comparable with the crusades! He prophesied that the invasion, “at the price of blood, is opening the gates of Ethiopia to the Catholic faith and Roman civilization”.

Another crusade was happening in Spain, when the fascist general Franco took his north African Moslem troops there to overthrow the democratically elected but left wing government. Mussolini helped him, as did Hitler, and Pius XI opined:

The first, the greatest, and now the general peril is certainly communism in all its forms and degrees.
S J Lee, The European Dictatorships, 1918-1945, 1987

Some might think the holding of goods in common practised by the apostles of Christ—and therefore by the poor Galilean himself—was communism in one of its forms or degrees, but apparently not for the Catholic Church, or for modern US Protestants either!

Pius XI was thought to have drawn the line at racism when Mussolini took up Hitler’s anti-Jewism, but he died, so no one can be sure, and Cardinal Pacelli became Pius XII.

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