"We behold with sorrow," wrote Achille Ratti (the new Pope Pius XI) in 1922, "society lapsing back slowly but surely into a state of barbarism." Despite the Treaty of Versailles, the world had not found "true peace", and the new "merely human" League of Nations was incapable of delivering it. The only institution that could, the pope wrote, was the one that "extends beyond the confines of nations and states" and sat "above all nations": the Catholic Church.
Between the first World War and the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the church pursued a diplomatic strategy that sought to arrest the rise of secularism by carving out a new role for itself in the European order. In this eye-opening book, historian Giuliana Chamedes – once a journalist in Rome – reveals how this "Catholic internationalism" has often been overlooked, offering an important new perspective on the 20th century's tumultuous middle act.
The decades before the Great War had seen the church's power fade. In what was dubbed a "Kulturkampf" ("culture war"), many European nation states curtailed its control of education and marriage, while the newly unified Italy annexed the Papal States, leaving the pope a "prisoner in the Vatican". Pope Benedict XV had pursued a peace settlement throughout the first World War, but he had been overshadowed by US president Woodrow Wilson and excluded from the 1919 Versailles peace conference.
The prospect of a postwar Europe designed without the church alarmed the Vatican. Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII) wrote to Cardinal secretary of state Pietro Gasparri that Wilson wanted to "Americanise the whole world", while the rise of international communism (viewed by many church leaders as "Judeo-Bolshevism") was even more frightening. The choice facing Europe, the Vatican's newspaper declared, was "Wilson or Lenin [or] Christian civilisation".
The papacy shifted from “defence to offence”, with Benedict XV dispatching Ratti to strike “concordats” with many of the newly independent states in central and eastern Europe, international treaties granting the church legal privileges and renewed social influence in exchange for support for fledgling nationalist regimes. Chamedes shows that concordats became the centrepiece of a papal ideology that rejected the possibility of what Polish cardinal August Hlond called “a church lowered to the status of an association, existing within civil laws”.
Alliances with reactionaries
Zealous hostility to communism and socialism led the church into legal alliance with right-wing reactionaries; indeed, Chamedes deems papal policy "anti-democratic through and through". "Let's give him a few months' credit," wrote Gasparri after Benito Mussolini's fascists marched on Rome, and the papacy raised little opposition to Mussolini's increasingly violent repression. The Vatican rejoiced in the 1929 Lateran Pacts with Italy, but exiled Christian Democratic leader Fr Luigi Sturzo lamented that the papacy was collaborating with "the complete triumph of the fascist state over the church".
In Germany too, Catholic concerns about the Nazi Party were overlooked as the pope deemed Hitler "an ally against Bolshevism". Despite the institution of dictatorship and what the pope privately called "anti-Semitic excesses", Pacelli negotiated and signed a concordat with the Nazi state in 1933. In 1936, the Vatican backed the coup against the republican government in Spain, declaring the brutal military campaign of General Franco (with the assistance of Mussolini and Hitler) "a holy war". Catholic dissidents condemned the church for allowing what the French Catholic philosopher Yves Simon called "the corruption of the Catholic world from within".
Pius XI had increasing misgivings about the totalitarianism of the regimes with which the church had done business, but his plans for strong condemnations of fascism and racial ideology were repeatedly toned down or buried by conservatives. For influential superior general of the Jesuits Wlodimir Ledóchowski – convinced that “Jews are the first makers and promoters of communist propaganda” – the message for the Vatican’s growing media and propaganda machine was simple: “Which side are you on: Catholic Rome or godless communism?”
Chamedes's exploration of the papacy's self-perception as one pole in a civilisational struggle with Moscow is intriguing, but by focusing almost entirely on the Vatican it leaves open the question of how influential the church's strategy actually was, or how much it was being manipulated and used by other powers. As she notes, the Axis powers co-opted the idea of the "Crusade against Bolshevism" in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
The Vatican’s controversial role in the second World War and the Holocaust will soon receive renewed attention after Pope Francis’s decision to open the archives of Pius XII’s papacy, and Chamedes wisely cautions that “it is important not to oversimplify” the complex questions. While the pope “seemed content to play a backseat role”, Catholic dissidents decried clerical silence about fascist crimes; not speaking out, a clandestine religious journal in Vichy France declared, means “we are all complicit”.
After the second World War, the struggle against the left continued: “Either you are with Christ or you are against him,” Pius XII told Italian voters in the 1948 election campaign. However, “the ground under the Vatican was shifting”. Church support of US Cold War policy led to criticism of “the Coca-Cola pope”, while an unwillingness to condemn crumbling colonialism – the pope insisted Africans should “give credit to Europe for their advancement” – alienated the growing church in the global south. In his final years Pius XII was disillusioned with American materialism and militarism, and despondent about his waning influence: “It seems that every effort is useless,” he lamented in 1957.
By calling the Second Vatican Council that began in 1962, his successor John XXIII set in motion a revolution. Concordat diplomacy was rejected and replaced by a commitment to "religious freedom" and a strategy of engagement with other faiths and ideologies. Hardline opposition to socialism gave way to a focus on social justice and human rights (albeit with many notorious blindspots). From Spain to Bavaria, Italy to Ireland (which is unfortunately absent throughout the book), the legal "special positions" that the church had pursued were removed or surrendered.
Yet Chamedes cautions that the 40 years of concordat diplomacy were not a failure. They helped to shape the mid-century European order and that of the Cold War, and firmly established the “megaphone” that the papacy still wields in global public debate. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI resurrected many aspects of the strategy, while Pope Francis’s contrasting multilateral approach has provoked fierce debate in the Vatican’s corridors of power. This fascinating book highlights that the church’s present is always in dialogue with its past.
Dr Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer