Thursday, April 24, 2014

David Kertzer Book Panel: The Pope and Mussolini ▬ February 26, 2014

Professors Kevin Madigan, Suzanne Steward-Steinberg  and Kevin Spicer join Professor David Kertzer in a discussion about "The Pope and Mussolini", at the Watson Institute

Professor Kertzer opened his presentation with a reference to the February edition of "First Things" and quoted from an article on Pius XI by Filup Mazurczak.  Mazurczak's article is a somewhat "rose-tinted glasses" view of the papacy of Pius XI.  The truth, as Kertzer reminded us, is somewhat more complicated.

At the heart of the book is an extensive examination of the role of the church in keeping Mussolini in power.  It is the stuff of cloak and dagger crime fiction, except it is assuredly historical fact.  Kertzer's 16,000 words of references, notes and archival file numbers dispells any notion of flights of anti-Catholic or anti-papal fantasy.  Kertzer writes history.

One of the many characters who emerge in this story is the Jesuit Pietro Tacchi Venturi, the pope's private messenger to Mussolini.  This man was obsessed with ideas of Jewish plots and, without the pope's knowledge, "kept hectoring Mussolini that he was under threat by the Jews and he better take action against them".  Pius kept Tacchi Venturi because of his access to Il Duce not because of his antisemitic paranoia that was certainly not shared by the pope.  Tacchi Venturi proved himself so useful that Pius XII kept him in his position of unofficial mediator with Mussolini.

By mid-1930s Pius XI had doubts about Mussolini, but he was surrounded by curial officials who were determined to preserve the relationship between the Church and fascist state.  The most disturbing reality that emerges is the Italian government's reliance on the Secretariat of State and, in particular, the Secretary, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli to shape and steer Catholic opinion around the world in a pro-Italian fashion especially after the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

Then there is the sad deal between Mussolini and the pope just before the passing of the first antisemitic laws in Italy.  In return for the silence of the Church over Italy's new anti-Jewish laws of July 1938, the regime would ensure a steady stream of benefits, gifts and privileges.

From the outset Kertzer underscored the importance of "triangulation" of archives in order to corroborate the thousands of documents from the ASV, Italian state archives and other sources.  No fact could be allowed to stand alone; it must be put into its context against other sources.  I interpret this to be David Kertzer's all too familiar experience with the tactics of those who seek, through thinly veiled smear campaigns, to impugn the academic and personal integrity of historians who set about to do their job, and do it well. It is a point that Kevin Madigan also makes.

The presentation of all speakers makes it clear that the historical narrative is far more nuanced and complex than the "official" narrative maintained by the Vatican and elements of restorationist and neo-conservative Catholic groups.  Kertzer's book makes for uncomfortable reading, and so it should.  However, if there is to be an honest and open discussion of the role of the church, the papacy and individuals within the Vatican, the acceptance of a less than perfect history must be the starting point.

At the end what David Kertzer's research has revealed is sadly simple.  Pius XI was a tragic figure, a man with a medieval world view, limited in his ability to respond and deal with the threat and seductive charm of fascism, who came to see too late in his life that he had indeed supped with the devil. 

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