The Vatican and Fascism
Remembering the 1929 Lateran Accords
The Vatican has always been a political organisation, despite its religious exterior. Its attempts to make and break empires are legion and well known. However in order to operate effectively in the modern world, it hides its political activities under the cloak of religion and social justice where possible.
History consistently shows that whenever the Vatican’s political intrigues are exposed unfavourably, its agents are on hand to put whatever spin is required to limit the damage to its reputation. This is what has taken place and continues to happen regarding its involvement with the Fascist and Nazi regimes in the first half of 20th century.
This is the first of a series of articles that review political activities of the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church in modern times which will be published on this site progressively.
The 1929 Lateran Accords are the focus of this first article. They are a significant milestone in the Vatican’s entanglement with Fascist and Nazi regimes up to the end of World War 2. An article about the Vatican’s wider relationship with these regimes will be posted on this site as part of the upcoming series.
The 80th anniversary year of the signing of the 1929 Lateran Accords by the Vatican and the Italian Fascist Government provides an opportune time to examine this significant event in church and secular history.
The Lateran Accords comprised three agreements, a Treaty, a Concordat and a Financial Convention. The agreements established the Vatican City as a sovereign State, made Roman Catholicism the sole religion of the Italian State, regulated the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy, and stipulated the payments Italy would make to the Vatican to compensate it for the loss of its kingdom in 1860-70.
The three documents were signed in the papal Lateran Palace on the Feast of our Lady of Lourdes, 11 February 1929, and ratifications of the Treaty exchanged on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, 7 June.1 The more significant of the Articles in the Accords documents are reproduced in the Appendix, and tell their own story.
The Lateran Accords was an explicitly political event, despite its depiction by the Catholic Church as an act of God. Not only did the Accords restore to the Vatican a sovereign territory, it was one of the events that shaped the path to World War 2.
The unification of Italy in 1870 had swallowed the Papal States of central Italy and left the Vatican without the power base from which it had operated for over a thousand years. Sullenly, the pope retreated to inside the Vatican where for the next 59 years he and his successors remained, styling themselves “prisoner of the Vatican” and refusing to deal with any government of the new unified Italy for the next half century.
It was not until 1929 that the Vatican found an Italian government compatible to its policies and demands with which it could cut a deal. It was Mussolini who headed such a government. Under the deal (i.e. the Lateran Accords) the Fascist Government ceded territory for a sovereign papal State to be known as The Vatican City. For its part, the Vatican promised the Fascist Government loyalty and political docility from the Church in Italy.2
This new arrangement suited the papacy. The small size of the State relieved it of the “inconvenience and dangers” of civil administration, while at the same time it provided all the advantages that a sovereign State can exercise in the world of power politics and diplomacy. Or as the pope remarked on the day the Accords were signed, “a territorial sovereignty is a condition universally recognized as indispensable to any true sovereign jurisdiction.”3
The new arrangements also suited Mussolini. Not only was the papacy seen to be on side, no small matter in Catholic Italy, his regime gained enormous prestige by showing the world that a Fascist government could work cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican-Fascism cooperation would soon bear fruit for both sides. The Roman Catholic Church in Italy gave ardent support to Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia. Mussolini provided support to the Catholic side in Spain’s civil war.
The Lateran Accords brought about a stunning reversal of the Vatican’s fortunes, so much so that the pope was moved to describe Mussolini as a man sent by Providence. Just how stunning this change of fortunes was for the Vatican becomes evident when we compare its new situation to the deterioration of its power over a long period preceding 1929.
For more than a century before the Lateran Accords the popes suffered setbacks and humiliations resulting in the loss of the Papal States and erosion of their authority.
The following extracts from two Catholic publications are informative on this period. Between them they cover some of the woes suffered by popes from 1782 to 1929.
Pope Pius VI, one of the longest reigning popes, also travelled, but under tragic circumstances. Seeking to persuade Austrian Emperor Joseph II to cease his anti-clerical and anti-papal programs, he went to Vienna in 1782, where he was met with unfailing courtesy while his pleas to the emperor were totally ignored. In the wake of the French Revolution, a “Roman Republic” was proclaimed in 1798 and Pius VI was taken prisoner and incarcerated first in Siena, then in Certosa. The French kidnapped him and he was held in the city of Valence. On Aug. 29, 1799, six weeks after his arrival, he died. The French buried the pope under a headstone on which was the inscription: “Citizen Braschi, former occupation – pontiff.”
