Bosworth - Mussolinis Italy

R.J.B. Bosworth Mussolini’s Italy – Life Under the Fascist Dictatorship, 1915-1945 (Penguin Books, 2005) In considering the sinister history of the affiliation between Italian Fascism and the Roman Church, we should of course keep separate two issues. The first is whether the Fascists indeed embraced popery and whether it was fitting for Fascism that its adherents do so. The second is whether the Roman Church did indeed embrace Fascism and whether it was fitting for that institution to do so. A couple of clarifications: Obviously the two did form a united front as a result of the Lateran Pacts; the question of fact is whether this was a shotgun wedding, whether, that is, either side joined the other reluctantly or merely for reasons of expediency, or indeed whether either side was somehow coerced into the union. Moreover, by “fitting” I do not mean “in accordance with some moral standard that can be held independently of adherence either to Fascism or popery.” Rather “fitting” in this sense means “consistent with and suggested by the set of beliefs that are essential to Fascism or to popery.” This latter sense is not without its obscurities, especially given the mutations of Fascist and even papist doctrine. However, we have certain intuitions about what would have not been fitting on either side. It is hard to foresee a sense in which the pope could embrace an incorrigibly atheistic political movement. Somewhat more cautiously we could opine that a league between Fascism and the Italian Socialists would not have been fitting (I say “cautiously” because strains of early Fascism professed views more commonly associated with socialism; but if such views are inconsistent with the ultimate theory of the corporate state, then it is hard to see how a Fascist-Socialist league could have been fitting). In the same vein we are inclined to say that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not really consistent with the central doctrines of either side.

Bosworth’s illuminating history gives us good grounds to answer these questions in a universal affirmative. The Fascist-papal embrace was so little expedient or coerced that a more appropriate description should be “enthusiastic.” Equally, Fascist political theory (or rather the assumptions behind the somewhat vague Fascist attempts at a political theory) and the institutions of the Roman church and papist theology are not only consistent, they merge nicely to form an internally consistent whole.

Because of the Lateran Pacts, the question of fact appears indisputable. Fascists and the Vatican did indeed agree to work together to form an Italian Catholic Empire. Outward signs of reluctance or coercion are missing. Any doubts a historian may entertain come from the early adherence of some Fascists to the anti-clerical views of liberalism, on the one hand, and the existence of a competing Catholic political party on the other.

Early and ultimately deviant anti-clerical views on the part of individual Fascists are more properly the fruits of Italian political history instead of anything special about Fascism – and indeed, once the corporate state theory was articulated, such views were indeed deviant. During and after the Risorgimento both liberals and socialists were anti-clerical, or, more specifically, anti-Catholic. The reasons include the impossibility of a united Italy as long as the Papal States remained in existence (Even the erstwhile King Victor Emmanuel was something of an anti-clerical), as well as the overwhelming advocacy of such political writers who identified themselves as papists - as well as Vatican intervention on specific issues - on the side of the anti-revolutionary remnants of Europe’s feudal ancien régimes. In the end practically the only political parties that were pro-clerical were those sponsored by the Roman Church itself. Ultimately both the Fascists and the pope recognized the essential affinities such as arose from shared authoritarian views.

The Fascists made abundantly clear that theirs was a Roman Catholic political party dedicated to the creation of a Roman Catholic nation state and a Roman Catholic Italian Empire. For its part, the Church eliminated any actual Catholic political competition to the Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) by dissolving the Partito Popolare Italiano (PPI). “Early in the new year (1923),” Bosworth writes, “Mussolini met secretly with Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the Papal Secretary of State – the venue was a senator’s house with a front and back entrance – and by July 1923, Vatican pressure had persuaded the priest Luigi Sturzo to retire from the leadership of the PPI. Then and thereafter, nothing was done by the Church to save this party from dissolution.” (pp. 187-188)

Evidence of Fascism’s ultimate and long lasting self-identification as a Catholic political movement are scattered throughout Bosworth’s history.

By 1922 with the creation of the PNF and the elevation of Mussolini to the status of the movement’s duce, Fascism assumed its rightful Catholic character. Lingering anti-clericals such as Roberto Farinacci saw their role in the movement significantly diminished. The key event was the election to the papacy of a Fascist fellow traveller. “Whereas once the movement had been strenuously anti-clerical, now, in February 1922, the PNF welcomed the election, of the new Pope Pius XI, who, before he obtained the pallium, had been Archbishop of Milan, with his own connection to Mussolini and his immediate entourage.” (P. 176)

