The Church and Mussolini: Italy, Abyssinia, Spain and Austria

Pope Pius XI

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D.
From CNA

By the early 1930s, the Church and Mussolini both realized that the Concordat and the Lateran Treaty had not really delivered what they had expected. For the Church, the happiness at having a modicum of independence restored, and at regaining its traditional place in Italian society, was tempered by a growing awareness that the regime that controlled the state was not as well disposed towards her as originally believed. Mussolini, too, was disappointed. His hopes that the Concordat had tied the Church to the Fascists, and that his role in restoring the Church’s independence had made Her subservient to him, had been dashed in the episode around Catholic Action.

In 1929 he stated in parliament: “The Fascist state claims to the full its ethical character: it is Catholic, but it is before everything else exclusively and essentially Fascist”. Such praise was no longer forthcoming after 1932, and Pope Pius XI made quite clear that he did not think Fascism to be Catholic at all:

“Fascism declares itself to be Catholic. Well, there is one way and one way only to be truly Catholic – Catholics in fact and not sham Catholics … to obey the Church and its head”.

Mussolini had not done either in his conflict with Pius over Catholic Action.

However, it would be quite wrong to say that the relationship went into a terminal decline after 1932: it did not. One surprising figure to have maintained a cordial relationship with Mussolini was Bl. Cardinal Schuster of Milan O.S.B. A saint and a Fascist dictator are, perhaps, not the most obvious friends, but that there was a close personal relationship between the two men is beyond doubt. Mussolini, as one of his sons has testified, trusted the Cardinal, although not all in the dictator’s entourage shared this trust. Even towards the very end of his life, when he had clashed for years with Schuster over the treatment of Jews, Mussolini turned to him for help in mediating with the allies. As shall be seen, however, Cardinal Schuster’s main motive was not friendship, but pastoral care for a lost soul.

Other bishops, too, remained on friendly terms with Mussolini. This was, in part, inspired by their patriotism. It remains a curious fact of history that so many Catholic prelates of this period wore their rather exclusive nationalism on their sleeves, whilst the Church was condemning state-worship in no uncertain terms. This is shown by the strange show that took place in Rome in 1938, when sixty bishops and two-thousand priests were granted an audience with Mussolini. The reason was their contribution in the drive to increase cereal production in Italy, although quite how they contributed is left uncertain. The Archbishop of Udine hailed Mussolini’s leadership role, but his words are worth examining:

“We pray that the Lord may assist you to win all the battles that you are so wisely … fighting for the prosperity, greatness and glory of Italy”.

National pride and a strong sense of belonging to Italy, finally allowed after the Lateran Treaty, shine through these words. Further evidence for this nationalist tendency amongst many of Italy’s clergy comes from the 1935 Abyssinian War. For the background of this it is useful to recall that Italy had been rather bad at acquiring colonial territory during the nineteenth century. When the First World War ended, she held modern Libya, Eritrea, part of Somalia and a few Greek islands.

In 1895-6, Italy had invaded Abyssinia, the modern Ethiopia, hoping to gain an African colony. They had superiority in weapons, but that did not off-set Ethiopian superiority in numbers and morale: Italy became the only European country to be decisively defeated by an African opponent during the colonial era. The episode had remained a sore point with Italian nationalists of all colors, including many of the clergy. The latter also recalled the failed Catholic missions to the predominantly Oriental Orthodox country.

In the war of 1935 many, including Bl. Cardinal Schuster, saw a chance to regain lost Italian honor and open up a field of mission for the Italian Church. They were to be disappointed on both accounts. The war was conducted with great brutality by the Italians, who used poison gas, notwithstanding the general horror in which this weapon was held by all since its use in the trenches of the Western Front. Casualty figures for the Ethiopians are very imprecise, but at least 275,000 died, more than one third of all combatants.

