It is not an accident that Francis has been facing an uphill battle. As one can learn from Giuliana Chamedes’s fascinating new book, A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe, his opponents draw on a tradition that goes back all the way to World War I, and which has deeply shaped Catholic politics. According to Chamedes, the Vatican — by which she means the popes and the many bureaucrats who staff the church’s central secretariats — had no doubt that the war’s senseless slaughter were symptoms of Catholicism’s decline in public life. It therefore launched a new campaign to make Europe Catholic again: an ambitious effort to shape European states’ laws so they comply with the church’s teachings. The key tool in the papal arsenal was diplomacy. Under the leadership of Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII, who led the church from 1914 to 1958, Vatican diplomats fanned across the continent and pressured European governments to adopt Catholic-influenced marriage laws (for example, making divorce exceedingly difficult or even making Catholic weddings the only legal option); to fund the teaching of Catholic lessons in public schools; and, where possible, to declare Catholicism the official state religion.
In Chamedes’s telling, what the Vatican sought to achieve was not some minor concessions from governments, so often requested by corporations or NGOs. Rather, its goal was to combat religious freedom, the notion that states should remain neutral in religious matters. “To say a state does not have a religion would mean […] saying it is an Atheist state,” decried one official who negotiated marriage and divorce laws in Italy; Catholics had to receive preferential treatment over Jews, Protestants, or other minorities.
In contrast to Francis’s appeals to governments today, this earlier campaign was tremendously fruitful in the first half of the 20th century. Across the continent, European leaders — especially heads of new regimes, who craved international legitimacy — rushed to sign special agreements, or concordats, with the Vatican, which fulfilled many of the church’s hopes. During the 1920s and 1930s, this included especially autocrats and dictators, such as the Lithuanian nationalist Augustinas Voldemaras, the Italian Duce Benito Mussolini, and the German Führer Adolf Hitler. All of them saw the church as an important force to recruit into their ambitious political projects, or at least satisfy enough to defuse as a competitor.
What’s perhaps more surprising in Chamedes’s story is how little World War II and apocalyptic violence did to change the Vatican’s outlook. Thoroughly unmoved by the Holocaust, she shows, Pius XII and his diplomats remained committed to legalized religious inequality and to securing Catholicism’s privileges. This time, their allies in this undertaking were conservative “Christian Democrats” who came to power across postwar Western Europe, such as Alcide De Gasperi in Italy and Konrad Adenauer in West Germany. While they accepted the principle of religious liberty and foiled some of the Vatican’s hopes (such as its request that only Catholic marriages would be legalized in Italy), they heeded others (most commonly, by securing preferential status and funding for Catholic education). What is more, many Vatican diplomats continued to show their fondness for authoritarianism, showering praise on Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. As one cardinal gushed in 1948, the regime’s ban on Jewish or Protestant rites in public and its ceding of all education to the church were a “defense of the Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
If the Vatican found so many allies in its reactionary crusade, it was because they shared common enemies. What brought the popes together with authoritarians, fascists, and Christian Democrats was not a conception of religion, but above all a deep animosity toward some forms of liberalism and communism. According to Chamedes, the Vatican’s campaign emerged at first as an alternative to Woodrow Wilson’s vision of liberal internationalism. The United States, many Catholic officials feared, was determined to spread its notions of religious neutrality and the separation of church and state; concordat diplomacy, Chamedes claims, was meant to thwart this fate. Even more alarming was the rise of secular communism, which Catholics, like countless other Europeans, saw as the destroyer of civilization. To defeat it, the Vatican expanded its arsenal beyond diplomacy, and launched countless anticommunist propaganda campaigns, including traveling exhibits, educational programs, and radio broadcasts. Indeed, anticommunism became the church’s overarching project from the Great Depression to the Cold War. It even led pope Pius XII to overcome his early anti-American sentiments, and to cooperate with US officials against the Soviets.
Ultimately, what the Vatican envisioned was a broad and anti-secular front under the Holy See’s leadership. All of its actions, as Chamedes puts it, were geared toward the creation of a “Catholic International” that would rival its liberal and communist competitors. While the command of this vision over church officials diminished in the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) formally embraced the principle of religious liberty and state religious neutrality, it never disappeared. As the book’s epilogue shows, it informed much of pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI’s efforts to secure Christianity’s legal privileges in Europe (for example their support for displaying crucifixes in public schools), and still inspires some of Francis’s harsher critics.
