David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (New York: Random House, 2014), 549 pages including index, detailed source notes, references and photos.
The Catholic Church was fearful of what was happening in Europe after the first Great War. It had lost its protective status in Italy and an anticlerical movement was rising. Priest were regularly beaten, killed, or forced to drink Castrol Oil by anticlerics (which could be either fascists or communists). There was a great fear of what had happened in Russia and of Bolshevism spreading to other countries in Europe. In Italy, there were fears of Protestants strengthening their position as well as a deep-rooted anti-Semitic feelings toward the Jews. This was the church Cardinal Achille Ratti, a mountain climbing priest from Northern Italy, inherited when he was elected pope in 1922.
A few years later, the fascists under their strong man, Benito Mussolini achieved power in Italy. Mussolini set out to suppress all political parties including the “Popular Party” which had close ties to the Catholic Church. In an attempt to protect the church, the pope through diplomatic channels began negotiations with Mussolini. The Fascist party would call off the attacks on the church and make the church the only official religion in Italy. The church, which was afraid of Communism as well as Democratic movements, would inherit a world ordered in a way it felt would best suit its purposes. In 1929, the Fascist state and the Church signed the Lateran Accords, which would become known as a deal with the devil.
This is a fascinating but highly complex book. At the beginning of the book, before the Prologue, are ten pages listing key players and organizations in the story (I recommend skipping over this and moving to the Prologue and referring back to the list when you get confused). The Prologue takes us to Pius XI death bed, early in 1939, where the dying pope is working on a paper to be delivered to the church leaders. Kertzer lets the reader believe that the Pope, seeing what had happened due to his support of Mussolini, was going to renounce the Lateran Accords and fascism in both the Italian and German forms. But Pius XI dies a week before the conclave and the papers are quickly collected and destroyed by the man who will become Pius XII, whose critics named “Hitler’s Pope.”
This book should be a warning to all religious leaders who look to the government to buffer their position in society. Such agreements might offer short-term benefits but as we see, can also be a “deal with the devil.” By early 1939, even before the beginning of the World War II, Pius XI was feeling that Hitler was going too far with his dealings with the Jews and was concerned that Mussolini (who’d had a Jewish mistress) was following Hitler’s lead. By this point, the church had compromised its position so that it no longer had any moral ground upon which to stand. What would have happened if Pius XI had denounced fascism is left to speculation.
There was a lot of interesting tidbits provided in this massive work. There was some brief discussion of excommunicating Hitler, but the only real possibility came when he served as a witness at a Protestant wedding. Also, the church seemed to be concerned about the Jewish leaders in Communist movements even after Stalin began purging such leaders within the Soviet Union. There was also rumors of pedophile priests in Italy (even in the Vatican) and Germany. In Italy, Kertzer makes the case that it there were such priests and such knowledge was able to be used by those outside the church to control the Vatican. Kertzer doesn’t comment on how valid the German accusations were, but there were a number of priests and nuns brought to trial by the Third Reich.
This is an interesting book and I would recommend it for anyone interested in the events leading up to the Second World War. It is also a book that raises the dangers of when the church enters the political fray in order to secure its position in society. I’m thinking of sending my copy to Franklin Graham or another such church leaders who seem to look at our president-elect as a second savior.