CATHOLIC dynasties have disappeared in Central and Western Europe; new democratic orders have been tried in the countries where those dynasties ruled; and after a short lapse of time they too have collapsed. The Center Party in Germany, the Popular Party in Italy are remembrances of the past; the Church herself consecrated their destruction. Yet the Catholic Church is so strong that she is able to make fanatical and all-pervasive dictatorships recognize her universal corporate entity. In representing Catholics who are subject to dictatorial rule she enjoys the privilege of collective bargaining, which is denied to every other national or international group. The ease with which she gives up old policies, the cool manner in which she leaves accumulated experiences and hard-won advantages to destruction when the fight appears hopeless, the capacity to "negotiate with the devil," as Pius XI put it -- all this is a tremendous lesson to those inclined to identify a Catholic policy with the Catholic policy.

It is difficult to define the Catholic policy, especially in view of the enormous distance between the maximum and the minimum programs of Catholic political aspirations. Since the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church has lost her character of a major propulsive force in international activity, and has been forced to adjust her dogmatism pragmatically, leaving the defense, the preservation, the expansion of Catholic interests to a careful weighing of historical and national circumstances. Between the minimum program of bare self defense and the maximum program of curialism there is room for so many shades, for so many replacements of the mobile barriers between religion and politics, that to discuss the Catholic policy as a whole seems a hopeless task. For example, in many parts of the wide Catholic world, and especially in certain non-Catholic countries, the faithful can live and die in the earnest belief that Catholicism is congenial to liberalism or to socialism. The Catholic Church offers its adherents a variety of plans for constructing the various national churches out of the materials that the land affords.

But if the Catholic policy is so manifold and hard to visualize, the Catholic world has a focus, Rome, in a country which is Italy, in a continent which is Europe. If we center our attention upon Rome and the Italian situation in the European complex, it will perhaps be possible to understand something of Vatican policies in the region where Catholic interests are most concentrated and predominant. This is also the region where the liberal political order first crumbled, carrying with it in its ruin many political and spiritual traditions, but not the Catholic Church.

Possibly the future historians of the Church will describe as an era of tribulation and captivity the period in which Catholic forces in some European countries were organized into independent political parties. The dogmatic discipline of religion is out of tune with the electioneering game of politics. In a country where Catholics are in a minority, political organization by means of an independent party entails accepting the status quo and tempering the missionary activity. In a country where Catholics are in a majority, a Catholic political party means the acceptance of the fact that large Catholic masses have been organized into non-Christian and sometimes irreligious parties.

The splitting of mediæval Catholic unity into sovereign national states had already affected the Church, by placing her spiritual and social activity within controlled limits. The breaking up of the national unity within each state into a plurality of competitive political groups obliged the Catholic forces in some countries to enter the competition, to make their own bid for political power, to accept the possibility of being a fragment and a minority. But a party, even if organized for the defense of certain special groups, cannot avoid becoming national in its scope, and a Catholic party cannot avoid proposing itself as a prospective majority of the population. It cannot go too far to the right without losing its own share of organized labor; it cannot go too far to the left without endangering its conciliatory program of social peace. Hence it offers a good target to its enemies, who call it a state within the state. This center position, of equilibrium and mediation between opposite tendencies, can be mistaken for liberalism, and may lead many Catholic statesmen to a liberal state of mind or even a liberal belief, which is heresy for the Catholic creed. "I do not like the German Center," Pius X is reputed to have said, "because it is a political party." Pius X did not live long enough to witness the mismating of socialist and Catholic parties, the alliance with democrats and Masons, the sharing of power with men of every race and creed, the unavoidable contamination of characters and impairment of prestige coming from a too-prolonged exercise of government. He did not see the German and Italian Catholics married for electoral purposes to the cause of proportional representation, which is the most powerful instrument for reaching a political status quo -- so powerful, indeed, that a revolution is needed to bring about changes in the political scene. Against expedients and the acceptance of the status quo, men like Dr. Eberle in Germany and Cardinal Boggiano in Italy never ceased to raise their voices.

