Catholicism and Fascism

Fascist regimes require the creation of a national identity and legitimacy through mass popular support, and religion is one pathway toward achieving these goals. Fascist Italy, Francoist Spain, the Dollfuss/Schuschnigg Austrian state, and the Nacionalistas in Argentina all supported the Catholic Church and Catholic thinkers for the purpose of creating a national identity and developing legitimacy. Though the Church was not always fully committed to the political aspirations of fascist regimes, the Church supported these regimes across both time and space. The reactionary politics of the Church often matched those of the fascists: they both opposed liberal democracy, socialism, and capitalism. Furthermore, fascist positions on public morality and the place of religion in national life mirrored those of the Church as well. In Austria, the Catholic identity fostered by the fascist regime stood in direct opposition to Protestant German identity, and thus against Nazism as well. Through allying themselves with the Church, these fascist regimes were able to legitimize themselves as preservers of a traditional Catholic culture and a unique identity. Through allying with the fascist regimes, the Church was able to gain political power as well as avoid oppression. Fascism is linked with Catholicism from the beginning in Italy, and understanding this relationship is paramount to understanding fascism as a serious political force.

This paper will examine the multitude of different relationships between the Catholic Church and various fascist regimes, and how each of these relationships revolved around the creation of a national identity linked with Catholic identity. Fascism is a notoriously difficult term to define, and in no country was fascism practiced the exact same way as in another country. It is for this reason that Stanley Payne defines any given fascist regime as requiring several “fascist minimums”.1 These minimums are as follows: “negations, such as anti-Marxism, anti-liberalism and anti-conservatism; ideology and programme, such as nationalism, a positive evaluation of war, imperialism, and corporatism; style, such as the organized party-mass movement, and extensive use of symbolism.”2 Payne’s definition is ultimately that fascism is a “a form of revolutionary ultranationalism for national rebirth that is based on a primarily vitalist philosophy, is structured on extreme elitism, mass mobilization and the Fuhrerprinzip, positively values violence as end as well as means and tends to normalize war and/or the military virtues.”3 One can see how such an ideology could benefit from close association with the Church, especially in regards to national rebirth, the vitalist philosophy, and mass mobilization. It is necessary to understand fascism through this lens as there is a widespread misconception that “there was no serious basis to fascism as an ideology.”4 However, Payne’s definition is not perfect, and moreover, Payne himself lists the Falange of Spain as “too conservative” to be considered truly fascist.

Roger Eatwell provides another definition of fascism based on Payne’s definition that is more useful due to its less stringent minimum. Fascism is “an ideology that strives to forge social rebirth based on a holistic-national radical Third Way, though in practice fascism has tended to stress style, especially action and the charismatic leader, more than detailed programme, and to engage in a Manichaean demonisation of its enemies.”5 The common thread between these definitions is the conception of fascism as an ideology, the centrality of national and social rebirth, a strong leader, and a penchant for violence or at least demonization. It is impossible to find a definition of fascism that is perfect, but for the purpose of this paper these two definitions in tandem apply to all chosen countries, or are at least close enough that the similarities cannot be ignored.

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In order to understand the relationship between fascism and Catholicism, one must first look at the origins of Fascism in Italy. When Mussolini’s National Fascist Party marched on Rome in 1922, the relationship between the Church and the party was already well established. Mussolini saw Catholicism as an instrumentum regni, only useful so far as it could strengthen his regime. Conversely, Pope Pius XI saw fascism as a useful instrument as well, believing that fascism was the most attractive political ideology of the present time.6 This was due to the Church’s desire for a “re-christianisation” of society, which would require the establishment of an anti-liberal, anti-socialist, and hierarchical state.7 Both the Church and fascism “had an aversion for communism, liberalism, and democracy,” and Mussolini took great steps during his rise to present the National Fascist Party as a protector of Catholicism.8 In 1930, at a private speech for National Fascist Party members, Mussolini said this: “There is no need to get all tied up with anti-religiousness and give Catholics reason for unease. We need instead to multiply our efforts in education, sports, and culture. Until priests start with triduums and procession and the rest, there’s nothing we can do. A fight on this ground between Church and State, the State would lose… When it comes to religion, maximum respect – which Fascism had always given.” There is no reason to doubt the veracity of Mussolini’s private words; the Italian fascists required the “consent” of the clergy and Catholic population to govern, and without due respect given to these groups, Mussolini’s power would collapse. With his nostalgic vision of the Roman Empire and Italian supremacy, Mussolini saw Catholicism as tool of “Italian Expansion”.9 Catholicism was therefore not important to Italian Fascism from any ideological perspective, it was important simply due to its inherent Romanity and thus Mussolini’s fascist narrative for the future. Mussolini’s partnership with the Church gave him immense legitimacy in the eyes of the people as well as the clergy. Without this partnership, the National Fascist Party could have never sustained its power.