By the time Mussolini was installed as Prime Minister in October, 1922 “the movement had forsworn its initial republicanism and anti-clericalism….Just after Christmas Mussolini reverentially told a priest, who was interviewing him for the conservative paper Il Giornale d’Italia, that, contrary to previous impressions, ‘I am a Catholic’. He also made clear his conviction that Catholicism must stay the state religion.” (p. 187) As if to underline his conviction, Mussolini gave key posts in his government to Catholics. “The conservative Catholic Stefano Cavazzoni held the Ministry of Works, while another rightist Catholic, Vincenzo Tangorra, was placed at the Treasury.” (p. 186). As late as 1939 Fascist rural radio could issue a statement to the effect that “‘no regime more than the Fascist one wants every citizen to believe and to profess the religion of their fathers. Such a faith is the fount of belief in the Patria and in the family.’” (p. 261)

Even when Mussolini was reduced to a role as effective figurehead in the rump Salò Republic he issued a statement (November, 1943) reaffirming his Catholicism: “ ‘The religion of the Republic shall be the apostolic Roman Catholic one.’” (p. 513)

For its part the Roman Church was nearly as categorical in its embrace of Fascism. The anecdotes are illuminating. Upon the marriage of Mussolini’s daughter Edda to the Fascist functionary Galeazzo Ciano in April 1930 “the happy couple and the new father-in-law were invited to a papal reception….” (p. 257) For his part Giuseppe Sarto (aka Pius XI) wrote to Mussolini among a series of missives that Bosworth describes as “almost intimate” that “he recited an Angelus Dei every morning and night to the Duce’s guardian angel.” (p. 258)

The first critical moment in papist approval of Fascism was the agreement known as the Lateran Pacts from February, 1929.

Blessed by such important figures as Arnaldo Mussolini and Eugenio Pacelli, who would become Pope Pius XII in 1939 and was already a crucial power-broker at the Vatican, the treatying eventually attracted the direct interest of Mussolini himself. The key negotiator on the Vatican’s part was the future Pope’s lawyer brother, Francesco Pacelli. His attention to detail and the dictator’s willingness to work into the wee hours resulted in the Concordat and other Lateran Pacts of 11 February 1929. They marked the formal end of the cold war between Church and State that had rumbled on since the Risorgimento. (p. 231)

Again, “The cold war between Catholic Church and Italian state was not formally overcome until the signature of the Lateran Pacts between Mussolini and Pope Pius XI in February 1929.” (p. 15)

The Vatican’s ultimate motive behind the Lateran Pacts was that it had finally found a political party with whose philosophy it was in fundamental agreement. “…the Lateran treaties did mark the embrace of Fascist totalitarianism by the public forms of Catholicism.” (Ibid.)

The other critical moment was the peaceful resolution of Mussolini’s move to render Catholic Action youth organizations such as Azione Cattolica illegal in 1931. In that year the Roman church created a new organization for university students. “Outraged Fascist purists...threatened a punitive response from party members and some Catholic Action branches fell victim to violent assault.” (p. 262) For his part Sarto issued an Encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno. The issue was whether the state or the church or some cooperative arrangement between the two should control public education (which in Italy meant all education). Prior to the attacks on Catholic Action, the Fascists and the Vatican had settled on an unspoken arrangement that embodied that third alternative. Sarto’s protests were directed against exclusive state control. After the spat died down, Italy returned to the ambiguous cooperation model, motivated on the government side by the fact that popery was more deeply rooted in the largely female corps of teachers than was Fascism.

“…the Jesuit Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, frequently an emollient intermediary between the dictatorship and the Church, found ways to bring Duce and Pope together.” (p. 262).The solution lay in a common celebration which the Vatican saw as a way of garnering much needed tourist dollars. 1932 was the tenth anniversary of Fascist rule in Italy and the planned celebrations promised to attract large numbers of visitors. The Vatican peremptorily decreed 1932 as a simultaneous supernumerary Holy Year and so managed to share in the windfall. The future of Catholic control of public education was swept under the rug. In the good will engendered by the mutual celebration of the Fascist Decennale and the Catholic Anno Santo “an accomodation was reached and Church-State relations in Fascist Italy settled into that wary toleration that would outlast the 1930s” (p. 262)

It is noteworthy that (with the exception of scattered and often inconsistent comments about anti-semitism) the Roman Church never objected to Fascism on moral grounds. The Pope did not condemn strong arm tactics except when directed against his own institutions. Nor did he state that there was anything wrong with authoritarian or even totalitarian government (which would, as we shall see, have conflicted with the basic papist political orientation).  Rather, all the Pope was worried about was state infringement on those areas, such as education, that he considered the bailiwick of the Vatican. The dispute was a turf war, not an ethical condemnation.

