God as Pilate: law or tyranny?

In June of 1924, Mussolini was in trouble. Fascist thugs with ties to him had murdered Italy’s top Socialist parliamentarian, Giacomo Matteotti. The public assumed that Mussolini had ordered it, and Italy was in an uproar. Even conservatives were beginning to distinguish between nationalism, which they embraced, and the overthrow of democracy, which they weren’t prepared for. Mussolini’s opponents had caught him acting above the law. As David I. Kertzer puts it in his 2014 book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, “The end of the regime seemed near” (1431).1

The regime had begun only two years earlier with the support of a vital constituency. Within days of becoming prime minister, Mussolini had taken immediate steps to make good on his promises to the church to restore its influence in Italian society. He had his new cabinet attend a Mass and ordered them to kneel (832).

Mussolini had followed up this symbolism with action:

He ordered crucifixes to be placed on the wall of every classroom in the country, then in all courtrooms and hospital rooms. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He restored Catholic chaplains to military units; he offered priests and bishops more generous state allowances; and to the special delight of the Vatican, he required that the Catholic religion be taught in the elementary schools. (1058)

The Vatican was delighted. Having lost most battles in Italy’s decades-long cultural war, the church in 1924 “had no particular fondness for democratic government” (1091). It had political reasons for overlooking Mussolini’s unsavory past, his previous association with the left, and his obvious ignorance of religion. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, admitted with a chuckle that “Mussolini thought all Catholic holidays fell on Sundays” (1035).

Gasparri called Mussolini a “great character.” Mussolini was a colorful character, anyway: unlike his predecessors in office, Mussolini held frequent, entertaining rallies with his political base as if he were perpetually running for office. He often denied what most people before his day called reality, understanding that “people were ruled most of all by emotion, and that their reality had less to do with the external world than with the symbolic one he could fashion for them” (1250). Having watched Mussolini’s rise and his early days in office, Gasparri concluded that “Providence makes use of strange instruments to bring good fortune to Italy” (1035).

Church leaders visit the White House this week.

A month after Mussolini’s crisis began, the Italian church gave him its full support. The Pope published an article in the Vatican newspaper denying Mussolini’s involvement and directing Christians to avoid even legal means of dismissing Mussolini. If Mussolini were removed, the Pope warned, the political left would rise, and the church was incapable of making an alliance with the left (1454).

The Pope’s article, along with a subsequent speech the Pope gave that complemented his article (1466), was a political tonic for Mussolini. He survived his crisis, and by January of the following year, he was publicly taking full, triumphant responsibility for Matteotti‘s murder as well as other recent violence:

If all the violence was the result of a particular historical, political, and moral climate, then I take responsibility for it, because I created this historical, political, and moral climate. . . . Italy, sirs, wants peace, wants tranquility, wants calm. We will give it this tranquility, this calm through love if possible, and with force, if it becomes necessary.

The inference in Mussolini’s admission, of course, was that his political survival was more important to Italy than the rule of law. Kertzer calls this speech before parliament that month “the most dramatic speech of his career.” After the speech, Kertzer writes, “the Fascist assault on the last vestiges of democracy in Italy began” (1501).

When a nation’s church looks for a political solution to its spiritual crisis, God may come to that church in the guise of Pontius Pilate. Who will it be, Pilate asks his politically minded visitors, Jesus or Barabbas? God seems to have asked the Italian church a similar question: a republic or a tyranny? The church’s choice became its nation’s fate.

  1. Numbers in parentheses are location numbers within The Pope and Mussolini‘s Kindle version.