The road to the 1929 Concordat and Lateran Treaties was paved by small but significant gestures whose ulterior motive was to render the PPI [Partito Popolare Italiano] irrelevant long before it was abolished. The librarian pope [Pius XI] was presented with the Chigi collection of books and manuscripts, purchased by the Italian government in 1918. The Vatican removed its interdict upon a chapel in the Quirinal Palace, enabling the king’s eldest daughter to marry there a few days later. Crucifixes reappeared on the walls of classrooms and lecture theatres, with an imposing wooden cross in the middle of the pagan Colosseum. Holy Week in 1925 went smoothly, due in no small part, as Pius XI acknowledged, to the co-operation of the Fascist government. Since not even Mussolini had the effrontery to grace the seven centuries’ anniversary of the death of St Francis of Assisi, secretary of state Merry del Val had to make do with the education minister. But in 1925 Mussolini made a point of marrying Donna Rachele in church, a decade after their civil union. Totally ignoring their own Party programme, the Fascists restored properties once confiscated from religious orders, bailed out the ailing Bank of Rome, increased clerical salaries and modified the law in directions that benefited the Church. The regime closed fifty-three brothels and suppressed the freemasons – widely regarded within the Church as the dark power behind liberal anticlericalism – notwithstanding the fact that the masons had contributed generously to Fascist Party coffers, while several Fascist hierarchs, including Acerbo, Balbo, Farinacci and Rossi, were of the apron-and-trowel persuasion. In 1931 the regime banned abortion and beauty contests, measures that were welcomed by the Church.
The first formal initiative in solving the perennial Roman Question began in 1925 with the appointment of a commission designed to soothe certain neuralgic sensitivities in relations between Church and state. Despite the fact that Pius XI disowned the commission, changes in the government – the dismissal of the anticlerical Roberto Farinacci as Party secretary and the appointment of the Nationalist lawyer Alfredo Rocco as minister of justice – facilitated contacts. Two lawyers handled the talks, Francesco Pacelli, brother of Eugenio, at that point nuncio to Germany, and Domenico Barone, a senior civil servant in Rocco’s Justice Ministry. These men resolved such issues as the sovereign status of the Vatican City and the extraterritoriality of papal basilicas and palaces; a compensation package that the papacy was to receive in lieu of its lost revenues from the former Papal States; and guarantees of unimpeded communications between the Vatican and the wider Catholic world. These measures formed the basis of the 1929 Lateran Treaties. Thenceforth the temporal patrimony of the papacy has consisted of a 109-acre territory, roughly comparable in size with London’s St James’s Park or about a tenth of the area of New York’s Central Park. It had its own coinage, garage, postal system, radio transmitter, newspaper and printing press, a jail and a school, a mini-railway line and, of course, separate diplomatic accreditation and the famed Swiss Guard. Vatican Radio (whose transmitter rather than broadcasting station is within the enclave) was intended to underline the Church’s role in the wider world.
The miniscule size of the Vatican State was designed to contrast advantageously with the limitlessness of the claim to spiritual power. The wealth of the Vatican was also mythic, as can be seen from the related financial convention. The grant of 750 million lire in cash and a billion in consolidated government stock was urgently needed, even though the papacy agreed to take the cash in instalments and not to sell the stock. During the First World War, pope Benedict XV had given away his own fortune and then the Holy See’s ordinary revenue to repatriate prisoners of war and to afford succour to civilian refugees, so that by 1922 the Vatican Treasury consisted of the lire equivalent of £10,000 or roughly US$19,000. Unable to pawn a Bernini, Michelangelo or Raphael, his successor managed to deplete the financial resources still further, with generous donations to those ruined by inflation in Weimar Germany and gifts to the starving multitudes in the Soviet Union. Only the generosity and financial acumen of North American Catholics, who contributed half the papacy’s income in the 1920s, staved off financial ruination.
Unlike the Treaty, the Concordat between the Vatican and the Italian state took two years to negotiate. For Pius XI it was a significant step in the re-Christianisation of Italian society, in the re-establishment of a ‘Res publica Christiana’. It ended the unified Italian state’s usurpation of the right of defunct Italian principalities to veto nominations to bishoprics and many other ecclesiastical offices and to appropriate the revenues of vacant benefices. The state now accorded civil recognition to the sacrament of marriage, which remained indissoluble as it had been under the civil code. The Roman Segnatura, the supreme ecclesiastical court, would henceforth deal with dispensations or nullifications. In other respects, the Church’s antipathy to artificial birth-control harmonised with the Fascist state’s militant quest for births. Fascism also wanted women on the maternity bed or in the kitchen in ways that conformed with Catholic models. Religious instruction was reintroduced into secondary as well as primary schools, thus negating the wish of the first Fascist education minister to teach older children philosophy rather than religion. The state also agreed to recognise diplomas awarded by pontifical universities. Most importantly, in article 43, the state conceded an autonomous space to Catholic Action: ‘The Italian state recognises the organisations affiliated to the Italian Catholic Action in so far as these shall, as has been laid down by the Holy See, develop their activities outside all political parties and in immediate dependence on the hierarchy of the Church for the diffusion and realisation of Catholic principles.’ In other words, a state that in May 1929 formally styled itself ‘totalitarian’ had conceded the Church’s right to operate a variety of associations independently of such Fascist organisations as the Balilla youth movement, which had to desist from scheduling its activities to subvert Catholic holidays. Of course, the general climate created by Fascism stealthily leached into the Italian Church itself through something resembling osmosis. Even as it resisted Fascism, the Church tried to keep up with its heroic version of modernity. Under a regime that was ostentatiously virile, the Church endeavoured to ‘de-feminise’ its own image in favour of a more muscular tone. Clerical novels celebrated priests who were war veterans and athletically built devotees of ‘extreme sports’ -Pius XI himself being a keen climber.