Yet, in spite of the uncongeniality between party system and Catholic outlook, the Catholic parties proved to be splendid instruments of efficient and particularized political activity. To the cleavage of mediæval Catholic unity into sovereign national states the Church answered with the Concordats, which were, according to the curialist writers, both a sacrifice of the Church in the interests of souls and a charitable concession by the Pontifex. To the splitting up of the national life into strongly organized political parties the Church answered with the Catholic parties; and the religious administration, which linked together the individual believers man by man, was an exceedingly powerful instrument for electoral canvassing. The Church was not responsible for the method of solving political problems by counting noses, but, the method having been introduced, she had to abstract some good from it. There was nothing to allure her in the dogma that national harmony is reached by giving free voice to discordant tendencies, but the result of it was that in several European countries Catholics could now have a voice of their own, powerful if well harmonized.

However, the nearer a country is to Rome the more easily can the Vatican become involved in the political activity of Catholic parties. What was needed in Berlin might be dangerous in Paris, and fatal in Rome, capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Pius X was keenly sensitive to this danger; he did not view sympathetically the establishment of Catholic political parties in France. His letter to the French Bishops about the Sillon is a fine document of clear-cut vision: "Civilization is not to be invented; the new City is not to be founded on the clouds." In Il Fermo Proposito he had already asserted that to the Church and to the Church alone belonged the leadership of the social forces for reform and human improvement; it was better to wait, in the deep belief in an immovable order of things, rather than to share that leadership or assert it as the proxy of democracy. During his Pontificate, which lasted until the beginning of the World War, the Catholic forces in France and Italy appeared to prefer the system of the American Federation of Labor to that of the British Trade Unions for the expression of their electoral influence. It was held advisable to secure individual pledges from as many deputies or politicians as possible rather than to entrust the Catholic destinies to an army of professional Catholic politicians: too many interests, too many old ambitions were at stake.

From Sicily to Normandy stretches a vast Latin country, diversified in many regions but almost undilutedly Catholic. There is the bulk of the material body of the Church, and there every shock reacts upon the Vatican. According to as shrewd an observer as Albert Thibaudet, the religious problem in France was until February 6, 1933, the watershed of national politics. But the heart of the Church is Italy, and Italy since 1870 has been a unified nation with a center which is the Bishopric of the Supreme Pontifex. For decades the Vatican fought in Italy a stubborn battle against reality, denying the existence of the Italian state, forbidding Catholic voters to go to the polls, viewing the Pope as a prisoner and the King as a usurper. But in spite of the century-old policy of the Church, the unity of Italy had been achieved and in a few decades proved to be enduring. The ban upon the participation of Catholics in national political life began to be lifted in special cases in 1890; these concessions were given Papal authority in 1905 in II Fermo Proposito. In 1913 came the national scandal of the "Patto Gentiloni" in which it was revealed that about 300 deputies, some of them radicals or Masons, had pledged themselves to defend Catholic interests in Parliament in exchange for Catholic votes. In 1912 Giolitti introduced universal suffrage; it could no longer be maintained that Italian political life was a usurpation by ruthless politicians, imposed upon a tamed Catholic people. In 1915 Italy entered the World War and put her unity to the final test. Socialist trade unions, revolutionary syndicates, political parties led by atheists or Jews were attracting the Catholic masses. The activities of a few militant Catholics in Parliament, various piecemeal arrangements, even the wartime participation of one or two Catholics in the government, were of little avail. The fire was near, the anticlerical tradition of the Risorgimento was about to be crystallized.

That was the crucial moment for the appearance of the Popular Party. Now in Italy the Church seems to have little choice between being master of the state and being crushed by the state. A breathing spell had been provided by the unspoken agreement of 1871, in accordance with which the Italian Government and the Vatican established a wide moral gulf between themselves and ignored each other as much as possible. But the success of Italian unification had determined the necessity for the Popular Party, and the Party made its bid for the government of Italy.

Perhaps it was in order that it might advance slowly, utilizing every center of organized Catholic votes, that the Popular Party was strongly in favor of proportional representation. It was introduced in 1919. The first Chamber elected under this system always has something of the significance of a constituent assembly. Proportional representation permits the dial of Parliament to register shifts in public sentiment, carefully and without exaggerated leaps; and thanks to this scientific pedantry of democracy the parties which make a good showing can reasonably hope to maintain their power. After the elections of 1919 the Italian Popular Party appeared to be numerically one of the strongest, second only to the Socialist Party. Actually it was the strongest, because of Don Sturzo's leadership. If Italian democracy had worked successfully on this new broader basis,the two parties would have been destined to take over the government in coalition.

