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Pius XI
and the Rise of Benito Mussolini

by William P. Meyers

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Pius XI became pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, on February 6, 1922, after the death of Benedict XV. He had been born on May 31, 1857 is Desio, Italy. His reign as pope coincided with the rise of fascism, including the dictatorships of Benito Mussolini in Italy, Adolph Hitler in Germany, and General Francisco Franco in Spain.

All three of these fascist leaders were Catholics and therefore, in the Catholic scheme of things, owed obedience to Pius XI. Later, after the defeat of the fascists in World War II, the Catholic Church went to great lengths to disassociate itself from fascism. The victors of the war, the United States of America and the British Empire, although predominantly Protestant, were willing to go along with this fiction in order to gain allies in the next war, against communist states and rebels.

This essay is a part of a series of essays attempting to state the facts about the relationship of the Catholic Church and its leader, Pius XI, to the fascist political parties. As the essay covers a long period of history and many complex relationships, I do not pretend that it is complete, or that by selecting another set of facts Pius XI might not be seen in a different light.

In World War I ended with a cease-fire in November 1918, but was followed by political turmoil throughout Europe. Italy was on the winning side of the war. Benito Mussolini had been an active socialist, but after becoming an Italian soldier and being wounded in 1917 he became an Italian nationalist and started a new newspaper. In 1919 he set up the first fascist organization consisting mainly of former veterans of the war. He was 36 years old.

In 1919 Achille Ratti, after a long career as a Vatican librarian, was the papal nuncio, or representative, to the newly-formed state of Poland (designed to punish Germany for losing the war and Russia for having a communist government). The Polish government expelled him in 1921 for political meddling, but Pope Benedict XV then named him a cardinal and made him Archbishop of Milan. On Benedict's death, Ratti was elected Pope in 1922. By then Mussolini's fascists had become the National Fascist Party and were known for fighting against Italian communists, socialists, anarchists, and labor unions. However, the new party was not large yet and was not capable of winning an election.

The Catholic Church had a long history of opposing democratic governments, particularly in Italy. Voting by Catholics was treated as a mortal sin until the end of World War I, but then in 1919 the Church organized the Partito Popolare Italiano (the Italian People's Party, but hereafter, the Catholic Party). In elections in 1919 and 1921 it received 20% of the vote, second only to the Italian Socialist Party. However, Pius XI and the Church hierarchy had a great fear of democracy and more radical trends like anarchism, socialism, and communism. The Church favored strong leaders, dictators or monarchs, who would simply crush any political opposition, particularly if they favored allowing only one legal religion, the Catholic Church.

Benito Mussolini was an avowed atheist, but he wanted to become dictator, which would not be possible without powerful friends. His vehement hatred of anarchism, liberal democracy, and communism matched well with Catholic opinion. Many of his fascists were Catholic. Pius XI was in a good position to prevent the fascists from seizing power. In a circular letter to the Italian Church hierarchy dated October 2, 1922, Pius XI commanded that priests not support the Catholic Party in the election. In effect he repudiated the Catholic Party. [Manhattan p. 112]

Following the March on Rome, King Victor invited Mussolini to form a government on October 28, 1922. But this just made Mussolini Prime Minister of an elected Chamber of Deputies he did not control. In January of 1923 Cardinal Gasparri, the Vatican Secretary of State, began meeting with Mussolini. A bargain was made. The Catholic Church would not support the Catholic Party, but instead would support the Fascist Party. In return Mussolini would restore the ancient privileges of the Catholic Church. On February 21, 1923, Cardinal Vannutelli said Mussolini "had been chosen to save the nation and restore her fortune." When fascists beat up and even killed Catholic Party members who opposed them, Pius XI said nothing. In fact many members of the Catholic Party defied both the Pope and Mussolini, preferring democracy to any dictatorship [Manhattan p. 113].

The Vatican ordered the Catholic Party to disband on June 9, 1923, and a faction of it joined Mussolini's fascists. In 1926 Mussolini made the Catholic Party illegal, along with other parties, with no protest from Pius XI. Mussolini's support among Italian citizens had grown, but in the 1926 elections the Socialist Party and other "liberal" parties had still received more than half of the votes cast. [Manhattan p. 115]

Mussolini, dictator at last, probably was powerful enough to suppress the Catholic Church. Instead he decided to enshrine it as Italy's only religion. He allowed himself to be baptized in 1927. He signed the Lateran Treaty in 1929 which made Vatican City a separate, independent state, recognized Catholicism as the state-sponsored religion, and gave the Church 750 million lire in compensation for the Vatican's loss of sovereignty over the Papal States in the 1800s.

Mussolini stated "We recognize the pre-eminent place the Catholic Church holds in the religious life of the Italian people, which is perfectly natural in a Catholic country such as ours, and under a Fascist regime." [Manhattan p. 117]

Even after this marriage between the Church and Fascism, there were quarrels. In particular the Catholic Church wanted total control over the education of children in Italy, and Mussolini also wanted total control.

If the rise of Mussolini with the help of Pius XI had been an isolated incident in history, there might be a stronger argument that Mussolini would have come to power anyway, and that Pius was just doing the best he could with a bad situation. However, given that Pius XI endorsed the fascist corporate state in an encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, and that he helped both Hitler and General Franco gain dictatorial powers, the specifics of Mussolini's rise to power must be seen as part of Pius XI's plan, not as an exception.


Manhattan, Avro, The Vatican In World Politics, Gaer Associates, New York, 1949 [first published in London by C. A. Watts & Co., Limited]
Pius XI at Wikipedia
Benito Mussolini at Wikipedia