For the remainder of Mussolini’s rule, the Church and Il Duce would compete for legitimacy and political capital, but there was never an outright schism between the two. Instead, they adopted a “give-and-take” approach.10 The Church could not fully ally with Mussolini due to a conception of fascism in the Church as a “political religion” that would replace Catholicism.11 In the same vein, Mussolini’s totalitarian approach to politics left little room for a powerful Church not censored in part by the National Fascist Party. Not all those in the Church supported fascism, and prominent critics often cited the ascendancy of the State. Writing in the 1920s, Italian priest and antifascist Luigi Sturzo believed fascism was “an antichristian movement” because it “sacralized the nation and the State as a divinity, putting in danger both the liberty of the individual and that of the Church.”12 Sturzo’s prophetic understanding of fascism was not shared by all of his peers, many of whom collaborated with the fascist regime.

Evidence of this collaboration is found in a Jesuit journal of the time, La Civiltà Cattolica (LCC). Writers in the LCC saw fascism as possessing “great ideal virtue” and an “elevated sense of the nation”.13 Writers criticized communist, socialist, and liberal political movements within the publication, and furthermore went to declare these enemies of fascism as enemies of the Church as well. The LCC thus supported obedience to the government, and throughout the 1930s continued to politically support the National Fascist Party. This was due primarily to the notions of “Catholicism and Italianism” shared between the Church and the party, not due to a completely shared political vision.14 For example, in the context of Italian imperialism in the invasion of Ethiopia, Italian Jesuit Father Brucculeri wrote about “a revitalized and reunified sense of national consciousness, intensifying our political unity.” This “expression of Italian spirit” was in Brucculeri’s eyes “considerably more valuable than anything we possess within our treasury, and more potent than a vast number of military divisions and cannons.”15 In the case of Italy, the National Fascist Party and the Church both desired the creation of a more unified and powerful nation. Both distrusted liberalism and communism as tools of Jews and freemasons, and both supported traditional notions of morality and natural law. Both groups collaborated for the advancement of their political goals, and this provides us a model for the next investigations into Catholic-fascist collaboration.

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Another important regime possessing both fascist and Catholic traits is that of the Falange and Francisco Franco in Spain. Franco worked to consolidate his power around a “national communion of Catholicism.” The Spanish Civil War was seen not as a rebellion, but as a crusade.16 Francoist Spain was the last true bastion of the Catholic faith, and therefore stood alone against the atheism of the Soviet Union, Moorish Islam, and the religious pluralism of the liberal west.17 Parallels to Italian Fascism are already obvious here; the shared politics of anti-communism and anti-liberalism made Franco and the Church strong allies. The three pillars of Francoist ideology, the Church, the military, and the Falange demonstrate this close alliance; the Church was equal to both Franco’s party as well as the premier fascist tool, the military.18 Furthermore, Franco enshrined the Church as the origin of his authority of Spain by reaching back to the “divine mandate of the Catholic kings” and the reconquista. Franco claimed his legitimacy from a “model of sovereignty rooted in theology,” and this theology was certainly Spanish-Catholic in nature, emanating from nineteenth century monarchist Juan Donoso Cortes.19 Cortes was a conservative Catholic who believed that “the Church alone has the right to affirm and deny, and that there is no right outside her to affirm what she denies, or to deny what she affirms.”20 If Franco’s will was the same as the Church’s, it would be impossible to resist him. Franco used the Church in much the same way Mussolini did, but ultimately Franco saw the Church more as a legitimate ally and source of authority than as a mere tool of the state.

The Church’s alliance with the Falange was not immediate, and many Spanish Catholics initially preferred less radical conservative parties. However, the Church was anti-communist and anti-liberal from the start, in part due to real oppression under the Republican government. During the Second Spanish Republic, socialists and liberals led by Manuel Azaña believed that modernizing the country would require a resolution of the “religious question.” Therefore, ecclesiastical influence had to be countered and reversed; the new Constitution had a strong anticlerical bias. Catholic oppression would continue, and as Sanchez writes, “a wave of laws between 1931 and 1933 sought to reduce the social hegemony of Catholicism. Among these, in particular, was the June 1933 law of religions and religious orders that denied the right of religious orders to teach in their own schools and placed ownership of Catholic churches under state control.”21 The Church was wary of a liberal government, and excited by the potential of pro-Catholic rule that the Falange and Franco could (upon victory) provide.