Some of Sarto’s comments bear highlighting. In paragraph 65, he reiterates that the real enemies are liberal and masonic anti-clericals; Mussolini should unleash his gangs on those organizations and beliefs: “It is known by all who are familiar with the history of the country that anti-clericalism has had in Italy the importance and the strength conferred upon it by Masonry and Liberalism when these were the powers ruling Italy. But in our own day, on the occasion of the Lateran Treaties, the unparalleled enthusiasm which united and overjoyed Italians would have left no room for anti-clericalism if it had not been evoked and encouraged on the very morrow of the Treaty. During the recent occurrences, orders from high personages have switched anticlericalism on or off, and this has been plain to all. There can be no doubt that a mere hundredth or even a thousandth part of the force used against Catholic Action will suffice to keep anticlericalism in its place.” Those same Lateran Pacts had the intended and salutary consequence of legitimizing Fascism: “We believe then that We have thus, at the same time, accomplished a good work for the party itself.” (Par. 63) He has no objection to Fascism as such; rather he would rid it of those aspects papists find objectionable: “In everything that We have said up to the present, We have not said that We wished to condemn the [Fascist] party as such. Our aim has been to point out and to condemn all those things in the programme and in the activities of the party which have been found to be contrary to Catholic doctrine and Catholic practice, and therefore irreconcilable with the Catholic name and profession.” (Par. 62) In the end everybody should just try to get along: “How preferable to this obstinate clash of minds and of wills would be a peaceful and tranquil union of thoughts and of sentiments! Such a union could not fail to translate itself into a fruitful co-operation of all for the true good and for the common good, and it would be rewarded by the sympathetic applause of the Catholics of all the world, instead of meeting, as at present, with universal blame and discontent.” (Par. 73)

In reference to Eugenio Pacelli’s (aka Pius XII) Fascist sympathies, Bosworth concludes unequivocally that the Roman Church was in fact an enthusiastic partner in the Fascist project. “It is fairer…to see Pius and the hierarchy over whom he presided as fellow travellers or outright sympathizers with Mussolini and Fascism. In what they perceived as this wicked world, the Vatican liked most of what they saw in Fascism and, should the truth be known, preferred it probably to liberal democracy and certainly to socialism and communism.” (p. 490)

The second question is whether the Catholic-Fascist union was mere unfortunate historical happenstance, or whether it expressed a deeper historical likeness – identity even – in political and social philosophy. The answer is that the union was not due to the mistakes of certain misguided individuals such as Sarto and Pacelli (Since the Pope had been declared infallible in the mid 19th century, this view would largely conflict with Catholic doctrine anyway, whatever the lack of explicit ex cathedra statements), but rather that movements like Fascism arose in a political and intellectual atmosphere for which the Roman Church was largely responsible. Likewise, Mussolini and the vast majority of Fascists did not embrace popery from mere expediency or cynical accomodation to a powerful Italian institution. Rather, they came to understand the intellectual and emotional bonds that united them to Catholicism.

The mutual world view of the Roman Church and Fascism can be roughly subsumed under two headings. The first is anti-socialism, which was often expressed as hostility to communism and to Bolshevism. The second is the patriarchal model of society under which we can list ideas such as the corporate state, authoritarian political and religious institutions, the primacy of the family, the superiority of the male and the persecution of women, and – of course – the attack on homosexuality and pornography.

The most illuminating activities that demonstrate the mutuality of Italian Church and State in opposition to socialism come from the Spanish Civil War.

From the summer of 1936 the Spanish Civil War, with its lurid tales of ‘Red’ atrocities and with the steadily increasing Fascist intervention on the insurgent, Francoist and Catholic side, brought the rhetoric of Church and State into tight harness. Then, for example, a clerical paper in the pious Trentino could define all priests as standing erect, alert and armed in the ‘Divine Falange of the Ministers of God’ ….while urging that contemporary communism was merely the most recent apparition of the Devil who had earlier expressed his malignity through the somewhat motley crew of Manichaeans, Arians, Cathars, Protestants and Modernists. (pp. 259-260)


The anti-communism of the Church in general and the Pope in particular…was rather more deeply embedded than the Fascist version (and was hardened by a sort of Vatican imperialism which had never forgotten  that the peoples of the Russias were schismatic Christians (Not entirely accurate. The Russian Church was Arian from its foundation. – WD), needing for their own salvation to be brought home to Rome….in February 1932, Pius mentioned to Mussolini his hopes for a ‘Catholic totalitarianism’, which, he fancied, might straighten out souls, just as the regime was steeling Italian bodies. In Fascism’s postulates of ‘order, authority and discipline’, the pope stated , he found ‘nothing contrary to Catholic belief’. (p. 259)