To the Vatican, mastery of Italy through the medium of a political party offered a terrific danger; but no danger was greater than that of having to tolerate collaboration with the socialists in the government. Such things have happened elsewhere, but in the Bishopric of the Supreme Pontifex they are unthinkable. There was widespread talk of a White International formed by a federation of Catholic political parties. Many of the leaders of the Popular Party had been tainted by that "Heresy of Heresies," the Modernistic movement. The Church was bound to veto the organization of democratic life in Italy, as for centuries she had been bound to veto Italian unity.

It can hardly be questioned that the Vatican hierarchies were highly disturbed by the Fascist uprising. Some Bishops, especially in the valley of the Po, expressed more than sympathetic views toward the new movement, but on the whole it would be incorrect to say that Fascism was helped or promoted by Vatican influences. Yet the more evidences the Fascist government gave of being a lasting régime, the more necessary it was for Catholic policy to alter its plans. The socialistic and the democratic forces in Italy should have altered their plans too, but they could not, having been taken prisoners by the uncompromising character of their opposition. Fascism thus could deal individually with democrats or with socialists, seducing, humiliating, or destroying them. The constitutional and legal platform -- the arena of the Italian political game -- became the stake of the battle, and with the destruction of the platform all the anti-Fascist political parties or groups, including the Popular Party, were finally crushed. But the situation of the organized and militant Catholics was different from that of any other group of militants. They were citizens of a universal organization, besides being citizens of a sovereign state. A modification in the structure of the state affecting their right of citizenship entitled the international organization to raise its voice. Sturzo's defeat becomes a good card in the hands of Cardinal Gasparri. Every change in national and international situations brings some bargaining power to the Church, which has to ratify in due form and time changes of régime or shifts of national boundaries. The rich crop of Concordats stipulated by Benedict XIV and Pius XI after the war is essentially an offspring of the peace treaties: the Church had to consecrate the new or enlarged states, to make the religious districts coincide with the new boundaries; in turn, she imposed her new policy of a clergy molded upon the various national frames, independent of the national governments, and strongly controlled by Rome. When the democratic state was overthrown in Italy, the revolution must have appeared to those who looked at it from the windows of the Vatican as a kind of providential warning.

The understanding between Italy and the Vatican, preserved since 1871, had been shaken by the Popular Party. And the Fascist leaders were not people to be satisfied with a return to unspoken principles and accepted traditions. They were omnivorous solvers of problems: social, demographic, international, economic. They therefore also set about solving the religious problem. In destroying the Popular Party and the Catholic trade unions they had contracted a debt to the Vatican, which had somehow to be paid. They had to supply the people with diversions and compensations for monopolizing political power. To the former socialists they offered the Labor Charter and the program of the Corporate State; to the disfranchised militant Catholics they offered the more substantial advantages of the Lateran Treaties.

With the Lateran Treaties the artificial conventional barrier which the Law of the Guarentigie had built between Italy and the Church vanished altogether. For the first time the Italian state and the Catholic Church faced each other without hiding behind veils. The conflict between the Church and Italy, which had hampered national unity for centuries, which had defeated the good will of Pius IX or of Gioberti, which had torn at the conscience of patriots of the Risorgimento, appeared again as the fundamental issue of Italian and Church politics. Italy can achieve statehood on the same level as any other national state only by stripping the Church of her economic interests and her political influence. The Church can be guaranteed independence and an adequate source of revenue only if organized as an anational state in central Italy. The Church and Italy had been able to live side by side for sixty years, protected by a double barrier of as ifs: for the Church, as if the kingdom of Italy were nonexistent; for the Italian state, as if the Church were just a community of believers. Both as ifs, of course, were tainted with many concessions to reality.

Direct relations between Fascist Italy and the Catholic Church should logically have brought about a clash. But the Fascist régime needed an unction, and the Catholic Church needed, in the interest of Christian Italy, to establish legal relations with the new political system. There are laws in hell as well as in heaven, and it is always possible to establish norms of coördination between legal systems. By the Lateran Treaties the Church obtained far more than it would have been reasonable for her to demand in negotiations with previous Italian governments, but this time she could offer the recognition not only of the Kingdom of Italy but of the new Fascist state. Don Sturzo's losses had in some way to be repaid to Cardinal Gasparri. It would be idle to repeat here the long enumeration of what the Church gained. What is more important to note is that the Church obtained more in the legal documents than in actuality. It became a law of the state that marriages among Catholics be celebrated and ruled according to the Canon Law; the Church was thus given a powerful instrument for exerting her influence upon Catholic families. Religious education was extended to the secondary schools and entrusted to the Church. Those who were or had been members of the clergy were left under the jurisdiction of the Church, with different legal rights from those of the other citizens. This difference becomes a heavy impairment of the rights of unfrocked priests, who are forbidden to teach or to be in any way in contact with the public as state civil servants. There is even an article which guarantees the enforcement on Italian soil of disciplinary sentences upon those subject to Catholic discipline.