His successor, Pope Pius VII, was elected at a conclave held in Venice, due to the pressure of the revolutionaries in France and Italy. Since Napoleon had stolen all of the papal regalia, he was crowned with a tiara made of papiermâché. Desiring to legitimate his regime, Napoleon brought Pius VII to Paris in 1804 to assist at his coronation as Emperor of the French. He did not really need the pope, as Napoleon crowned himself. In 1809, when Pius VII refused to cede the Papal States to the French Empire, the emperor brought the pope to Paris where he imprisoned him for five years. The prison itself was rather decent – the Palace of Fontainebleau.
The Italian Risorgimento brought about the end of the Papal States. On Sept. 20, 1870, the armies of King Victor Emmanuel II invaded Rome and Pope Pius IX declared himself the “Prisoner of the Vatican.”
Papal Travellers Follow Trail Blazed by St. Peter by Msgr. Robert Wister, Special to The Catholic Advocate 04/09/08, a Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark publication.
In light of the present worldwide prestige of the papacy, it comes as a shock to realize that less than a century and a quarter ago an anticlerical mob tried to interrupt Pope Pius IX’s funeral procession, determined to throw the pope’s corpse into the Tiber. And it seems like ancient history to recall that Pius IX and the four popes who followed him, from 1870 to 1929, all styled themselves “prisoner of the Vatican” and refused to leave its confines in protest against the new Italian state that had taken from them the Papal States and the city of Rome. All of them, Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI (until he signed the Lateran treaties) denounced in decreasingly hostile terms the new Italian state. They endorsed Pius IX’s argument that the anticlerical state had stolen what he called the Patrimony of St. Peter, and they hoped that their denunciations, their disapprovals and their forbidding of Catholics to participate in national elections (up to 1919) would bring the Italian state down.
But in fact, as David Kertzer demonstrates in this lively narrative, the popes had no material force at hand and could rely only on their spiritual suasion of Catholics, both in Italy and abroad, to achieve their aim of restoring the papal territories to their control. One way of doing this was to apply diplomatic pressure on foreign powers, to play the game of diplomacy, pitting one state against another, hoping to use the allegiance of the Catholics in those states (France, Germany and Austria) and their fear of one another in the increasingly dangerous world of alliances and imperialistic ventures that eventually erupted into World War I.
The pontificate of Pius IX is well known. Hailed as the liberal pope at his accession in 1846, he turned intransigent after the 1848 revolution in Rome forced him into exile, and he returned to Rome with a decades-long condemnation of what he termed the modern world. He lost the Papal States to the forces of Italian unification but was protected in Rome by the troops of French Emperor Napoleon III until those troops had to be pulled out to defend France against the Prussians in 1870, just after the First Vatican Council had proclaimed papal infallibility. Pius hoped that the European Catholics would pressure their governments to restore Rome to him. Roman anticlericals, free now from papal control, agitated against the Pope. Just as eagerly, papal supporters rallied to his defense, intensifying the continuing clerical/anticlerical conflict.
America: The National Catholic Weekly, November 8, 2004
Extract from the review of David Kertzer’s book Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes’ Secret Plot to Capture Rome from the New Italian State
In one act Mussolini transformed the pope from “prisoner of the Vatican” to Head of a new State, and made Roman Catholicism the sole religion of the Italian State. In response the Vatican and its supporters were almost ecstatic in their praise of Mussolini and the Fascist State.
Mussolini gave the Vatican virtually everything it wanted.4 In return Mussolini had the Roman Catholic Church onside.
The ardour with which the Vatican and Fascism came together in 1929 is clearly evident from what was said at the time by supporters of both sides.
In 1929 the Reverend Benedict Williamson published The Treaty of the Lateran with a foreword by Cardinal Francis Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster and Catholic Primate of England. Williamson, like the Vatican, was exuberant about the outcome of negotiations with Mussolini, and his contemporaneous account reflects the fervency with which the Vatican and Fascism embraced.
