Painting Catholicism with a Fascist Brush

David I. Kertzer’s Mussolini and the Pope illustrates the mindset that led me to write a book on antifascist obsessions. If we accept the axiom that no form of anti-fascist enthusiasm goes unrewarded, then it is understandable why Kertzer, a history professor at Brown University, received a Pulitzer Prize for his latest book—and the additional honor of seeing his book strongly recommended in The New York Review of Books. According to a report available online, Kertzer’s study of the dealings between Italian Duce and Pius XI convulsed the Italian government. Kertzer’s bombshell caused the Italian Senate to hold a special session at which the author was present to hector them about the Italian–Catholic past. Fame and fortune can still be extracted from the politics of guilt, even misplaced guilt.

Kertzer is familiar with such projects. In an earlier, equally acclaimed book, he focused on papal anti-Semitism down through the ages and allegedly demonstrated how the anti-Jewish remarks attributed to Church dignitaries paved the way for Nazi atrocities. Kertzer also tells us in his writings that Jews suffered disabilities living in the papal states in the nineteenth century. (So did other non-Catholics.) Moreover, Jews and other non-Anglicans suffered disabilities in England into the nineteenth century, but I’m not aware of any book treating this situation as a build-up to Hitler’s Final Solution.

No informed person would deny that the Catholic Church in the past was intolerant of what it considered to be religious error and that in earlier ages churchmen spoke out intemperately against Jews. But does this explain certain actions that Kertzer rages against? He treats in a generally contemptuous fashion the Jesuit Pietro Tacchi Ventura, who negotiated with Mussolini on behalf of the papacy, when the fascist leader was planning to enact anti-Jewish laws in 1938. We are told this churchman was delighted with the result, because he was carrying out a Jesuit “dream” of removing “noxious Jewish influences” from Christian society. But there are many other ways to explain Tacchi Ventura’s attempt at making a deal with Mussolini, who was then moving into Hitler’s orbit. One, the Jesuit go-between tried to moderate an accomplished fact. He worked to limit the restrictions placed on the Jews, so they were relatively light and did not approximate what was then being inflicted on Jews in Germany. He may have been making the best out of a bad situation.

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Kertzer Book coverTwo, the Jesuit negotiator was trying to get the fascist government to stop disrupting Catholic youth organizations or trying to take them over, a practice the Italian single-party state was engaging in during the 1930s. The Jesuit tried to elicit this favor in return for a livable version of the anti-Jewish laws that Mussolini was planning to impose. Perhaps the papacy should have protested Mussolini’s projected laws against Italian Jews. But it is hard to see how the Church would have prevailed or deterred the fascist leader from the disastrous course he was already on. Least of all, must we assume a backdrop of Catholic anti-Semitism in order to make sense of what for Kertzer was the most wicked thing the Church did in fascist Italy. It was a practical agreement that Tacchi Ventura tried to make; and as Kertzer explains, the “irascible” and even disgusted Pius XI became furious when informed of its contents.

Catholic clergy throughout Europe opposed the Nazis and, more than a few spoke out against Hitler’s racial anti-Semitism. In Germany Catholic leaders were far more willing than the state-controlled Evangelical Church to scold the Nazis; and up until March of 1933, when they caved in under misdirection from Rome, the Catholic Center Party in Germany remained a bulwark of resistance to the Third Reich and even ran Jews as candidates in electoral districts in Berlin. Recent attacks on Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” are so far removed from any truth that one flinches to read such calumnies. Pius saved Italian Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy and, as Rabbi David Dallin points out in a widely publicized defense that reads very much like the expression of gratitude that came after the War from Israeli political leader Golda Meir, the pope, although extremely limited in his options, did what he could to help Jews.

The decision of Dutch Catholic bishops to speak out against Nazi anti-Semitism resulted in the deportation of Jewish converts to Catholicism as well as other Jews. In Poland during the Nazi occupation Catholic priests who expressed any dissent were thrown into concentration camps or summarily killed. (The same happened in Germany to clerical opponents of the regime.) It would be untrue to say that no Catholic clergy anywhere collaborated with the Nazis; unfortunately there were some in Croatia, Slovakia and elsewhere who did. But there is no specifically Catholic pattern of such behavior, and for the most part devout Catholics, like the Calvinists in France and Hungary, the Lutherans in Denmark and the Orthodox in Bulgaria, behaved honorably and in some cases heroically in the face of tyranny.

In any case the fact that the Catholic Church had discriminated against Jews in the past did not make it especially receptive to Nazi race doctrines or the idea of Aryan supremacy. Kertzer stresses that the Papacy generally and Pius XI in particular rejected racial anti-Semitism, and as Pius XI made clear in an interview with a Belgian newspaper in 1938, “spiritually we are all Semites.” There is no reason to assume the pope didn’t believe that. A concordat that the Church reached with the Nazi state in 1933, and which was prepared by Eugenio Pacelli, the Germanophone future pope Pius XII, broke down as it became apparent that Hitler would not tolerate independent religious organizations. This led to the papal encyclical drafted in German (also by Pacelli), Mit brennender Sorge), in March 1937, underlining the conflict between Rome and Berlin. By then the Papacy saw little if any possibility for cooperation with the Nazi order.

