Mussolini had to foster good relations with the Roman Catholic Church simply because, regardless of his dictatorship, the Roman Catholic Church was such a powerful institution in Italy. In a simplistic sense, while Mussolini governed the political side of Italy, the Roman Catholic Church governed the spiritual side. In this sense, Mussolini could not afford to anger the Roman Catholic Church.
As a young man, Mussolini had shared his father’s opinion of the Roman Catholic Church. Mussolini senior, disliked the power of the Church and the young Mussolini referred to priests as “black germs”.
However, once in power after 1922, he had to be more guided. Mussolini had recognised this as early as 1920 when the fledgling future leader of Italy had said that the pope “represents 400 million men scattered the world over…….(this was) a colossal force.”
Once leader, Mussolini had to decide on whether to take on the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy or to work with it. He chose the latter. In this way, Italians did not have to have divided loyalties. Therefore, Mussolini worked to get the Roman Catholic Church to accept a Fascist state while he planned to offer the Roman Catholic Church what it wanted.
To gain credibility with the Roman Catholic Church, Mussolini had his children baptised in 1923. In 1926, he had a religious marriage ceremony to his wife Rachele. Their first marriage in 1915 had been a civil ceremony. Mussolini closed down many wine shops and night clubs. He also made swearing in public a crime.
One of the reasons why Mussolini pushed the idea that women should stay at home and look after the family while their husbands worked, was because this was an idea pushed by the Roman Catholic Church. Mussolini voiced his disapproval at the use of contraception – an identical stance to the Roman Catholic Church. Like the Roman Catholic Church, Mussolini also wanted divorce banned in Italy. By doing all of this, Mussolini was trying to bring the Roman Catholic Church onto his side to get its support and give added credibility to his government. However, the relationship was not always harmonious.
In particular, Mussolini and the Roman Catholic Church clashed over who should control education. To ensure that children grew up as good Fascists, Mussolini wanted the state to control this – as it did. However, the Roman Catholic Church felt that it should have this power. Both sides worked for a compromise. The attempt to settle this dispute started in 1926 and it took until 1929 for agreements to be signed. These were the Lateran Treaties. They covered areas other than education.
The Papal States (the name given to land previously owned by the Roman Catholic Church in Italy) had lost all its land in the 1870 unification of Italy. The Roman Catholic Church received £30 million in compensation in 1929 and the Church was given 109 acres in Rome to create a new papal state – the Vatican. The pope was allowed a small army, police force, post office and rail station. The pope was also given a country retreat called Castel Gandolfo.
Another part of the treaty was called the Concordat. This made the Roman Catholic faith the state religion – this was a fait accompli anyway. The pope appointed his bishops, though they had to receive the government’s blessing. Religion had to be taught in both primary and secondary schools. The Roman Catholic Church was given full control of marriage.
When these agreements were signed in 1929, Mussolini’s popularity was at its highest. He had got what he wanted – the support from the members of the public who may not have supported the Fascists but who saw the Roman Catholic Church working with the Fascist government, and that by itself created a tacit acceptance of Mussolini’s government.
Though Mussolini and the Roman Catholic Church were to quarrel in the 1930’s, these were invariably minor squabbles and were quickly patched up. The one major one occurred in July 1938, when Mussolini introduced the Charter of Race which took away the Italian Jews right of Italian nationality. Italian Jews were not allowed to teach, they were not allowed to have state jobs, they were not allowed to be in the Fascist Party (though a number had since 1922!) and no Jew could work for a bank or insurance company. Jews were forbidden from marrying non-Jewish Italians and they were not allowed to join the army. These laws were so unpopular that the pope sent a letter of protest to Mussolini.
Here is the powerpoint lecture on the subject mussolini-and-catholicism