The following extracts giving the views expressed in 1929 by Reverend Williamson, Francesco Pacelli, Pope Pius XI and Mussolini, are all from Williamson’s book.
• Fascism also brought a new vision in the religious world. Rejecting utterly the Demo-Liberal idea that religion was a matter of little importance, Fascism boldly declared, through the mouth of its leader, that “no nation could become truly great or realize its destiny unless it made religion the essential element of its daily life both in public and in private.” One of the very first acts of the Fascist revolution was the restoration of religious instruction in the elementary schools. The crucifix, banished by the Socialists, was restored to its place of honour… every public building, every public work was initiated with a religious ceremony, the very standards of the Fascists were all solemnly blessed before being used.5
• But a new spirit was animating the whole country, year by year the Fascist revolution gained in strength and power, and the people recognized in each new reform as it was actuated the response to their own unspoken desires. The love of God and the love of country are the two dominating characteristics of Fascism, expressed very well in a popular formula, God, King, Fatherland and Family.6
• The journey of the Papal Legate, Cardinal Gasparri, on the first official mission since the signing of the Treaty, was a triumph, in which Government and people vied with each other in doing honour to the representative of the Holy Father.
At each station where the train made a stop the whole population of the surrounding country were assembled to greet him. Piccole Italiane, Balilla, Milizia, Nazionale, Fascisti, religious confraternities and associations, with bands and banners, greeted the Legate with tumultuous enthusiasm …
Not less significant was the restoration of the ancient practice of presenting a chalice in the church of S. Maria Sopra Minerva in honour of S. Catherine of Siena on her feast day, by the Giovani and Piccole Italiane (The two great Fascist organizations for girls: Giovani Italiani, 14 to 18 years of age; Piccole Italiane, 8 to 14 years of age.) of Rome. The great church was thronged with many thousands of girls in their black and white uniforms, who had come from every quarter of the city.
Just before the Mass began a group of young girls presented the chalice to the officiating priest, who congratulated them on the revival of this ancient custom in honour of their great saint which until 1870 had been the gift of the Senate, renewed that day not by the Senate but by the Giovani and Piccole Italiane who are the hope of their country. After the Mass was over the whole of the ten thousand children filed past the shrine of the saint, saluting her and throwing flowers.
On the Friday after Ascension Day the debate on the Treaty began in the House of Deputies, and a very able speech by Sig. Cantalupo in which he vigorously defended the condemnation of Modernism by Pius X, which he described as ecclesiastical Bolshevism, was received by the house with very great enthusiasm.7
• On Palm Sunday (March 24, 1929) the Plebiscite for the election of the four hundred deputies for the new house took place, and gave the Government an overwhelming majority, 8,519,559 voting for, and only 135,761 against, which conclusively demonstrated that the popular manifestations of enthusiasm over the solution of the Roman Question did truly represent the practically unanimous voice of the country …
For the first time the clergy took part in the election on a large scale, and even cardinals went to the urn to record their votes.8
• As for Mussolini, I have the greatest admiration for him, and above all what has impressed me most about him is his faculty of intuition and synthesis; when the most difficult problems were put before him, he has immediately solved them. And then again, his convincing and moving simplicity which never permitted his interlocutor to feel humiliated by the superiority of the genius before him.9
• I regarded with admiration this man who stood before me, and for whom neither day nor night brought any repose, but only continuous passionate work in the service of the nation.10
• A few days after the signing of the Treaty the Holy Father took the occasion of the presence of the professorial staff and a large representation of the students of the Catholic University of Milan to make a very full statement on the event …
“In all this We have been nobly seconded by the other side. Maybe We had need of a man such as Providence has given Us to meet, a man who has not the preoccupations of the Liberal school for whom all these laws, all these ordinances, or rather disordinances, were fetishes, and indeed properly fetishes, because the more ludicrous and deformed they appeared, the more venerable and untouchable they believed them to be.
By the grace of God with much patience and much labour, nobly seconded by the other side, We have been enabled to escape per medium profundum, and to conclude a concordat which, if not the best of which We can possibly conceive, is yet amongst the very best. And thus with profound thankfulness We believe that through this We have given back God to Italy and Italy to God.
