The importance of the Catholic church in Italy can be seen throughout the country’s history. As the home of the Vatican, and the birthplace of the renaissance, Italy’s culture can be intrinsically tied to the rise of Catholicism in the country. This historical importance aided in the rise of Fascism, as Mussolini’s push to return to traditional values fell in line with the Catholic church’s own agenda in the country. Pope Pius XI and Mussolini formed an uneasy alliance, as Mussolini based much of his platform on morality, a common goal with the church, and an idea which held legitimacy when backed by the church. One of the biggest wedges in this relationship was Mussolini’s previous disdain for religion, as his first major publication as a journalist was titled “God Does Not Exist.”
Catholicism was, and continues to be, greatly important in Italy: during World War 2, 97% of Italians identified as Roman Catholic. With the rise of democracy in Italy during the 1800’s, the Vatican withdrew from political life, refusing to play a part as they saw the secularism that came with unification as an affront to Catholic ideals. Catholics were banned from participating in politics, although many did.
When Pope Pius XI came to power in 1922, he sought to re-engage with Italian political life, and push forward the church’s values. This was the same year that Mussolini was established as prime minister by the king. It took seven years to negotiate the treaty between the church and state, but the alliance that was officially formed in 1929 helped to sway many Italians to the side of the fascists as the authority of the church was so widely regarded. The alliance gave the Vatican independence, established Catholicism as the official religion of Italy, and allowed the church to not take a front hand role in politics. In return, Mussolini got the church’s backing, and they agreed upon many things, such as the scourges of parliamentary democracy and communism. The church also won in the decades-long fight between church and state over the issue of marriages, as with the rise of democracy there was a push to allow non-church unions.
Mussolini and the church also agreed upon issues with feminism, and with a push for tradition, there was a push for women to be resigned to the household and bear as many children as possible. This was a boon for fascist Italy, as the more the population grew and specifically grew up under fascism, the more power the party gained. Thus the alliance formed under the ideals of hierarchical power structures, and they helped each other prosper.
Although Mussolini did not rise to power on a platform of anti-semitism, he would adopt it likely in an attempt to gain closer ties with fascist Germany and Hitler. This was supported by many in the Italian Catholic community, and private letters from Pope Pius express his satisfaction with the policy. Although racism and Catholic values are at odds with each other, deeply entrenched prejudices against Jewish people had been rampant for centuries within Catholic Italy, as well as much of Europe. The fascists and the church were able to come to an understood agreement on the issue, as it was a benefit to the fascists to hold the Jewish people as sub-humans and genetically inferior in order to subjugate them and, again, uphold hierarchical power structures. It was a benefit to the Catholic church in the effort to keep the state non-secular. Thus, the Pope and Vatican remained silent when it came to the Holocaust.
After the next Pope, Pius XII came to power in 1939, he began to denounce the atrocities being done to Jewish people in Europe and the war as a whole. He began to help Jewish people escape Italy when the danger to them became more imminent. Catholic citizens all over Italy held to their faith and helped Jewish people hide throughout Italy. So although the Catholic Church had once played a major role in helping Fascism thrive in Italy through their both open support and key silence, it would go on to undermine Fascism.