Pope and Mussolini

Review :

The result of David Kertzer's research is that there is no longer reason to wonder about the Vatican's position regarding Mussolini and the rise of Fascism. This well documented narrative tells how a very limited, backward looking, authoritarian Pope gave inches and then feet and miles in order, as he saw it, to protect the church.

There is plenty to show Pope Pius as an enabler to Mussolini. It begins his withdrawal of support for the Center Catholic Party which hobbled Mussolini's strongest opposition and left its former members vulnerable. While anti-clerical Fascist thugs beat up priests, Pius complained to Mussolini about how women dress. The Pope condemned the Nazi takeover of Austria and the character of the Vienna's archbishop who signed all of Hitler's decrees (as Pope Pius had essentially done for Mussolini) only to soften his public comments and try to take them back. The Vatican was silent in the run up to the Racial Laws, and when they were on the horizon, the Pope tried to negotiate the weakest of all exceptions. It is emblematic that before his great speech where he would finally condemn Fascism, he died; years later, the speech was revealed to be as tepid as all that preceded it.

The Pope's supporters might point to the Lateran Accords as an achievement, but Kertzer shows how this compromised the Church's integrity and ended its high ground. Pius XI's worst legacy may have been the elevation of those who would bend to his will. This led to the election of his successor, Eugenio Pacelli, sycophant to the end, who took the name Pius XII. This election thrilled Fascists and Nazis alike.

While it is not the focus of this book, King Victor Emmanuel similarly fails the Italian people. He signs every bill Mussolini gives him. When the Racial Laws go into effect, worried about his health, he has his Nazi son-in-law from Germany plead an exception for the his physician.

The author spent 7 years sifting through documents. I was surprised at the anti-Semitic statements in church newsletters and clerical speeches that surely had been available prior to the 2006 opening of the Vatican's pre-war archives. The Author's Note on the resources indicates how much information is there to mine. Hopefully someone will write on Mussolini's surveillance system, organizational behavior in the Vatican and the rise of Pius XII for the general reader.

Kertzer has accomplished his goal (p. 411) of writing a book not only for experts, but also those who know little of this history. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in this period.


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