Again, one sees similar fears between the Church in Italy and Spain that lead them to support a fascist regime. In this case, the central fear is the dissolution of the Catholic Church as an educator and policy maker, and the destruction of Catholic morality by anti-religious socialism and liberal religious pluralism. As the Church lacks a military or agreed upon political party, it is paramount the Church allies with political groups that will assuage these fears. Franco was able to capitalize on widespread support for Catholic morality and therefore secured the allegiance of the Church, and thus, the people. This creation of a national identity rooted in Catholicism and a nostalgic vision of a past time (reconquista) is almost a mirror image of the situation in Italy.

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One of the most unique Catholic fascist regimes is that of the Fatherland Front in Austria, as Catholic identity was used here to fight both Nazism and liberalism. In this sense, one can see that fascism is legitimately linked to Catholicism, not just radical right-wing politics. According to Tim Kirk, the Fatherland Front was made up of a “rural movement of landowners and peasants, largely pro-clerical in ideology, drawing inspiration from Catholic corporatism for its conception of the state and looking to Italy as a practical model for an independent Austria.” This was distinct from the Austrian Nazi movement, which was more secular and volkisch in nature.22 The Fatherland Front conversely “emphasized the restitution of a supposedly traditional authority, and drew on the social ideology of the church.”23 Therefore fascism was only able to arise to state power independently in Austria through a Catholic centered movement; the rise of Nazism in Austria on the other hand required violent intervention by the Nazi state. Austrian fascism, or “Austrofascism” is unique in that it “emphasizes the agency of the state in imposing a top-down nationalist ideology on its citizens, rather than the revolutionary aspect inherent to many definitions of fascism.”24 The Fatherland Front derived its power not from a secular volkisch revolution, but from the traditional legitimacy already found in the authority and ideology of the Catholic Church. Perhaps it could be said in this case that the Catholic Church was not the instrumentum regni of the Fatherland Front, but that instead the Catholic Church and those loyal to it used the Fatherland Front and the unique top-down structure of Austrofascism to project Church ideology on secular political opponents. Thus, Austria is an important case in understanding the role of Catholicism in fascism as it is an example where pro-Catholic elements of a country make up the origin of the fascist party. In Italy and Spain, Mussolini and Franco were sympathetic to the Catholic Church, but saw it more as a tool or an ally respectively. Dollfuss and Schuschnigg conversely derived their top-down authority from the legitimacy of the Catholic Church directly, and therefore acted more as an arm of the Church than as a puppeteer.

The last political movement this paper will examine is that of the Nacionalistas in Argentina. The Nacionalistas represent the most obvious example of the marriage of Catholicism and fascism. This example is also salient as it demonstrates the global character of both fascism and Catholicism. According to Federico Finchelstein, “for Argentine fascists and nacionalistas, fascism was not a theory but a mold for Catholic thinking.” This is seen in Argentine political thinker Cesar Pico, who believed that fascism was a “reaction against calamities ascribed to liberal democracy, socialism, and capitalism. It’s a reaction that, although instinctive in its origins, is searching for a doctrine that could justify it.”25 In the minds of Pico and his colleagues, Catholicism represented the “theoretical apparatus for fascism.” Essentially, the Nacionalistas saw fascism as a legitimate reaction against the perceived degeneracy of the modern age, but as an “empty shell” that could only be filled doctrinally with Catholic beliefs and authority. In the Argentine view, Nacionalismo was “the political expression of God.” One can therefore trace the varying roles of Catholicism in fascism found in these Catholic fascist movements. In Italy, Catholicism was a tool of the state. In Spain, it was an ally of the state. In Austria, the Catholic Church essentially was the state, or at least the single source of state legitimacy. And finally in Argentina, fascism was the literal will of the Catholic God.

The Argentine Fascist movement was composed of both lay intellectuals and clergy, making the connection and goal between the Church and the movement as clear as possible. For important nacionalista intellectual Alberto Ezcurra Medrano, nacionalista politics “should reestablish the primacy of religion over traditional poltics.” For him, “revolution against liberalism could only be legitimate through Catholicism.” Thus, the nacionalista movement was “a profane political expression of the sacred.”26 The Nacionalistas were not only made up of laypeople, but priests operated in the movement directly as well. Priests such as Gustavo Franceschi, Leonardo Castellani, Julio Meinvielle, Gabriel Riesco, and Virgilio Filippo “saw nacionalismo as a field for pastoral action.” They presented their arguments in sermons, radio broadcast, nacionailsta and Catholic papers, and other books and pamplets. In addition, they also wrote for the most important Catholic publications in Argentina, the Journal Criterio and the Catholic newspaper El Pueblo. Thus, fascism in Argentina was theorized and doctrinalized by those powerful among the Catholic church. It was seen as a direct expression of God’s will, and therefore represents the most pure collaboration between the Church and the fascist movement.

