When I restructured this site recently I re-read an old Web page I wrote about 10 years ago titled Francisco Franco, the Catholic Church and 2 Million Murders. Since then I have meant to write an article on the relationship between the Catholic Church and Fascism, but have never gotten around to it. This blog entry is a sort of rough draft for the article I want to write.
Of course these day Catholics are mostly not Fascists, and even in the heyday of Fascism (1920 to 1945) many Catholics were not Fascists and some actively opposed Fascism. Also if you generalize fascism to being a totalitarian, nationalist political party with a dictator, a lot of political groups qualify as fascist, and fascism could be associated with almost any religion.
Most Americans, at least, do not have Catholicism and Fascism associated in their minds. The reason for that is that the United States of America has (and had in 1920) a high percentage of citizens who belong to the Catholic Church. That has made it politically dangerous to associate Catholicism and Fascism in the U.S.A. Also means that, since U.S. Catholics supported the U.S. war efforts against fascist Germany and Italy during World War, most U.S. Catholics correctly think of themselves as pro-democracy and anti-fascism.
I won't go here into the support of many U.S. Catholics for fascism both in the US and abroad prior to World War II. Instead I want to concentrate on the relationships between the Catholic Church and the big-three European fascist parties of Italy, Germany and Spain. To the extent that Americans recall World War II era politics at all they probably think that fascism was an atheist phenomena, like Communism. It is an easy association for people who think atheism is evil.
While the Italian Fascist party was the first to come to power, I want to tackle the German fascists, Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) party first. It ended up being the most important fascist party. It started a Christianity started, quite small. It started in the region of Germany known as Bavaria shortly after the end of World War I, which Germany lost. A good book with a full history is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. Adolph Hitler was not a founding member but he joined when the party had about 100 members and he quickly rose to prominence.
Adolph Hitler was baptized Catholic and raised Catholic. Apparently he did not go to church most of his adult life, so Catholics might claim that he was a lapsed Catholic. Yet he was never excommunicated (cast out of the church), and when he died his death certificate listed his religion as Catholic. When Hitler dictated Mein Kampf the scribe was a Catholic priest. Most of the early members of the Nazi Party were Catholic, but it was not a requirement. The Catholic Church per se was never persecuted by the Nazis; only Catholics who opposed the party were persecuted. Most German Catholics appear to have loved the Nazi Party.
The Nazi Party required little in the way of change from German Catholics. The Church had always been rabidly anti-jewish, so that was just fine. The Church had always taught that authority should be respected and obeyed. If Hitler felt he was closer to God than the Pope, well, Catholics still accepted the divine right of kings, and was not the Fuehrer essentially the king?
Much has been made of the paganism of the Nazi Party. Too much. It was not taken seriously by most party members; it was simply a means to evoke nationalist sentiments.
So while you did not have to join the Catholic Church to join the National Socialist Party, it is fair to say that the mind set of the Church permeated the party. More than that, the Church supported many Nazi aims, in particular the destruction of Communism and atheism.
The Italian Fascist party's relationship to the Catholic Church was both more intimate and more complex. The leader of the party, Benito Mussolini, was raised as an atheist by his anarchist father. He in turn became a leader of the Socialist Party, but in World War I became an Italian nationalist. He found the fighting to be glorious. He and some followers split from the Socialists and merged with other nationalists. Yet fascism in Italy was closer to socialism, or even communism, than it was to the kind of nationalism that promotes monarchism or military or capitalist dictatorships. The ideology was essentially that the people of a nation should be united, and that unity could only come through an all-powerful central government with a single leader. The state was primary, and the state required a leader. Religious leaders and business men were not to dictate state policy; the state would dictate business and social policy. While Italian fascism would allow for no opposition, its level of brutality was far below that of Germany or Spain.
And few Protestant Christians were to be found in Italy. Mostly either you were a church-going Catholic, a non-church going Catholic, an agnostic or an atheist. Benito Mussolini himself was an atheist, at least at first, but most of the fascists were Catholics. Mussolini made a deal with the Pope and after that the relationship between the two organizations was excellent.
Fascists took over in other countries as well, even before the fighting started, but the other of the big 3 parties was General Francisco Franco's fascist party. Here the story is simpler: the hierarchy of the Catholic Church supported the fascists and helped to kill 2 million non-Catholics in the civil war and its aftermath. Oddly, Spain ended up a neutral power in World War II, so Franco stayed in power for decades.
Many Catholics I meet want to be good people. They think that being religiously tolerant and thinking a bit for themselves is sufficient. The problem is they are lending moral and often financial support to a Church that still trains people to obey illegitimate authority. The Catholic Church is set up so it cannot be reformed. That was tried during the Protestant Reformation. What good people should do is leave bad organizations; they should work with other good people to accomplish what needs to be done in this age of global warming.