Many of these legal obligations have not received literal enforcement. Many professors who formerly were priests still teach in the universities or in the secondary schools. The Church's influence on the family and on the education of young people is far from being untrammeled. But the special situation of the clergy and other Church privileges have received formal recognition. In other words, the Church has been given a note which she will sometime cash. Since the days of Constantine, she has known how to treasure legal documents showing her right over kingdoms and territories: now she can also hoard legal rights over occupations and functions for future use. A few clods of earth suffice today to give a visible symbol to sovereignty, as the Vatican City proves; but the real fight tomorrow will turn on the control of occupations and functions. In an era of exasperated nationalism the Church has perhaps offered a solution for the evanescence of sovereignty in symbols, such as the theorists of pluralism never dreamt of.

On the other hand, by giving the Church pledges which have been partially observed, Mussolini has followed a policy in which he has been consistent since 1925. He wants to store up underground all the forces which endanger the Italian state, so that a strong authoritarian government will be necessary for a long time. He wants to buttress up with ponderous reasons, full of historical meaning and menace, the accidents which carried him to power. He has brought to light Roman columns, and has buried dynamite all around. The explosion may be terrific should domestic turmoil arise; but as long as the stern hand is upon Italy, the danger makes for quiet. The grouping of economic interests set up by the Corporative State may degenerate into a scramble of clashing classes and occupations and groups, if ever the strong grasp on the corporative institutions is loosened. No government in recognizing Russia was as liberal as the Italian; but there is little danger of communistic propaganda in Italy so long as the Special Tribunal works. The Church has been given rights to influence the family and the educational system and to organize an incorruptible, all-pervasive clergy; but against the Church the Fascist government has erected the barrier of the last as if: as if the Fascist state were a liberal state hundreds of miles distant from the Vatican City (to use Mussolini's words), as if the two protagonists were not face to face, one of them enriched in prestige and in legal rights, the other ready to prevent by violence the literal enforcement of its own laws. A few weeks after signing the Vatican treaties, Mussolini created, with his forceful public opposition to clerical aspirations, the last barrier between Italy and the Vatican. It is a thin, sharp frame, and stands because it is buttressed by his physical person.

The Lateran Treaties were founded upon this gamble on an oncoming hour. In the "Catholic Action" Pius XI perfected the instrument for dealing with the new political situation. The era of parties was gone forever; the totalitarian state offered the opportunity for a totalitarian permeation by the Church. Christian principles could be made to irradiate in every sphere of life. With a clergy kept strictly in harmony with the peculiarities of the nation, and at the same time independent of the political government; with the Catholic Action able to carry Christian principles into the organization of economics, of labor, of education; and with the hierarchies directing from Rome these two correlated influences, new days of power seemed to be dawning for the Church in Italy. But the sharp dissent of the summer of 1931 burst out, with Fascist violence against Catholic institutions, followed by the harsh indictment of Pius XI against Fascist paganism, then the sudden silencing of the quarrel, and finally the agreement of September 2, 1931, in which the Catholic Action was allowed to organize "recreative and educational meetings with religious purposes."

The quarrel of 1931 was perhaps even more significant than the Lateran Treaties. The Fascist state and the Vatican realized that they were obliged to be silent, patient and peaceful. Close as they are, the hand of the one is too near the throat of the other. As in the period of the Law of the Guarentigie, and even more than then, forms and appearances have to be respected. Catholics have to go slowly and carefully, avoiding setting up anything resembling a political party line; the Fascist god is a jealous one. But the Church knows how to make good out of evil. When her territorial power was crushed, her spiritual power was immensely increased all over the world. At the present moment her loss of direct political influence in certain European countries is perhaps giving her an even greater advantage: the Church is put out of politics in the countries where politics is banished for every group but one. She can keep her hands clean from political contamination and enjoy the privilege of being the one solidly organized spiritual power that modern Cæsarisms have to respect. Some day the experiment of the sovereign national and nationalistic state, based on the distinction between religion and politics, will have to end; and politics is now exhausting itself in the effort to become a monopoly by one group. Perhaps the sovereign national state born after the Reformation is going through the last of its phases. Meantime the Church keeps intact her moral prestige and the hierarchic frame; her legal rights are well guarded; the doors of the spiritual world are wide open; her most loyal and able sons can one by one go to the center of political power and exert some influence and acquire some knowledge.