A Twentieth-Century Crusade is a work of tremendous ambitions and impressive panoramic scope. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, it charts one of the 20th century’s most far-reaching cultural-political projects, which stretched over dozens of countries and unfolded over decades. But the book’s novelty — providing the first comprehensive account of the Vatican’s hopes and fears — necessarily also leaves some questions unanswered. How deeply did the Vatican’s campaign shape modern politics, as opposed to being their symptom? In other words, how successful was the Vatican’s project? When Polish and Lithuanian nationalists, for example, agreed to sign concordats and enshrine Catholicism’s legal supremacy in the 1920s, was it because of the Vatican’s pleas, or because it provided convenient cover for ethno-religious discrimination (against Jews and Ukrainian-Orthodox)? Indeed, more often than Catholic diplomats cared to acknowledge, they served as pawns in other powers’ schemes. The Nazis, to take the most notorious example, may have signed a concordat in 1933, but were quick to ignore most of its clauses.
The extent of the Vatican’s control of events is important not only to the story of the concordat diplomacy, but also of its decline in the 1960s. Chamedes attributes this to the Catholic Church’s internal shifts toward a less Eurocentric and less rigid set of ideals, epitomized by the Second Vatican Council’s reformatory statements. But one wonders if it wasn’t in fact European politicians, growing more confident in the stability of their regimes, who mostly lost interest in the Vatican’s stamp of approval.
It may be asked, in fact, how much the Vatican was able to shape even its own flock’s politics. Chamedes convincingly shows that papal diplomats remained stubbornly consistent over the decades in their focus on school funding and marriage laws. But, as she acknowledges, not all Catholics agreed: politicians, theologians, and lay intellectuals increasingly had other priorities, which only sometimes overlapped with the Holy See’s. Beginning in the 1930s, for example, Catholics in Central and Western Europe were consumed not so much by ecclesiastical privileges, but by debates about economics, labor, and politics. As historian James Chappel recently showed in his book Catholic Modern (2018), they devoted endless speeches, conferences, and publications to these topics, largely without clear guidance from the pope or his assistants. What is more, most leading Catholics in these regions disagreed with the Vatican’s stance on religious freedom. Once Christian Democrats came to power in the postwar years, they did not pursue its vision of a confessional state.
The limits of the Vatican’s reach were similarly apparent with Catholics’ social and political interactions with Protestants, which the Vatican vociferously condemned in the 1950s out of fear they would breed religious apathy. Catholics across Europe politely nodded, and then joined inter-confessional parties, charities, and associations, which mushroomed in the postwar era. To be sure, the Vatican remained an important voice. Especially in Italy, its diplomats carried considerable weight in public affairs. But in much of Europe, Catholics shaped their own forms of political ideals and actions. The Vatican seemed not so much like the beating heart of a Catholic International as a source to be occasionally consulted with.
Such disagreements, of course, are hardly surprising, especially in a universe so diverse as the Catholic Church. And Chamedes, to her credit, discusses the dissenters who challenged the popes’ rigid vision and especially their alliance with authoritarianism. The risk of telling the 20th century from the Vatican’s perspective, however, is to miss the scope of its failure. For what came under fire were not only the Holy See’s specific political positions, but the very notion of a Rome-centric and clerical church. During the interwar years, just as the concordat campaign unfolded, Catholic thinkers across Europe began to develop a new conception of the Catholic community. Lay people, they argued, were just as central to the church as its hierarchy; their interests and desires should take center stage. Such ideas got increasing traction in the next few decades, and helped inspire multiple organizations. Lay associations such as the Community of Sant’Egidio, which was founded by Catholic high school students and provided humanitarian relief across the globe, proliferated and operated with minimal clerical supervision. Religious identification has increasingly manifested itself outside formal ecclesiastical spaces. The sex abuse scandals that have recently been roiling the church have dramatically accelerated this process. In the eyes of many believers, it suggests that the clerical vision was worse than old-fashioned — it was implicated in something rotten.
It is this tradition that has animated the fascination with Francis. Almost all his actions, from his speaking to believers directly through Twitter to his public condemnation of sex abuse, are read as a challenge to traditional institutional hierarchies and the culture of closed-door negotiations. Indeed, the pope is a sort of a paradox: the world’s most famous cleric, he often exhibits dislike of clerical authority (even if this remains too often at the level of rhetoric, and not so much action). In many ways, what Chamedes has superbly charted is the world that Francis has set to demolish. How his alternative will fare, and whether it will succeed where his predecessors had failed, is still to be seen.
Udi Greenberg is an associate professor of History at Dartmouth College.