The Pope, Mussolini, and Their Unquenchable Thirst for Power

The Pope and Mussolini - David Kertzer
Benito Mussolini & Pius XI

David I. Kertzer’s provocative new book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe explodes the myth of the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to the fascist government of Benito Mussolini.

Most standard accounts of history depict the church as a vocal opponent of the fascist government, but Kertzer’s exhaustive research in recently-opened Vatican archives has uncovered something very different. That is, a heretofore unknown partnership between both groups rooted in the similar goals of their respective leaders: Pope Pius XI and Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.

Their partnership wasn’t a “friendship,” that would be stretching facts too thinly, but Mussolini and Pius shared a similar totalitarian vision of the future. It was one in which the Fascists ruled the material realm and the Catholic Church the spiritual. The two men quickly recognized the necessity in some form of partnership if they were to advance their mutual goals. Both were more than willing to pay lip service to principles in public that they disregarded in private meetings and secret correspondence.

Mussolini’s rise to power can be partly credited to his anti-clerical leanings, but the man who was once known as “The Priest-Eater” realized that in order to cement his hold upon the Catholic majority of Italy, he would have to win the support of the Church. He did so by brokering the Lateran Treaty, an accord that established the Vatican as an independent state.

Pope Pius, meanwhile, saw an opportunity in Mussolini’s fascist government to strike against the Bolsheviks, protestants, and other “enemies” of the Church; something he needed to do in order to achieve what he allegedly described to Mussolini as “Catholic totalitarianism.” As long as Mussolini was willing to advance these goals, then Pius was happy to support the regime.

The church and state became inseparable, with Catholic lay organizations collaborating with undercover police to actively root out and destroy undesirable elements. Vatican publications, once vocally opposed to fascist abuses, suddenly fell mute. In some cases, papers even extolled the virtues of the fascist regime, or at least advised readers that revolution wasn’t compatible with Catholic ideology.

By winning the support of the church, Mussolini’s dictatorship gained what must have appeared to be a heavenly mandate. In turn, the Church gained a degree of wealth, power and influence not seen since the Renaissance. As long as he could claim to be in service to Christendom, Mussolini had the justification he needed to oppress his citizens at home and wage his war abroad. For his part, Pius found himself sacrificing more and more of his integrity in pursuit of a future where the Catholic Church reigned supreme.

The Pope and Mussolini will challenge everything readers thought they knew about the historical relationship between Mussolini and the Church, and it will shed new light upon the complex series of events that led to Italy’s entry into World War II. Both history buffs and religious scholars will find much to debate in this controversial book, but general readers will enjoy it as well. Kertzner writes in accessible prose, skillfully portraying the complicated relationship between two dangerously egotistical men, brought together by their unquenchable thirst for power.