When it was apparent that the forces which manifested themselves in Italy were going to arise in several other European countries, the Church could easily adjust herself to a new situation in which parties were to be considered as gone forever, in which the Catholic Action was to be the instrument of totalitarian permeation. Violence and the infringement of pacts were to be expected, and testified to the extreme need for prudence and patience. "Permeate the people of the Reich with all the force of your love for God and for your neighbors," said Cardinal Schulte after the German Concordat. Then came the violence, the Catholic protests, the long negotiations which still, at the time this is written, are uncompleted. During the Saar elections the Catholic Church did not appear as an obstacle in the way of Nazi power, even if certain Jesuits like Father Messineo, in the Civiltà Cattolica, had thundered from the anti-Nazi front.

Since the days of the Roman Empire it has always been Italy's tragic destiny that no Italian event is devoid of a direct universal bearing, because of Rome. When Mussolini reached Rome he perhaps did not give a glance at Saint Peter's dome, engrossed as he was by the vision of his new function in the imperial city. But Rome is a trap and the Vatican is the core of it. In Italy today there seems no break in the harmony. Mussolini at times speaks a devout language; books on religion written from scientific or liberal viewpoints are confiscated; the Pope is shown in text books and moving pictures as one of the pillars of Italian revolutionary conservatism; recently at a book exhibition a group of bold seminarists overthrew the stands where the Bible of the Protestant biblical society was exposed. When Mussolini marched on Rome it did not enter his head that he was going to destroy democracy in the country where democracy was most intolerable to the Church. The delicate equilibrium in which Italian unity had been possible for sixty years, with an almost miraculous avoidance of the alternatives of clerical domination and rigid anti-clericalism, was overthrown. Mussolini did not know that in so doing he was pushing the Church toward a new policy.

The Church did not promote the new dictatorial régimes. Even though the leadership of the present Austrian government is Catholic, even though on October 20, 1934, the Pope received and blessed a delegation of Viennese policemen, recalling "the hard work they had done," violence is not practiced by militant Catholics. But when Catholic organization and leadership began to play a predominant rôle in Spain, the Catholic press, even the Osservatore Romano in the Vatican City, did not hesitate to praise the slaughter of the socialists during the Asturias uprising. The Church, like capitalism, can exert her power only through a secular arm. The authoritarian state may be or may become this arm.

No institution has a better right than the Church to turn her back on liberalism. From the day European liberalism was born the Church attacked it; during the period of scientific rationalism and of evolutionism the Church prepared the Syllabus. When the era of authority and dogmatism seemed to be hopelessly gone and within the Church mystical or practical reformers demanded an adjustment to the new times, the Church branded this movement as the Heresy of Heresies and pitilessly exiled the heretics beyond her walls. She waited for a day to come in Europe; this day seems to be coming. All these nationalistic movements arouse a thirst for the absolute that they cannot quench. The Catholic Church can satisfy it. The masses which seek expression in marching and parading may find a more joyful and meaningful satisfaction of collective impulses in the Eucharistic Congresses. In Luther's country an Austrian Catholic has proved that individualism and criticism are not essential to the German character; they had a chance to develop only when they were kept close in the hothouses of Churches or universities. The tide of history does not seem to be in the line of the continuous, unavoidable progress toward democracy, as was believed in 1848.

The Church still is not a determining force in international events, but she is an organism capable of miraculous readjustments and transformations in the struggle to preserve herself. Her sphere of prestige is enormously broadened now that she can deal directly with sternly organized states while retaining all her connections with their citizens. She has ceased to be a potential federation of Catholic parties or of Catholic national groups. She is again the universal Church of Rome. She has multiplied the meaning of those three words, expressing their essence. She is more than ever universal, of a diversified universality, variously shaded in various countries distant from the Vatican; after her anti-modern and anti-modernistic campaigns, she is more the Church than ever; and she is strong because through obscure and unexpected events she has tightened her grip on Rome, Italy.

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  • MAX ASCOLI, member of the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, New York; formerly Professor of Jurisprudence in several Italian universities
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