Mussolini and the Catholic Church

In my post last week, Italians and the Catholic Church,  I noted how there was a split between the church and the newly unified nation of Italy. Since that time, however, the two have reconciled their differences. No one knows more about this reconciliation than Mrs. Soile Lautsi.

From 2005 to 2011 from the Veneto Administrative Court up to the European Court on Human Rights, Mrs. Soile Lautsi challenged an Italian law that required the display of a crucifix in classrooms. (While you may or may not agree with Mrs. Lautsi, such tenacity is indicative of the Italian spirit.) The 1929 Concordat and Lateran Accords between Mussolini’s fascist government and the Catholic Church required this display. Mrs. Lautsi argued that this violated the clause of the European Convention on Human Rights that stated it is “the right of parents to ensure…education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.” Not only was the crucifix a religious symbol, but a symbol most typically associated with a specific form of Christianity; Catholicism. All Christians, to the best of my knowledge, display or wear a cross. Catholics are the only ones who will additionally display a crucifix.

Despite the Catholic association with the crucifix, the Italian government argued it was more than a religious symbol. To the Italian people, it is a unifying image. Ultimately, the court sided with the Italian government noting the display of a crucifix does not constitute indoctrination, it is simply a passive symbol. What is significant is the government argued for six years that a crucifix, this symbol of the Catholic Church, was part of their cultural heritage. This is certainly a far cry from Garibaldi, a leader of unification, who said “Death to priests! Who deserves to die more than this wicked sect which has turned Italy into un paese di morti (a country of the dead) into a cemetary?”[i] So, how did this change come about?

Although Mussolini was not what we might call a person of faith, he did support a return to traditional values. More importantly, Mussolini was a student of Machiavelli. He understood the Florentine’s admonition that, everyone sees what you appear to be, but few experience what you really are. So in public, he embraced the Catholic Church. Again, learning from Machiavelli he knew, “there is no need to get all tied up with anti-religiousness and give Catholics reason for unease. [In] a fight … between Church and State, the State would lose.”[ii]

Added to this Mussolini and the Catholic Church had a common enemy, liberals who threatened not only the temporal authority of the church but its very existence. As a result of Mussolini’s more Christian attitude, the animosity the Catholic Church felt toward the Italian government subsided as the fascists’ power rose. Pope Pius XI saw Mussolini as a man “sent by Providence” and fascism as a vehicle of “moral regeneration.”

Finally, in 1929, the Concordat and Lateran Accords resolved the conflict between the Italian government and the Catholic Church. With these treaties, in return for papal recognition of the state of Italy, the pope was given Vatican City as a fully independent state. The church recognized Rome as the capital of the Italian government while the government recognized Rome as the center of the Catholic world. All bishops were to take an oath of loyalty to the Italian state which of course made sense since they were literally made employees of the state receiving both a salary and a pension.

The big win for the Catholic Church, however, was when Catholicism became the de facto religion of the Italian state. In addition to a law requiring a crucifix to be placed at the front of all classrooms, it also made the Catholic religion a compulsory subject in school. This was also a win for Mussolini. Just as so many despots before and after him, Mussolini realized religion was a powerful tool to solidify support and control the masses. This was something else taught by Machiavelli.

Interestingly, the Catholic Church rejected unification – a democratic movement for the good of the common Italian – because it meant they lost power as well as the money that went with it. Yet, fascism along with all of its ills, including the persecution of Jews, was readily embraced by the church when temporal power was restored, although it was not a complete restoration. Long before Jefferson, Dante advocated the separation of church and state because he saw how easily those who were charged with shepherding the spiritual lives of people can become lost in a dark wood, losing the true path when given earthly power. 

[i] Garibaldi, Giuseppe, Clelia, Il Governo dei Preti, Fratelli Rechiedei, Milan, 1970, Pg. 229

[ii] Price, R.G., Facisim Part I: Understanding Fascism and anti-Semitism, 2003,

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