- The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer
David Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini offers a vividly descriptive, highly readable yet partial account of one of the most consequential political relationships of the twentieth century, between Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti) and Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. On the basis of extensive research in ecclesiastical and Italian state archives, Kertzer does an admirable job of working the archival material into an evocative narrative that is accessible to a general audience. With a keen eye for the illustrative anecdote and a theatrical appreciation for the dramatis personae at the heart of this all-too-real story (à propos, see the list of the “Cast of Characters” provided at the outset), Kertzer brings to life the complex interplay of mutuality, interdependence, incompatibility and conflict that characterized the relationship between pope and Duce, between Catholicism and Fascism, and between church and state in Italy on the eve of World War II.
This book will convey to the general reader a history that is familiar to specialists—the tortuous evolution of church-state relations after Italian Unification, culminating in the momentous 1929 accords that restored to the Holy See territorial sovereignty and thereby furnished the papacy with juridical and diplomatic standing in Italian and international affairs. With the signing of the historical accords, Mussolini made peace with the Vatican, at least on paper. In return, the Duce expected the pope essentially to stay out of Italy’s political and foreign affairs; in short, to render unto Caesar that which was, ostensibly, Caesar’s.
It was, as Kertzer puts it, “a peculiar partnership” with which neither pope nor Duce was “entirely comfortable” (pp. 121–22), as their voluble relationship, which Kertzer describes in colorful detail, amply demonstrated. Yet framing this relationship as a “partnership” risks underestimating the persistent tensions and conflict between Pius XI and Mussolini over various matters—tensions that exposed some basic ideological incompatibilities between Catholicism and Fascism and, in practical terms, tested the logic of the accommodation achieved in the 1929 accords. To speak as Kertzer does of the Church as a “willing partner” of the Fascist regime (p. xxx) is to conflate concordance with alliance, thereby imputing to the relationship a far greater degree of political-ideological compatibility and complementarity than existed. It also attributes to the Holy See and to Pius XI an exaggerated role and undue influence in the consolidation of Fascist rule. Kertzer goes so far—too far, one might argue—as to contend that by the time the 1929 accords were signed, the putative “Fascist revolution” already had been transformed into a “clerico-Fascist revolution” (p. 68). In Kertzer’s telling, Mussolini [End Page 630] and the Vatican forged “a new partnership” based on the shared vision of remaking Italy by re-Catholicizing it—hence the self-interested motivation behind the notoriously anticlerical Mussolini’s moves to “[shower] the Church with cash and privileges.” These ranged from powerful symbolic gestures such as returning crucifixes to honored places of public display, to substantive state patronage of Catholic ideals and institutions in the social, civic, and economic realms of Italian life (p. 61).
In return, Mussolini expected Italian churchmen to contribute to consensus-building as the Duce worked in fits and starts to transform his fractious early political coalition into one-party authoritarian rule by the latter 1920s. Reading Kertzer’s account of the early years of the Fascist experience, the reader might very well conclude that certain influential prelates—many of whom were very close both to the Vatican and to Mussolini such as Jesuit priest Pietro Tacchi Venturi—were more fascist than the Fascists, in thought if not in name. To be sure, there were many areas of consensus and mutual self-interest driving the constant search for a workable modus vivendi between the Church of Pius XI and Mussolini’s...