You must realize how great, how grave, how solemn and how full of formidable responsibility were the problems of the political and international situation of the Pontifical Sovereignty. But in the Concordat are things not less grand and not less worthy of all Our efforts … it is easy for you to understand how fervently We ought to give thanks to God.”11
• We have recognized the pre-eminent place the Catholic Church holds in the religious life of the Italian people, which is perfectly natural in a Catholic people such as ours, and under a regime such as is the Fascist.”12
• The fact that it has needed the Fascist Regime to solve a question which has hitherto been considered insoluble, and has been attacked in vain by all Italian Governments since 1860, is a proof of the probity and solidity of that Regime.13
• I have seen the religious spirit blossom again. The churches are once more crowded, the ministers of God surrounded with a new respect. Fascism has done and is doing its duty.14
The above quotations are representative of those expressed at the time by supporters of the two sides. In 1929 at least, it seemed the Vatican and Fascism had nothing but admiration for each other.
After World War 2, the Vatican tried to distance itself from its links with the Fascists and Nazis. Whenever possible it has dissembled the true nature and extent of its dealings with these regimes.
In this regard apologists are adept at suggesting the Vatican never supported these regimes and its laudable words about them are misunderstood, or it acted as it did to avert a greater evil, or it acted altruistically if at times naively, and so on.
The truthfulness of these claims can be examined in the light of Church-State relations in Italy in the 1920’s.
From 1870 until the 1920’s, the Vatican refused to deal with any government of the new Italy. Only after the Fascists came to power did this change. One has to ask what was different about Fascism. Pope Pius XI saw Mussolini in providential terms, “maybe We had need of a man such as Providence has given Us to meet,” and praised him as being “a man who has not the preoccupations of the Liberal school” that had venerated “fetishes” the pope considered “ludicrous and deformed.”15
When Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister in 1922, it was as head of a Government in which the Fascists were in the minority. With his hands on the levers of the State, Mussolini set about eliminating opposition that blocked his path to absolute power.
One such impediment was the Catholic Italian Popular Party, which held about 20% of the seats in Parliament and opposed Mussolini’s greater ambitions. The Vatican ensured its demise. Firstly it pressured the Party’s founder and leader, a priest, to resign. Later it directed all priests to resign from the Party, many of whom were office holders, severely weakening the Party’s structure and support. In 1926 its demise was complete when the Fascists banned it and other political parties. That year Mussolini and the Vatican started negotiations to settle the ‘Roman Question.’
Negotiations between the two sides continued for well over two years. The result—the Lateran Accords—was remarkably favourable to the Vatican. It had been granted almost everything it wanted, including a sovereign State, large monetary remunerations, Roman Catholicism as the sole religion of the Italian State, and extensive privileges for it and the Church in the Italian State.
But what did the Fascists get in return? For a start the Vatican had already assisted Mussolini in attaining a one-party State by “freezing the Popular Party to death.”16 At the same time ecclesiastical praise for the Fascists grew, consolidating Catholic support for them.
Further, the Concordat was a prescription for a supportive Church. The Vatican agreed to submit its choice of new Archbishops and Bishops to the Fascists “so as to be assured” that the Government “has no reason of a political character to offer against the nomination.” New Bishops would swear loyalty to the State and endeavour “to avert any danger that could possibly menace it.”17
Well before 1929 the brutal nature of Mussolini’s Fascists was all too evident, with its record of murder and violence (including the assassination of the Socialist leader Matteotti). This was the regime with which the Vatican now had cordial relations.
History as it happened in Italy in the 1920’s shows a closeness between the Vatican and Fascism that the Roman Catholic Church would like to pretend never occurred.
Extracts from the Lateran Accords
The Lateran Accords consisted of three agreements, a Treaty, a Concordat, and a Financial Convention.
Reproduced below are extracts from the translation of these three documents given in The Treaty of the Lateran by the Reverend Benedict Williamson.
THE TREATY OF THE LATERAN
Article 1. Italy recognizes and reaffirms the principle consecrated in Article 1 of the Statute of the Kingdom, March 4, 1848, by which the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion is the sole religion of the State.
Article 3. Italy recognizes the full propriety and the absolute power and sovereign jurisdiction of the Holy See over the Vatican …
Article 8. Italy considering the person of the Supreme Pontiff to be sacred and inviolable, declares that any attempt against him, or provocation to commit such, shall be punishable with the same penalties as are established for an attempt or the provocation to commit one against the person of the King.
