Friendly Enemies: Pius XI and Mussolini

Pius XI and Mussolini are depicted as friendly enemies by David I. Kertzer in The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe. The future pope Achille Ratti was raised in a Catholic family which had a strong commitment to the future of the Catholic Church. As a young man Ratti was an excellent student and avid mountain climber (9) and in 1879 was ordained as a priest and in 1919 a bishop. Source:

Earlier the Italian government had seized the Papal States and Church government there was erased. When elected pope as Pius XI in 1922 he accepted becoming the fifth pope as “prisoner of the Vatican” but not for long! The pope continued to believe that Rome belonged to the Catholic Church (18) and sought from the Fascist government religious instruction in the schools and the freedom for Catholic Action to evangelize.

 The friendly enemy of Pius XI was Mussolini who became the leader of the Fascists and Italian prime minister in 1922. His bright eyes attracted women and his powerful speech gave him the ability to command men (21 & 24). The pope collaborated with his oppressive government to gain religious education in the schools and the freedom to evangelize (29-30).

Mussolini. Source: in the 1930s Mussolini became ideologically enamored by Nazi racism. He wanted the Italian youth exposed to this type of thinking in military training camps, while at the same time the Fascist gangs in black-shirts beat up Socialists, forced castor oil down their throats, and destroyed labour unions (5-6).                                             

The burning issue between Catholic Church and Italian State which drifted for almost seventy years was “the Roman Question,” that is the confiscation of the Papal States since 1861 by the Italian Government. Yet after negotiation between Pius XI and Mussolini for four years, the Lateran Treaty resolved the standoff in 1929. The Catholic religion was now defined as “the only religion of the State” (106), St Peter’s Basilica and the major basilicas of Rome belonged to the Vatican State, and cardinals, nuncios, members of the Roman community could function independently of the Italian state. Pope Pius XI. Source:

In reflection of the concessions granted by the Italian government Pius XI considered Mussolini a man sent by “Providence” allowing the Catholic Church its place in Italy and the world (111). Yet the treaty associated the Catholic Church with the Fascists and the Fascists with the Church – which stimulated attendance at Catholic parishes, made the Fascist Party stable, and the Jews nervous (113).

The pact between Pius XI and Mussolini quickly crumbled as the church demanded concessions for its devotional life and the Fascists insisted on racist laws excluding Jews and other minorities. Pius XI complained that the new cross of the swastika has risen in Rome which is “the enemy of the Cross of Christ (356). This public denunciation of Fascism and its alliance with Nazi racism angered Mussolini who feared that the Church was deserting Fascism.

Much to Mussolini’s relief  Pius XI expired at 81 years of age and the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli smoothed things over. In 1943 as the Allied armies marched up the Italian peninsula the Italian King pursued peace with them, handed the Italian government over to General Badoglio, and had Mussolini arrested (392). In April 1945 the Italian partisans seized Mussolini and shot him ending the Fascist influence in Italy.

This temporary collaboration in the 1920s and the early 1930s between Pius XI and Mussolini is an exciting story for a time of shared values between the church and state but the diverse goals could not be reconciled for long. These mutual interests shared for a time proved to be radically different and made further collaboration impossible.                                   

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