The Catholic Church is not inherently aligned with fascism, but shared historical goals led to close collaboration. It is important to think of “fascism” not as a whole, but as a group of slightly different movements that compose of a set of “fascisms.” Within these fascisms, the Church played a distinct role. In Italy, Mussolini co-opted the existing legitimacy of the Church to use it as a tool of his power. In Spain, Franco allied with the Church to ensure the continuation of Spain’s unique Catholic identity, and again, to increase his legitimacy. In Austria, The Fatherland Front led a top-down movement centered and backed by Catholic ideology. And finally, in Argentina, Catholicism was intertwined with fascism to the extent that it was “the political expression” of God Himself. Catholicism is successful as a legitimizing force since the Church is organized, authoritative, and already seen as a trustworthy source of moral and political ideology by lower and upper class followers. Had Germany been a primarily Catholic country, perhaps the NSDAP would have mobilized the Catholic Church instead of focusing on creating a secular volkisch pan-German identity. In a sense, Catholic inspired fascism is more successful than secular fascism as it draws legitimacy from established social groups and norms rather than attempting to create an entirely new ideal from an imagined greater community. Central to this is the distinct Catholic identity that is present in the countries in this paper; the Church has immense legitimacy distinct from governmental legitimacy and by tapping into this, one can control the state successfully in a totalitarian way that a more secular government could not achieve as easily.

1 Roger Eatwell, “On defining the ‘Fascist Minimum’: The centrality of ideology,” Journal of Political Ideologies 1 (1996): 303.

2Ibid, 304.

3Ibid, 308.

4Ibid, 303.

5Ibid, 309.

6Jan Nelis, Anne Morelli, and Danny Praet, “The Study of the Relationship Between Catholicism and Fascism, Beyond a Manichean Approach?,” in Catholicism and Fascism in Europe 1918 – 1945, ed. Jan Nelis et al. (New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2015), 9.

7Ibid.

8Emilio Gentile, “Catholicism and Fascism. Reality and Misunderstandings,” in Catholicism and Fascism in Europe 1918 – 1945, ed. Jan Nelis et al. (New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2015), 18.

9Ibid, 22.

10Jan Nelis, Anne Morelli, and Danny Praet, “The Study of the Relationship Between Catholicism and Fascism, Beyond a Manichean Approach?,” in Catholicism and Fascism in Europe 1918 – 1945, ed. Jan Nelis et al. (New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2015), 10.

11Emilio Gentile, “Catholicism and Fascism. Reality and Misunderstandings,” in Catholicism and Fascism in Europe 1918 – 1945, ed. Jan Nelis et al. (New York: Georg Olms Verlag, 2015), 17.

12Ibid, 18.

13 Jan Nelis, “The Clerical Response to a Totalitarian Political Religion: “La Civiltà Cattolica” and Italian Fascism,” Journal of Contemporary History 46 (2011): 257.

14Ibid, 246

15Ibid, 260.

16William Viestenz, By the Grace of God: Francoist Spain and the Sacred Roots of Political Imagination (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 20.

17Ibid.

18Ibid, 21.

19Ibid, 24.

20 William McDonald trans., Essays on Catholicism, Liberalism and Socialism, Considered in their Fundamental Principles (Dublin: M.H Gill & Son, 1879)

21Santiago Martínez Sánche, “The Spanish Bishops and Nazism During the Spanish Civil War,” Catholic Historical Review 99 (2013): 500.

22 Tim Kirk, “Fascism and Austrofascism,” in Dollfuss/Schuschnigg Era in Austria, ed. Gunter Bischof et al. (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2003), 15.

23Ibid.

24Julie Thorpe, “Austrofascism: Revisiting the ‘Authoritarian State’ 40 Years On,” Journal of Contemporary History 45 (2010): 315.

25Federico Finchelstein, Transatlantic Fascism: Ideology, Violence, and the Sacred in Argentina and Italy, 1919-1945 (Durnham: Duke University Press, 2010), 118.

26Ibid, 124.

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