Offences and public injuries committed on Italian territory against the person of the Supreme Pontiff by discourses, acts, and writings shall be punished as if offences and injuries to the person of the King.
Article 12. The High Contracting Parties agree to establish normal diplomatic relations by means of an Italian ambassador accredited to the Holy See, and of a Pontifical nuncio to Italy, who shall be dean of the Diplomatic Corps in accordance with the customary right recognized by the Congress of Vienna by the Act of June 9, 1815.
Article 13. Italy recognizes to the Holy See the full propriety of the Patriarchal Basilica of S. Giovanni Laterano, Santa Maria Maggiore and S. Paolo …
Article 15. The properties indicated in Article 13 and in the first and second alinement of Article 14, also … and those in which the Holy See intends to place the other congregations, while forming part of the Italian State, shall enjoy the immunity recognized by International law to the diplomatic agents of foreign States.
Article 16. The properties indicated in the three preceding Articles, and those belonging to the following Pontifical Institutes … shall be exempt from all taxation ordinary and extraordinary to the State or any other entity.
Article 21. All the Cardinals enjoy in Italy the honours given to Princes of the royal blood; those resident in Rome, even outside the Citta del Vaticano, possess all the effects of citizens of the same.
Article 26. The Holy See … declares ‘the Roman Question’ definitely and irrevocably composed and hence eliminated, and recognizes the Kingdom of Italy under the Dynasty of Savoy with Rome as the capital of the Italian State.
On her part Italy recognizes the State of the Citta del Vaticano under the Sovereignty of the Supreme Pontiff.
The Law of May 13, 1871, n. 214, and every contrary disposition to the present Treaty is therefore abrogated.
THE FINANCIAL CONVENTION ANNEXED TO THE TREATY
Article 1. Italy, on the exchange of the ratifications of the Treaty, shall pay to the Holy See the sum of Italian lire 750,000,000 (seven hundred and fifty millions) and at the same time consign Italian 5 per cent bonds (with coupons, June 30) of the nominal value of Italian lire 1,000,000,000.
Article 2. The Holy See declares that it accepts the above as a definite systemization of the financial relations with Italy in consequence of the events of 1870.
Article 3. Clerics ordained ‘in sacris’ and religious who have made their vows are exempt from military service, saving the case of a general mobilization. In such case the priests pass into the armed forces of the State, but conserve their ecclesiastical habits in order to exercise amongst the troops their sacred ministry … those priests are dispensed from the call to present themselves who have cure of souls.
Article 5. No Ecclesiastic may be employed or remain in the employment of an office of the Italian State or any public entity depending from the same without the nihil obstat of the Diocesan ordinary.
The revocation of the nihil obstat deprives the Ecclesiastic of the capacity of continuing to exercise the employment or office which he has assumed.
In any case, apostate priests, or those subject to censure, cannot be appointed or continued as teachers, or hold office or be employed as clerks where they are in immediate contact with the public.
Article 8. In case of the arrest of an Ecclesiastic or religious … In the case of the condemnation of an Ecclesiastic or religious the punishment shall be performed in a place separate from that for lay people, unless the competent ordinary shall have already reduced the condemned person to the lay state.
Article 11. The State recognizes the Feast-days established by the Church, which are the following …
Article 19. The choice of Archbishops and Bishops belongs to the Holy See.
First before proceeding to the nomination of an Archbishop, a Diocesan Bishop or a coadjutor with right of succession, the Holy See shall communicate the name of the person chosen to the Italian Government so as to be assured by the same that it has no reason of a political character to offer against the nomination.
The relative practice shall be performed with the greatest possible care and with every reserve so that the name of the person chosen shall remain secret.
Article 20. Bishops before taking possession of their dioceses shall take an oath of fidelity to the head of the State according to the following formula
Before God and his Holy Gospels I swear and promise on becoming a Bishop fidelity to the Italian State. I swear and promise to respect and make respected by my clergy the King and the Government established according to the constitutional laws of the State. I swear and promise moreover that I shall not participate in any agreement or any counsel that can damage the Italian State and the public order and I shall not allow to my clergy such participation. I shall concern myself with the well-being and interests of the Italian State and endeavour to avert any danger that can possibly menace it.