In the aftermath, which saw weak condemnation of Italy by Britain and France, but nothing more, the missionary hopes of the Church were dashed, too. Instead of promoting Christianity, the Fascist regime was more concerned with maintaining its hold on the new colony. The hereditary enemies of the Oriental Orthodox Ethiopians, mainly Muslim Somalis and Eritreans, were promoted and rewarded by the colonial state. It is true that some effort was made to establish new missions, but these received little government backing. In any case such was the shock at the conduct of the war, that even its supporters, like the bishop of Cremona or Cardinal Schuster, found themselves repulsed. It was one of the reasons cited by Schuster when, in 1945, he asked the Americans explicitly to exclude Mussolini from any armistice.

There is one further, curious and very important footnote to the Church’s reaction to the Abyssinian War: research has shown that the vast majority of parish priests in the country were resolutely opposed to the adventure. That they should diverge so dramatically from some of the leading bishops is indicative of just how difficult it can be to talk about ‘The Church’ during the war; even the clergy held widely divergent views. Did their stance reflect the distaste of the wider Italian public? It quite possibly did, and we ought to recall that the Fascist regime was never put to a public approval test.

It was yet another foreign adventure that further clouded relations between Church and Fascist dictatorship: the Spanish Civil War. I have already dealt with the reaction to the Civil War in that country by elements within the Church previously. In Italy, there was strong support for Franco, but this was primarily based on Fascist solidarity rather than on the basis of a shared concern for the future of the Catholic Church in Spain. It is clear that Hitler’s involvement was as little inspired by a love for Catholicism as was that of the Muslim soldiers in Franco’s legions.

The Italian intervention proved very popular amongst Italy’s Catholics, who believed that the Duce was finally discarding his Socialist past. Some 60,000 Italian soldiers went and fought against the republican government in Spain, and there is no doubt that many of these ordinary soldiers did see their role as saviors of the Church in Spain. Let us not forget: that Church was, indeed, threatened. Yet for the wider Catholic Church, this involvement proved a mixed blessing. True, the immediate threat to the Church in Spain was removed.

However, as Mussolini and Hitler stood shoulder to shoulder in Spain, it became increasingly difficult for the Duce to oppose Hitler’s designs on Austria. There, the Catholic and stringently anti-Nazi, but very authoritarian, Vaterländische Front had been closely associated with Mussolini, who had promised military protection in case of German aggression. The pact had been invoked in 1934, when the leader of the Front, Dollfuss, was assassinated by Austrian Nazis. Dollfuss, unlike Mussolini, was staunchly Catholic, and the Italian-German co-operation during the Spanish Civil War actually made the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 a possibility. Once annexed, the Catholic Church in Austria suffered the same discrimination as its German counterpart.

The head of the Catholic Church in Italy, Pope Pius XI, may have supported the removal of the republican regime in Spain, but he also made sure that the approach of the Catholic Church towards those persecuting it was noted. In a speech in 1936, he stated:

“What of the others? Those who had massacred priests, burned churches and proscribed religion, and yet remain and always will remain Our children. We cannot doubt … what We have to do: to love them … to pray for them”.

It was a far cry from the glorification of conflict and violence that was the hallmark of the Fascist state in Italy, and, ultimately, the authoritative statement of the position of the Catholic Church during this period.

Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.

Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.

Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.

In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.

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3 Responses to The Church and Mussolini: Italy, Abyssinia, Spain and Austria

  1. toadspittle says:


    “We pray that the Lord may assist you to win all the battles that you are so wisely … fighting for the prosperity, greatness and glory of Italy”
    ..well, as we all know, the Lord failed to deliver.

    And not for the first time. Even in Montaigne’s day, the Italians were more noted for their “discretion” in battle than their bravery.
    And it is said, (unfairly and doubtless untruly) that during the Spanish Civil War (sigh!) a Spanish Nationalist officer, trying to encourage his reluctant Italian allies into action, gave a rousing shout of, “A las cañones!” (To the cannons!) at which point the Italians ran back to their transoprt, jumped in, and sped away.
    They later explained they had misheard him as saying “A las caminones!” (to the trucks!)


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Reluctance to kill is a virtue.


  3. toadspittle says:

    Try telling that to Fascists (or Italian bishops, it would seem).


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