The Pope Who Tried

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Monsignor Francesco Borgongini-Duca, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Francesco Pacelli, Benito Mussolini, and Dino Grandi at the signing of the Lateran Treaty between Italy and the Vatican, February 1929

During the past fifty years, most of the debate on the Catholic Church’s relationship with fascism has focused on the wartime period and the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust. Did the virtual silence of Pius XII, who became pope in early 1939, about the mistreatment and extermination of Europe’s Jews facilitate Hitler’s Final Solution, as his critics insist, or was it, as Pius’s defenders maintain, a heroic act of self-discipline that prevented Nazi reprisals against the many thousands of Catholic institutions that were secretly hiding and helping Jews? The debate, as Pius XII inches his way toward sainthood, has become somewhat sterile since it depends partly on difficult-to-prove arguments about what might have happened had he spoken out.

One of the many virtues of David Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini is that it reframes the discussion by shifting attention away from World War II and looking closely at the papacy of Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, who became pope in 1922, the year that Benito Mussolini came to power, and died in early 1939, several months before Hitler invaded Poland. Taking advantage of the gradual opening of Vatican archives, Kertzer offers us a much more detailed portrait of the inner workings of the Vatican in this period. The many revelatory incidents, documents, and scenes he adds to the story are bound to reanimate the older debate on Pius XII.

When Mussolini seized power in his so-called March on Rome in October 1922, Achille Ratti, a scholarly librarian and former archbishop of Milan, had only recently become Pope Pius XI. The Catholic Church had not been particularly supportive of fascism during its rise. Mussolini, after all, had started out his career as an outspoken atheist and anticlerical firebrand. The Church supported its own specifically Catholic party, the Partito Popolare, or Popular Party, which competed with both the Socialists and the Fascists.

To the pope’s surprise, on taking power Mussolini immediately began a concerted campaign to win the Church’s support. He used his first speech to Parliament to articulate his vision of a Fascist society that placed the Church at the center of Italian life: the Fascist Party would be the unquestioned authority in political life and the Church would be restored to its primacy over the spiritual life of the nation. Mussolini followed up his speech with a series of concrete actions: crucifixes were placed in every public school classroom, courtroom, and hospital room; insulting a priest or disparaging the Catholic religion was made a criminal offense; Catholicism became a required subject in public schools; and considerable state funds were spent on priests’ salaries, as well as Church-run schools overseas.

This represented a remarkable departure—not just for Mussolini but for…

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