Article 21. The provision of Ecclesiastical benefices belongs to the Ecclesiastical Authority.
The nomination of those invested with parochial benefices shall be communicated under reserve by the competent Ecclesiastical Authority to the Italian Government, and cannot have effect until thirty days from the date of the communication.
Within this period the Italian Government shall where grave reasons are opposed to the nomination manifest them under reserve to the Ecclesiastical Authority, and if the dissent continues shall bring the case before the Holy See.
When grave reasons arise which render the continuance of an Ecclesiastic in a determined parochial benefice injurious, the Italian Government shall communicate such reasons to the ordinary, who in accord with the Government shall take the appropriate measures within three months thereof.
In case of divergences between the ordinary and the Government, the Holy See shall entrust the solution of the question to two Ecclesiastics chosen by it, who in accord with two delegates of the Italian Government shall take a definitive decision.
Article 30. The Italian State by the new accords, unless established otherwise, shall continue to supply the deficiencies in the income of Ecclesiastical benefices with assignments that shall correspond to a measure not inferior to that established by the laws actually in force …
Article 36. Italy, considering the teaching of Christian doctrine according to the form received by Catholic tradition as the foundation and the crown of public instruction, agrees that religious instruction imparted in the public elementary schools shall have a further development in the secondary schools according to a programme to be established by an accord between the Holy See and the State.
Such teaching shall be given by means of masters and professors, priests and religious approved by the Ecclesiastical Authority, and subsidiarily by means of lay masters and professors, who for this end shall be furnished with a certificate of fitness to be issued by the ordinary of the diocese.
For the said religious teaching there shall only be used in the public schools the text-books approved by the Ecclesiastical Authority.
Article 37. The director of the State Association of physical culture for pre-military instruction, of the Avanguardisti and the Balilla, in order to render possible the religious instruction of the youth entrusted to them, shall dispose the hours in such a way as shall not impede on Sundays and days of precept the fulfilment of their religious duties.
The same applies to the directors of public schools for gatherings of their pupils on the said feast days.
Article 43. The Italian State recognizes the organizations dependent from the Italian Catholic action in so far as the Holy See has disposed that they carry out their activity outside any political party and under the immediate dependence of the Hierarchy of the Church for the diffusion and exercise of Catholic principles.
The Holy See takes the occasion of the stipulation of the present Concordat to renew to all Ecclesiastics and religious of Italy the prohibition of belonging to and fighting for any political party whatsoever.
Williamson, Rev. Benedict. The Treaty of the Lateran, With a foreword by Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster. Burns Oates & Washbourne, London, 1929, pp. 97-8.
“The exchange of the ratifications of the Treaty took place on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, June 7 … This date had been chosen by the Holy Father … so as to place the work under the protection of the Divine Heart, as earlier in the year he had chosen the Feast of our Lady of Lourdes as the day on which the Plenipotentiaries should sign the Treaty of the Lateran.”
See Appendix: Articles 3, 19, 20, 43 of the Concordat.
Williamson, op. cit., p. 36.
The pope indicated this when he said of the Concordat, “if not the best of which We can possibly conceive, is yet amongst the very best.”
5 Williamson, op. cit., p. 24. 6 Ibid., p. 25 7 Ibid., pp. 87-8. 8 Ibid., p. 84. 9 Ibid., p. 29. 10 Ibid., p. 29. 11 Ibid., pp. 67-9. 12 Ibid., pp. 72-3. 13 Ibid., p. 75. 14 Ibid., p. 17. 15 Ibid., p. 69.
Purdy, Fr. W. A., The Church on the Move: The Characters and Policies of Pius XII and John XXIII, Nihil obstat and Imprimatur. Hollis & Carter, London, 1966, p. 15.
“… the obvious Catholic alternative, Don Sturzo’s Partito Popolare, was hardly more welcome in clerical circles and itself exemplified the seemingly inevitable fissiparous character of Italian political association. That ecclesiastical, and papal, coolness froze the Popular Party to death in those vital years seems established beyond reasonable doubt.”
17 See Appendix: Articles 19, 20, 21 of the Concordat.