[CAVEAT: As I reread this piece, it struck me that people might interpret it as anti-Catholic. It’s certainly negative as far as Vatican City and its corrupt operations during the time period involved is concerned, which is true to the book under review. However, like most American Catholics, I see a huge gulf between my Catholic parish life and what happens in Rome, so I didn’t intend it as a screed against the church as a whole.]
Kertzer struck a bonanza when the Vatican released decades of documents in 2006. He doesn’t explain why they did so, but we all benefit. Can’t wait for the next release because many questions remain.
He begins this story of The Pope and Mussolini immediately after the Great War. 19th century European nationalism left the Roman Catholic church feeling bruised, battered, and wronged. By 1870, The Italian army had appropriated huge swaths of what the church had considered its territory in the name of the new Italian nation. The Holy See was now confined to a 100 acres in the center of Rome, an island in the midst of an Italian nation they refused to recognize. In fact, they didn’t officially do so until 1929. Anti-clerical sentiment had banished religion from the public schools and, to the church’s mind, put the clergy on the fringes rather than in the center of public life. Then, post WWI turmoil flummoxed the fledgling nation. The economy was a mess. Returning soldiers had no jobs. Many of the same conditions that made Hitler possible in Germany made Mussolini possible in Italy.
Big difference, though. At least in the beginning, according to Kertzer. Mussolini had no real political philosophy or program. He’d been a socialist (almost a communist) for a while, but sensed that they didn’t have the power point at their command, so he switched from left to right. He figured out that since the church feared socialism/communism above all things this side of the Devil–except maybe Jews and Protestants, of which there were few in Italy–he’d acquire huge leverage if he could position himself as the man who stood between socialism and the true religion.
With the help of his black-shirt thugs, he engineered an election or two and ended up as Il Duce (Leader) in 1922. Crosses and pictures of the Pope went back into the classrooms. Was the church worried about his totalitarian tendencies? Nope. They never trusted democracy anyhow. It seemed to lead to separation of church and state, which seemed to the autocratic Pius XI and his cohort a violation of Christian principles. Top down was good enough for the church, so it should be good enough for Italy. And the rest of the world for that matter.
Given that Vatican mind-set, it was relatively easy for Mussolini to buy off the church and lead it around by its mitre for quite a while. He lavished funds on individuals, helped repair churches and cathedrals damaged by the war, and allowed all sorts of religious education to proceed. His thugs often attacked religious youth groups and newspapers if they contradicted his policies, but he claimed the deeds were done by rogues he was trying to stamp out. He’d make a few arrests, but never imprisoned anyone. His network of secret police became a key area of cooperation. The Vatican had spies, too. Had had for a long time. Now they could work together to ferret out common enemies. Sweet.
All of this went along fairly well for nearly twenty years. Things started getting rocky with the rise of Hitler. It wasn’t so much the Jewish question. Mussolini had nothing, really, against the Jews. He had a Jewish mistress and no history of persecuting them. The church claimed it had nothing against them either. Yeah, they’d killed Christ and were out for world domination, but if they’d convert they’d be welcome. Pius XI and the rest continued to claim they weren’t anti-semites, just against the Jews as they existed. (If that sounds familiar, maybe you’ve heard the arguments about how the church is not anti-gay. We love them. If they’d just stop being gay. . .) However, he saw it necessary to ally with Hitler, which meant embracing at least part of his racist philosophy. And, indeed, there were those in high Vatican positions who were virulently and unapologetically anti-semitic, Pius XI was getting fed up when he died and was about to say so. He even wrote it all down, but died before he could publish it and Pius XII suppressed it.
That summarizes how all this got started. I was familiar with how it ended for Il Duce, but not for the Pope(s) involved. It’s a shameful story of appeasement that makes Neville Chamberlain look like a war monger. According to Kertzer, there is a movement to canonize Pius XII, and given the nature of those isolated old white men who are able to rationalize and twist anything to their point of view, as well as to the odd and freaky nature of canonization itself, it could happen. Watch.