William Davage on papal attitudes to the political extremes of the twentieth century

In the April issue of New Directions, I reviewed a book which detailed the political and diplomatic collusion between the Vatican and the Fascist Government of Benito Mussolini in Italy (The Pope and Mussolini; The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer).

The Lateran Accords (or the Lateran Treaty) had enabled Pope Pius XI to recognize the state of Italy; a recognition that had been withheld by his predecessors from Pope Pius IX, who, on the unification of Italy and the occupation of Rome and the Papal States, had declared himself to be a prisoner in the Vatican. In return for this recognition, the Catholic Church was given a privileged status, not least in education.

Mutual benefits

The Vatican saw Italian Fascism as an expression of nationalism and as a bulwark against atheistic communism and secularization.

Despite his anti-clericalism and his disordered private life, Mussolini saw the value of the Church as a stabilizing and cohesive influence. Two authoritarian regimes saw mutual benefits to their co-operation.

The attitude of Pius XI changed as Mussolini grew closer to Hitler. The Pope saw German Fascism as a perversion, as seeking to institute a pagan creed inimical to the teachings of Christ. The Vatican bureaucracy, however, personified by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli (Pope Pius XII), thwarted outright condemnation and the Pope died before he could Speak out more clearly and forcefully than he had previously done.

Universal mission

Until then, the hierarchy of the Church had given vocal support from the pulpit and elsewhere to the regime. There were some dissentient voices and one of them was Angelo Roncalli (Pope John XXIII) who viewed the Fascist ‘March on Rome’ with caution and warned that the Church shouldbe wary of identification with a political ideology. The Church’s responsibility went beyond political expediency and even political principle. The Church had a universal and an eternal mission that ought not to be confined by a particular political party or social engineering, and certainly not defined by race or blood. Roncalli, when a diplomat, during the Second World War, was instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of Jews. These sentiments were among those which resulted in his summoning the Second Vatican Council. Not all the results of that Council could have been envisaged by Pope John XXIII, but his experience of Fascism and Communism doubtless played a role in his decision to open the widows of the Church and to let in some air and light: not least in the Vatican Archives.

Moral courage

Pope John XXIII experienced both Fascism and Communism, both of which had at their core adherence, loyalty and submission to the dictates of the Party. Both ideologies demonized opponents and classified them as less than human, non-people, deprived of rights, property, and lives. Karol Wojtyla’s priesthood was formed and schooled during the Fascist occupation of his native Poland and was exercised under a Communist regime of suffocating surveillance and mental and physical oppression. His election as Pope John Paul 11 enabled him to marshal the battalions of the Church, with its moral power, to play its part in bringing down these regimes across Eastern Europe.

It is too easy for those of us who have not been subjected to such oppression and casual cruelty to chip away at the reputations of those who displayed such moral courage of the highest order. A Polish friend of mine, born in the year Wojtyla was elected to the See of Peter, spoke to me movingly about how his two grandfathers had been persecuted by the Nazis and shot by the Communists; and how his father was prevented from following his profession owing to his opposition to the regime and his support for Solidarity and earned his living as a lorry driver.

A glorious example

In recent years Pope Benedict XVI, in a brief but significant pontificate, has spoken with keen insight and prophetic urgency about the importance of the voice of the Church being heard in the public square to hold to account the policies of politicians in thrall to the transient mores of the contemporary world and to judge them against truths that are timeless and for all time. He grew up under the domination of the Nazi cult and witnessed the division of his country, part of which was under Communist control. He knows of that which he speaks. His words, not least his eloquent discourse delivered in Westminster Hall, will repay repetition in years to come. He is still with us in retirement but on 27 April Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla were canonized by Pope Francis. Raised to the altars of the Church, theyjoin the great heavenly band and their example is a glorious addition to our spiritual armoury. Pope Saint John XXIII pray for us: Pope Saint John Paul II pray for us.