SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

The history of relations between the Catholic Church and twentieth-century European fascist regimes continues to fascinate scholarly and popular audiences. Did the Catholic Church and fascists share an affinity for authoritarianism, or was the church among the first to resist fascist criminality? Was the church anti-Semitic, or did it protect Europe's Jews? Recent scholarship shows that these questions resist facile explanations. Emma Fattorini's political history of Pope Pius XI is a fine example of this scholarship. Using newly available Vatican sources, Fattorini demonstrates successfully the subject's complexity. Above all, she shows that there was no single, static position of the church on fascism.

Pius's attitudes were a product of his milieu and his experiences. Having served as nuncio in Warsaw during the early 1920s (i.e., during the time of the Russo-Polish War and the Upper Silesian partition), he recognized the dangers of abusing religion to advance a nationalist agenda. This made him wary of Mussolini and Hitler, but initially he saw in Mussolini a strong authoritarian who established order and spared his people the vagaries of democracy. By the time Hitler came to power, however, Pius knew that fascist regimes were neither law abiding nor pro-Christian.

The anticlerical violence in Mexico and the violence against clergy by both republicans and nationalists in the Spanish Civil War concerned Pius, too. Pius hesitated to recognize the Franco regime because of the nationalist massacres against Basque priests and because of Franco's alliance with Hitler. At the other end of the spectrum, Pius believed that communist ideology was evil but that the treatment of communists was a pastoral question.

Although in his early days Pius's attitudes towards Jews were characterized by the stereotypes of the day, he eventually rejected Nazi and Italian anti-Semitism. At the time of his death, Pius was preparing to condemn racism both in an encyclical and in an address to the bishops of Italy, summoned after the promulgation of the first Italian anti-Semitic legislation in 1938. This address is “the speech that was never made.”

Fattorini convincingly argues that Pius grounded his actions first and foremost in his spirituality. For Fattorini, this explains Pius's eventual rejection of racism, his increasingly open criticism of German and Italian fascists, and his acceptance of the French communist main tendue. The more Pius criticized the fascist regimes and their anti-Semitism, the more leaders in the Roman Curia sought to temper his statements and actions. In particular Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) sought to maintain good relations with German and Italian leaders. Immediately upon the pope's death, Pacelli destroyed the text of the speech condemning racism.

That individuals, even popes, change their mind and that a large institution like the Catholic Church should experience political intrigue should surprise no one. Although the new sources Fattorini uses illuminate the papacy's relation with fascism, they do not fundamentally change historians' understanding of the matter. Still, Fattorini's work offers an important reminder to work from the sources rather than from preconceived notions or assumptions. Finally, Fattorini reminds us to take seriously the religious and spiritual motivations of historical actors. Perhaps Pius XII merits analysis through this particular lens as well. Despite an uneven and occasionally unhelpful translation, this is a book well worth reading.