Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Emma Fattorini: Hitler, Mussolini, and the Vatican

A number of weeks ago I posted a link to Richard Bosworth's review of Fattorini's book published on the Times Higher Education on 20 October 2011. 

Bosworth's review is generally positive with a number of cautions and criticisms.  He asserts that Fattorini needed to go deeper into issues and that she has not been served well by the translation of the Italian into English. However, what Bosworth does not make clear is Fattorini's attempt to give a global portrait of the pontificate of Pius XI and place Germany and Italy within that context.  This is, I believe, her strength.  Nonetheless, I do agree with him that she needed to work more on Eugenio Pacelli and provide greater analysis of his role as Secretary of State. 

Book titles can be deceptive.  The Italian title - Pio XI, Hitler e Mussolini - is better, and Fattorini's work would have been better served by retaining it.  And yet, her work encompasses much more than this. 

I found her greatest strength in the recognition that any fruitful study of the papacy and the Vatican has to be seen through the matrix of religion and religious identity.  This is something I argued forcefully in my own work.  Pius XI was first and foremost a religious leader.  He viewed the world through the Tradition of Catholic Christianity, through his life-long religious practices and his strong devotion to Therese of the Child Jesus (1873-1897) the Discalced Carmelite nun from Lisieux he canonised in 1925.  The "little way" of Therese profoundly marked the religious life of Pius XI.  Her "Autobiography of a Soul" published shortly after her death taught that the spiritual path consisted not in doing great things, but in serving God in the ordinariness of everyday life, and doing the little things well.  Serving Christ in those around her, pondering on his life in the Gospels and remaining faithful to her religious duties in the Carmel, was Therese's antidote to a popular religious piety that often drew people away from the core essentials of the faith and ran the risk of becoming superstitions.  Pius saw in Therese's spirituality a pattern for Catholic Action - the movement that would empower lay Catholics to engage in the world around them, a world often hostile to institutional religion - and be a tool for the re-evangelisation of Europe.  This became part of the way the pope sought to provide Catholics with tools to combat anti-Catholic movements of the right and the left from the early 1920s.  Along with the very deliberate creation of the feast of Christ the King to demonstrate that the loyalty of the Catholic church was to Christ first and foremost, Pius XI endeavoured to lead the Church through a "rebirth of Christian Society" (title of Chapter 1).

Pius XI's relationship with Cardinal Pacelli is described clearly as that of two opposites who respected each other enormously, were close workers and who shared a common vision of the Church and a passion for the faith.  They were also two men marked by two very different ways of approaching issues.  Pius was forthright, blunt and spoke his mind forcefully without fear of favour.  He was known to have a fiery temper and was not above displaying his emotions, even in public. He was a deep thinker, read widely in many disciplines, especially theology, social justice and history, had a considerable grasp of world affairs, discussed strategies with Pacelli, but at the end of deliberations, he made decisions and acted accordingly.  He was also pope and expected his decisions to be obeyed. 

Pacelli was reticent, guarded and spoke his mind only after long considerations and usually in complex and highly refined diplomatic language.  He rarely lost his temper or showed emotion, and never in public. He was a deep thinker, read widely in many disciplines, but remained conservative in his opinions, had a phenomenal grasp of world affairs, discussed strategies with the pope, but found decision making to be an agonising process.  He was the servant of his master, the Vicar or Christ, and executed the pope's decisions faithfully.

Together Pius XI and Pacelli made a partnership between 1930 and 1939 that served the Catholic church well. 

Fattorini's use of the material from the Archivio Segreto Vaticano is detailed and covers a considerable part of the pontificate of Pius XI.  The use of recent projects such as Hubert Wolf's digital presentation of the Pacelli nunciature reports from 1918 and contemporary scholarship makes this book an important addition to our understanding of this period.

It is the use of archival material that provides another strength to Fattorini's work.  Her survey of the complex realities within the Roman curia, and the role played by the "black pope", the General of the Jesuits, Ledochowski, helps bring into perspective the responses of the Vatican to the "proffered hand" of the French communists, the Spanish civil war and then to Italy and Germany.

The chapters on Germany and Italy are the heart of the book.  But, they are enhanced through the survey of Vatican diplomacy from 1918 onwards and especially the awareness of realpolitik shared by Pius and Pacelli as well as the treatment of France, Spain and Mexico.

I share the conclusion that Fattorini makes about Pius' planned speech on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Lateran Accord.  It was looking more and more certain that Pius was convinced that a "show down" with Hitler and Mussolini was inevitable and he was more than ready for it.  The pope's death literally hours before he was to speak is one of those moments which tempt us with a "what if" speculation.  Pacelli's destruction of the speech is both testament to his obedience to papal protocol in his role as caretaker after Pius' death as well as a piece of circumstantial evidence pointing to a hope for a new direction.  It would be presumptuous to think that Pacelli hoped or believed he would be elected pope, so his actions as caretaker cannot be construed as a pre-emptive papal strike.

At the end of the book I had a far better understanding of Pius XI and a greater admiration for this pope who worked tirelessly to steer the Church without compromising to the dictators of whom he had a clear and accurate understanding.

I always begin reading a book with a quick look at the chapter headings, a glance at the index, and then go to the notes.  Here is where one finds evidence of scholarship.  There are 33 pages of detailed notes at the end of the text.  Of 380 notes, 94 or 25%, are references to Vatican archival material.  Many of the archive notes are accompanied by further details.  Fattorini is an historian who knows the importance of archives and also knows of their importance to other historians who wish to delve further into aspects she has opened up.

Does Fattorini add to the body of knowledge?  Much of the "big picture" is already well known.  Fattorini does what other historians do, and deepens our understanding of aspects of the period under study.  There is more work to be done on Pius XI.  Emma Fattorini has helped us come to a more complete appreciation of this highly significant man and his forceful voice that was heard between 1922-1939.  It is a book well worth reading.



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