Future Relations between the Church and State

Italy is a Catholic country. As in a number of other predominantly Catholic countries in Europe, the place of the church is an important political issue. There is in the United States, with its numerous denominations and complete separation of church and state, no counterpart of this problem. Americans, therefore, often have difficulty understanding it.

Of itself, the problem of relations between the Catholic church and the Italian people is a simple one. The real majority acknowledge the important religious and social role of the parish priest. On the average his political behavior has been good during the twenty-one years of fascism. His essentially democratic leanings have often brought him into conflict against the fascists and Nazis since 1943.

If there is a problem in Italy, it arises primarily out of the fact that there exists within the territory of Italy another sovereign and independent state of world-wide importance. This is the Vatican City whose ruler is the pope.

The territorial issue

Before 1870 the popes were among the important rulers of Italian territory. The Papal States, or States of the Church, occupied the central part of the peninsula from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic. In the gradual process of national unification the papal holdings were whittled down and absorbed into the kingdom of Italy. Last to fall was Rome. “The Eternal City” immediately became the capital of the kingdom, and the pope went into voluntary “imprisonment” in the Vatican.

Gradually the bitterness of the “Roman question” wore away. Succeeding popes realized that Italian unity was a political fact they could not undo. They gave up all idea of pressing territorial claims against Italy, and by the end of World War I relations with the Italian government, though unofficial, were close and friendly.

What the church wanted was an accord on the questions of principle involved, chiefly the sovereign independence of the papacy. One of Mussolini’s early ambitions was to achieve such a settlement. He thought it would strengthen his regime. On the part of the Vatican; the newly invested pope, Pius XI, felt that if an agreement could be reached, he should accept it—whatever the political color of the Italian government in power.

The agreements of 1929

After long negotiations, three agreements between the Vatican and the fascist government were reached in February 1929.

The Lateran Treaty created the Vatican City, a separate and independent state in the heart of Rome. It has an area of 108.7 acres and comprises the cathedral of St. Peter and the surrounding Vatican buildings. The Vatican renounced all other territorial claims and recognized the kingdom of Italy as the rightful sovereign of former church territories. It agreed to exchange ambassadors with Italy. The Italian government gave an absolute guarantee of freedom of passage and communication between Vatican City and the rest of the world.

The Financial Convention provided that, in settlement of all church claims against Italy, the government pay the Vatican the sum of 1,750 million lire (about $87,500,000 at that time), part in cash, part in government bonds.

The Concordat, a second treaty, regulated the position of the Catholic church (not of the Vatican City) in Italy. It resolved such questions as the validity of marriages performed in the church (which Italy had refused until then to recognize), the appointment of bishops (the Italian government was to be consulted before the pope could announce any appointments), religious education (to be extended from grade schools through secondary schools for all children whose parents did not contrary directions), support of poor parishes, administration of church properties, recognition of holy days, abstention of the clergy from political activity, and the like.

Will the good relations last?

There appears to be no desire in Italy to alter the Lateran Treaty. No one would profit from reopening the thorny question which it settled, no one intends to expel the pope from Rome, and no one questions his free and sovereign enjoyment of St. Peter’s and the Vatican buildings. The interest of non-Italian Catholics in the pope’s independence is admitted. No one has proposed to interfere with his functions as head of the Catholic church throughout the world.

A serious controversy is in the making, however, around the Concordat. Some want to abolish it on the grounds that it violates the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state. They say that the Concordat allows the Catholic church a special position—that while it does not hamper the free existence of other religions, it puts them in a somewhat subordinate position.

They also say that the Concordat gives the Catholic church an unwarranted right of interference in the public school system, which is an improper alliance between state and church. These people want a complete separation of the activities of the church and the state, freedom of conscience, and an end to the Concordat which, then say, was only made possible because the government was a dictatorship.

The other side argues that if the present Concordat is abolished, a new one will be necessary. In a Catholic country like Italy the points of contact between church and state are so many that they have to be regulated, they contend, adding that separation of church and state as in the United States won’t work in Italy. These people, however, might be willing to have some modifications made in the Concordat.

Regardless of what decision the Italian people reach on this issue, there is widespread belief that marked antichurch or antireligious sentiments will not revive in the postwar period. The anticlerical campaigns of forty or fifty years ago, when the church was described as the enemy of progress, are not expected to recur. The situation in Italy is somewhat like that in France, where the moral and spiritual leadership of the church is generally believed to have increased in recent years.