In his statement Sarto himself introduces the second theme of the twin totalitarianisms envisioned by the Vatican and the so-called “clerical Fascists.” The Fascist model of the corporate state was a mirror image of the papist view of society as a patriarchal hierarchy with the pope (God’s viceroy) at the summit and various social orders ranged underneath and ultimately of the papist metaphysics of layered orders of being with God at the summit, followed in descending order by angelic creatures, man, animals and so forth all the way down to inert matter. The model of stratification - of hierarchy as opposed to the liberal and democratic view of the primacy of the individual - is what unites Fascism and popery. There might have been an echo in Vatican minds of the stable political structure embodied by the bicameral coexistence of the Holy Roman Empire and the (oxymoronical) Roman Catholic Church, which may have been underlined by Fascism’s acceptance of the Italian monarchy in 1922. (p. 176) The so-called “imperial papacy” could march alongside, or follow in the wake of Italian armies. From the Fascist side, Giuseppe Bottai’s Critica Fascista stated “ ‘Fascism is totalitarian just as the Church is totalitarian’ and each must be permitted to remain coherent in their policy of total control.” (p. 262)

The patriarchal family favored by both Fascism and the papacy also mirrored to the hierarchical structure of the state and the cosmos. In fact the Fascists viewed the patriarchal family as the foundation of the patriarchal state. On this model the Father was the undisputed head of the family. Women, who could not vote, must defer to their husband’s wishes. In a somewhat smarmy spin on the real power relation, Fascists described women as queens of the hearth. “Under Fascist rule, the father, the Head of the Family, had his power and authority refurbished. In his own sphere the father replicated the role of the Duce and so ensured women’s healthy devotion to maternity and household cares.” (p. 422)

The primacy of the family meant the same thing as the subjugation of women. On this point Church and State were largely in agreement. “Fascist State and Catholic Church were generally in patriarchal concord about the proper place of women in society.” (p. 264) This meant that “In theory both of Church and State, society should rejoice when women breed, cook and worship.” (p. 266) Women’s role in the public sphere was relegated to that of cheerleading. “Women, a female fascist was moved to write, despite their instinctive dislike of ‘brutality and violence, struggle and blood’, must automatically second their men, applaud the patria and be unstinting in their devotion to Mussolini and the Fascist creed.” (p. 176) The mingling of an obvious sexual stereotype with outright repression should not go unnoticed.

In the schema where cosmic hierarchy was mirrored and supported by the social and familial hierarchies, immorality – a fundamental concern of both Church and State – was largely defined as any activity harmful to the family. In 1927 PNF secretary Augusto Turati was moved to write, “ ‘The family is the basis cell of the State, the Nation and the people. It is the only possible safeguard, the last trench for resistance against the corrosive action of the various amoral and immoral forces which cause social decay.’ Along with family, the related issues of ‘the problem of the race’ and of ‘female education’ composed Fascism’s ‘fundamental matters of dispute’.” (p. 245)

Against this background - and on this matter the Church and the Fascist party were in fundamental agreement - immoral behavior included but was not limited to contraception and birth control including abortion, pornography including beauty contests, bachelorhood and homosexuality.

The Church was indeed confident that it knew what was best for women. For both it and the State, abortion entailed a special sin since it transgressed what were thought to be the rules of God, the nation and the race. Sharing this view, in 1931 the dictatorship enhanced its penalties for this crime and for other forms of birth control, just as the debate over Catholic Action reached its angry apogee. The encyclical Casta connubi had formalized the Church’s disapproval of contraception of any kind the year before….That same year, Fascism banned female beauty contests as demeaning to the sposa e madre essemplare (exemplary wife and mother). A bachelor tax had been introduced in 1926….(p. 265)


Any implication that Fascist repression was a matter to be smiled at should be avoided….During the 1930’s the police were estimated to undertake thousands of actions of a political kind every week; their interest could be aroused by what was termed ‘degeneracy’ (the practice of homosexuality or abortion, for example) as by overt political complaint. (p. 242)

Likewise, “Fascism admonished Italians to avoid pornography, labelling it another evil ‘foreign’ temptation.’” (p. 221)

A proper understanding of the affinity between Italian Fascism and the Roman Church is particularly helpful in light of current suspicions that politically active religionists in the United States may in fact adhere to a political viewpoint that could be properly described as fascist. History shows us that such suspicions are not unjustified. Fascistizing movements not only can arise from the soil of religious beliefs, they may indeed rely on the prior acceptance of religious tenets regarding social hierarchy and the suppression of the individual, the secondary role of women, the indispensability of the patriarchal family and the disruptive role of non-procreative sexuality – all tenets professed by both the Roman Church and the Goober religions that are the prime motivators behind the attack on the American Constitution and the repeal of its Bill of Rights. A couple of lessons at the very least should be retained. First, the language of good vs. evil and right vs. wrong are just so much rhetorical ammunition for fascist political movements and the religions that embrace them. It behooves us to take a critical look at what such movements and religions actually consider good or right and what the consequences of their values might be. Secondly, Catholics in the United States are wont to use their status as a once despised minority as a shield against any criticism of their shameful religion. No one merits discrimination, but that fact does not guarantee that his beliefs and “values” are correct or even moral. Those right wing papists who seek alliance with the Goobers may yet regret that the intolerance they endorse has been turned against them.