Controversial Concordats: The Vatican's Relations with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler

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Controversial Concordats: The Vatican's Relations with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler. Edited by Frank J. Coppa. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 1999. Pp. viii, 248. $44.95 clothbound; $24.95 paperback.)

This study of the concordats concluded between the Holy See and the major dictators of the modern age is an expansion of papers first presented as a panel at a scholarly conference. As such, it is organized like a conference panel, with an introduction by John K. Zeender, substantive essays on France by William Roberts, on Italy by Frank Coppa, and on Germany by Joseph A. Biesinger, and a concluding commentary by Stewart A. Stehlin. An appendix contains the complete texts of the concordats with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler.

For over 800 years prior to the 1960's, the Papacy had negotiated concordats with secular states, trading the favor of the Pope for guarantees of the position of the Church and its institutional status within those states. In the early nineteenth century, concordats, on the model of that of 1801 with Napoleon, served to consolidate alliances of throne and altar. They were less used in the latter part of the century as the Vatican was beset by attacks from liberal anticlericals and from the newly created national entities of Germany and Italy. The use of concordats was revived by Pius XI as a means of dealing with a world of secular nationalism in the 1920's. Yet the concordats with Italy (1929) and Germany (1933) raised questions about the morality of pacts with dictators and, with Vatican Council II's intended decentralization of power within the Church, no new concordats have been concluded by the Vatican since the 1950's.

William Roberts contends that Napoleon sought agreement with the Church in order to secure popular support for his regime as well as to control what was potentially a dangerous oppositional institution. In the short term, the French concordat of 1801 worked to Napoleon's advantage. Yet, Roberts argues that in the longer term, the concordat was of considerable benefit to the Church, since it brought the French Church under greater papal control than heretofore and it laid the foundation for the nineteenth-century revival of French Catholicism. Within France, the concordat gave great power to the bishops, with the result that the lower clergy became fervently ultramontane, seeing the Pope as their protector against an arbitrary episcopate. Roberts attributes French support for the 1870 doctrine of papal infallibility to this internal tension of the Church.

In the same way, Frank Coppa indicates that the Italian concordat of 1929 provided short-term benefits to Mussolini's fascist regime, but, through its protection of Italian Catholic Action, the concordat assisted in the preparation of the post-fascist generation of Italian political leadership. …