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Pope Pius XI and Mussolini, Betrothed
September 24, 2015
by William P. Meyers

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Perhaps excepting the rare graduate student of Italian Literature, few Americans have heard of Alessandro Manzoni or his novel The Betrothed. I read it only because it was mentioned as the favorite book of Pope Pius XI in David I. Kertzer's The Pope and Mussolini.

The Betrothed was written in the 1820s and was set in and near Milan (Milano) in 1628. It is largely an old-fashioned adventure story centered on the romance of a young peasant couple who are prevented from consummating their planned marriage by an evil local member of the nobility. It is quite readable and modern. As literature it is notable in the way it develops a wide variety of complex characters, from a simple peasant girl to the powerful movers and shakers of the nobility and Roman Catholic Church.

Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI, would have found it easy to identify with several of the characters. Achille was born in 1857 to a silk factory supervisor and his wife in a town just north of Milan. He became a priest early in life and quickly rose to the position of director of the Ambrosiana Library. Thus he could relate to Renzi, the silk worker who is in love with Lucy, as well as with the monk and priest characters up to Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, who founded the Ambrosiana Library. Achille became Cardinal Ratti, archbishop of Milan, in 1921, around the time Benito Mussolini was developing his Fascist Party.

Benito Mussolini was born in a small town in Romagna, northern Italy, in 1883, to a socialist blacksmith and a Roman Catholic schoolteacher. Benito was not baptized, but was sent to a Catholic boarding school. As a young man he was influenced by a variety of writers in the socialist camp, notably Georges Sorel, and was attracted to violent tendencies within the socialist camp. The world would likely be different if he had remained a school teacher, but in 1904 he joined the Italian Army for two years. After another teaching stint he became a Socialist Party functionary. Still attracted to violence, he nevertheless opposed the Italian war against Libya in 1911 [part of a series of preludes to World War I in which European nations began dismembering the Turkish empire].

After initially opposing Italy's entry into World War I, Mussolini switched positions, rejoined the the Italian army, declared himself a nationalist, and began to develop what would come to be called fascism. It was an anti-establishment, nationalist, anti-clerical, violent movement with socialist tinges. It appealed to young men, and to local gangsters. Italy's democratic national government was weak and corrupt, and Benito was elected to it. In 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini to be Prime Minister.

And now we are in The Betrothed, at least as far as Cardinal Ratti was concerned. Pope Benedict XV had died in January 1922. A flock of cardinals divided between an ultra-conservative faction and a conservative faction settled on Ratti as the next Pope. He took the name Pope Pius XI. It was all perfectly clear to him. He was the equivalent of Federigo Borromeo, and Benito Mussolini was the equivalent of the character in Betrothed only referred to as The Unknown.

In the novel The Unknown was the leader of bad men, and a threat to all that was good. Yet, through his encounter with the virtuous Lucy and then with Cardinal Borromeo, The Unknown turned his back on evil and becomes a force for good.

Mussolini is now thought of as a dictator with absolute power, but that is a caricature of the real situation. The Pope too, while powerful, depended on a bureaucratic machine to rule. Mussolini had changed his ideology many times prior to becoming Prime Minister, and now made a strategic decision that fed into the Pope's delusion. He decided to embrace the Roman Catholic Church. He eventually made it the only legal religion of Italy.

The Pope liked that the Fascists beat Protestants and Atheists into line. But he did not want to take orders from Mussolini. Benito liked that the Catholic Church solidified his rule and enabled him to control some of his own rabid-dog fascists, as well as to destroy his main political rival, the Socialist Party. But he did not want to take orders from the Pope. See The Pope and Mussolini for the gory details.

Reality contradicted The Betrothed. Both Mussolini and the Pope became more evil as the years passed. Hitler rose to power in Germany and added his own evil to the mix. At a crucial time Pius XI helped Hitler become Chancellor of Germany. Probably he again saw Adolf Hitler as a useful tool against atheism and communism, and another The Unknown. It helped that Hitler was Roman Catholic (he thought the small percent of Nazis who were pagan or atheist were nuts).

Pius died in 1939, of natural causes, before the final terrible results of his sponsorship of Mussolini, Hitler, and General Franco became obvious to all. Mussolini died in 1945, shot by communists.

Pius XII, who followed Pius XI, danced with both Hitler and Mussolini, and hoped that they would destroy communism and atheism. Islam, Budhism, and Protestant sects could be mopped up later. But when it became obvious the Allies would defeat the Axis, Pius XII switched sides, thus becoming a cold war ally of the capitalist block.

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