By Richard Griffin
Wicked Local Cambridge, May. 4, 2014
In 1928, the year of my birth, the leader of the Catholic Church was Pope Pius XI. Before being elected to this position, he was Achille Ratti, the archbishop of Milan and director of the Vatican library.
Even when he became pope, however, it did not make him well known outside of Italy. Most Catholics in the United States would not have been familiar with his activities as pope nor perhaps even his name.
Thanks to a new book by a Brown University professor, David Kertzer, I have now discovered a lot about this pope, most of it thoroughly upsetting. Titled "The Pope and Mussolini," this volume reveals many of the contacts between the two during the period 1922-1939.
Professor Kertzer makes his discoveries through careful study of the archives, both those of the Vatican and of the Italian state. This material shows how much the pope and dictator relied on one another to support their goals.
In particular, the pope wanted to be assured of the Catholic Church’s rights to exercise its freedoms. He especially wished to assure the freedom of the numerous Catholic action groups across Italy to lead the way.
To ensure the fulfillment of their desires, both pope and dictator had liaisons who would go back and forth between the two. The pope’s contact was a Jesuit, Father Tacchi Venturi, who served faithfully by telling Mussolini whatever the pope wanted of him.
For his part, Mussolini had an official who informed the pope of the dictator’s requirements. What disturbs me most is the way Pius was prepared to accept the Fascist ideology that guided all of Mussolini’s demands.
However, I do respect one historical transaction between the two leaders. That happened in 1929, when they agreed upon a treaty that recognized the rights of the church to rule independently over Vatican City.
This action, known as the Lateran Accords, gave to the Catholic Church territory in Rome that would guarantee its freedoms as a distinct state. Contrary to what most Catholic leaders then considered a setback for the church, the arrangements were to provide a new freedom. (However, the agreement also made Catholicism Italy’s state religion.)
Kertzer’s book also shows Pius XI to have been a tyrant in the way he dealt with subordinates. He apparently regarded himself as an absolute power in his papal position.
Unfortunately, one of his more important efforts was stymied close to the end of his life in 1939. He wanted to write an encyclical letter against Hitler.
Pius’s willingness to collaborate with Fascism bothers me after all these decades. I cringe to see how church authority was used to further a hateful cause.
Yes, that pope felt wary of communism and its power to damage the church seriously. But to have made the church a supporter of another ideology, Fascism, that was itself so harmful to a whole nation, pains me all this time later.
Knowing that this kind of compromise of principles with secular power is not likely to happen again is something for which I feel grateful. It is hard to imagine Pope Francis (and I like to think his successors) would ever agree to such an arrangement.
This I take it to be one of the benefits of scholarly history that it allows us to see the errors of previous times. When ecclesiastical actions mix with secular, you can watch with special interest.
At least that is how I look at the thoroughly undesirable ways that a pope, whose reign began almost 100 years ago, did many harmful things.
Richard Griffin of Cambridge is a biweekly columnist for GateHouse Media New England publications. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and he welcomes comments and questions. Richard’s website and blog is richardbgriffin.com, where more than 900 of his columns are archived.