Note that most of the attacks on Pius XII as a Nazi sympathizer condemn him for his supposed non-action. Harder to show, even minimally, is that this pope, or his predecessor Pius XI, expressed any sympathy for the Nazis. The fact that Pius XII was concerned at the end of the War about a Communist takeover in Italy and France and the presence of Stalin’s armies in Central Europe did not reveal any evil intent. These attitudes were perfectly justified and did not prove the pope was rooting for the Third Reich (a point that I make in the British Spectator in response to John Cornwell’s tissue of lies Hitler’s Pope. Kertzer at least pretends to be neutral over “this controversial book.”) Kertzer’s complaint that “rather little attention has been paid to Eugenio Pacelli’s role in Italy in the years leading up to the war,” is followed by the accusation that Pacelli encouraged “collaboration” with the Italian fascist regime into the 1930s. What is left out of the implied attack is the following: Until the late 1930s Mussolini’s government did not discriminate against Jews. Indeed from 1934 until 1936, when Mussolini switched sides and helped form the Axis, the Duce was outspokenly anti-Nazi, offered asylum to German Jews, and provided training space for the Revisionist Zionists, who deeply admired the Italian fascists.

Contrary to the “advance praise” lavished on the dust cover of Kertzer’s work, his book does not stray far from conventional accounts of the events in question, despite “the staggering evidence” that was put at the author’s disposal by the Vatican in 2006. I have no doubt that Italian Jesuits in the interwar period deplored Jewish influences, that Mussolini, despite having a Jewish mistress and biographer and despite promoting Jews to high places in his regime, made anti-Jewish comments, and that in 1938, following his alliance with Nazi Germany, the Italian fascist government stripped Jews of professional positions and membership in the fascist party.

Starting in the fall of 1943, the Italian Social Republic, over which Mussolini was made the largely powerless titular head and which was closely overseen by Nazi Germany, rounded up Jews in its shrinking area of control. Led largely by the German SS, Italian thugs either shot Jews or deported them to camps, where some of the detainees were killed or died of ill treatment. All these things can be easily proved, with or without access to special documents stored in the Vatican. But if Kertzer had left his brief at this, no one who counted in academic and journalistic circles would be gushing over his book.

More important for his success than repeating factual accounts is playing up the horrifying character of “fascism” and its connection to Roman Catholicism, which before the Second Vatican Council “demonized the Jews.” Again Kertzer is telling us something that is widely known (and which I stress in my own book on fascism), that there was a symbolic and organizational connection between Latin fascism and the Catholic matrix out of which the fascist founding fathers came. But Kertzer insists that we look upon fascist Italy from the moment Mussolini came to power as supremely evil. Despite his generally matter-of-fact prose, it is clear that he despise those who had truck with the fascist Devil. Later American cardinal Francis Spellman, who was then working in the Vatican, is already shown in 1929 to be the reactionary the liberal press later depicted him as. He wrote to his mother from Rome expressing approval that the Italian state and the papacy came to a jurisdictional agreement.

Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the papal secretary of state who negotiated the Lateran agreements in 1929 and signed them on behalf of the papacy, is treated as generally amoral. Allegedly the institution for which Gasparri worked “had no special fondness for democracy” and was merely concerned “whether Mussolini could be trusted to honor his promise to restore the Church’s influence in Italy.” A more accurate account would recognize that during the ramshackle, corrupt partitocrazia that Mussolini replaced in 1922, the Italian state and the Church were at war. Kertzer’s Italian “democracy” had been unable to deal with the violence and civil unrest that gripped Italy after the First World War.

Allow me to raise the question of why the fascist state from its inception was so wicked that the papacy should never have made any agreement with its representatives. Among the evil states of the last hundred years, Mussolini’s government seems relatively benign, certainly up until the late 1930s. Except for a few assassinations, mostly outside Italy; it did not kill its enemy; except for its intermittent hectoring of church organizations, it left the economy and civil society largely free; and it was quite tolerant of the Jews up until the late 1930s. Up until then, moreover, the fascist government enjoyed the effusive approval of Winston Churchill, FDR and his Brain Trusters, the New Republic magazine, and a multitude of Jewish organizations. The virtues ascribed to this regime were mostly exaggerated, but so are its present demonization, which may have to do the current political climate.

In comparison with Third World dictatorships that the papacy now recognizes or negotiates with, the fascist Italy with which the papacy cut a deal was a relatively civilized country. Is Kertzer similarly outraged that the Papacy now makes overtures to Saudi Arabia, the People’s Republic of China and a host of African kleptocracies? What about Communist Cuba, a brutally anticlerical government to which the current pope is reaching out? Are any of these negotiating partners any better than Mussolini’s government was in 1929? To be provocative: I couldn’t imagine Mussolini requiring Catholic or Protestant clergy to desist from criticizing gay marriage lest they become subject to criminal prosecution. This now happens with increasing frequency in ‘liberal democracies” like Canada.


  • Paul E. Gottfried

    Paul E. Gottfried is the retired Horace Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and a Guggenheim recipient. He is the author of numerous books, including The Search for Historical Meaning (2010) and Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America (2011). His latest book is Fascism: The Career of a Concept (2015).

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