June 01, 2014

The pope who helped Mussolini's rise to power

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in EuropeThe Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is not about the pope and the Holocaust; that's the next pope, Pius XII.

For the unfamiliar, Pius XI is the pope who signed the concordat with Mussolini which gave Vatican City official recognition by Italy and the RC state church status in Italy. In exchange, the Pope agreed to officially support the disbanding of Italy's Catholic-oriented political party and to agree for restraints on the broad social involvement of Catholic Action, a rough equivalent to a souped-up Knights of Columbus. He also agreed to give tacit support, via Italian bishops, to most specific actions of Il Duce.

The two are bound together by coming to their respective seats of power within a matter of months of one another in 1922. They're also bound together by both of them recognizing the advantages of a deal with each other.

After an early test or two, the agreement seemed strong ... until Mussolini got cozy with Hitler. Especially when he got anti-Jewish laws passed in Italy, and quoted the RC's own past history of anti-Semitism as part of support for this, they started fraying. At least from the Pope. Most Italian bishops continued to support the Duce.

Shortly before he died, Pius XI had drafted an official statement he wanted to give to bishops at a conclave. Recognizing  he might not live, he had copies prepared for distribution. The statement apparently would have sharply questioned the Vatican's relationship with Mussolini.

But, he died that night. And, the Duce got the man who became his successor, Pius XII, then the Vatican Secy of State and chamberlain to Pius XI, to round up all copies of the statement. It was never sent.

It probably would have made little difference, though Kertzer doesn't get into alternative history. The support of Catholic bishops for the Duce, plus Pius XII's rabid anti-Communism, assuming he would have been the successor if Pius XI died a month or a year later, would have seen to that.

This is part of a series of excellent books Kertzer has written about the relationship of individual popes and the papacy to Jews in Italy. Anything he writes is worth a good read.

I also learned enough new about Mussolini to reject the idea that, at least in the first decade or so of his rule, he was just a two-dimensional crude cartoon character. And, I learned enough about Victor Emanuel III to understand why Italians killed the monarchy in a 1946 plebicite.

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