The Roman Question

ROME IN AMERICA: TRANSNATIONAL CATHOLIC IDEOLOGY FROM THE RISORGIMENTO TO FASCISM. By Peter R. D’Agostino (The University of North Carolina Press, P.O. Box 2288, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27515, 2004), 315pp. HB 59.95.

A crucial moment for the modern papacy was brought about by the “Risorgimento” (1848-70) which led to the confiscation of the papal states in order to reunite the Italian peninsula. Catholic belief, at least since the time of Constantine, held that the papacy must retain temporal power in order to facilitate the social kingdom of Christ. (Catholic natural law theory posits a hierarchical world order with the pope reigning over all worldly powers.)
With the rise of liberal political thought in Italy, which promoted the separation of church and state, thus relegating the papacy to the spiritual realm only, this concept became severely threatened. So much so that in 1864, Pope Pius IX (1846-78) condemned “liberalism” as heresy in the encyclical “Quanta Cura.”

In 1870, Garabaldi and his Red Shirts had entered Rome and Pius IX declared himself to be a “Prisoner of the Vatican.” The new Italian government’s Law of Guarantees (1871) relegated all religions to an equal status, and proclaimed “a free Church in a free state.”

This concept of religious freedom flew in the face of Catholic theology, which holds that error (in this case, false religion) has no rights. It was roundly rejected by Pius and three of his successors. For the next 59 years, the popes refused to leave the Vatican, using the image of the “imprisoned Vicar of Christ” to raise Catholic consciousness about the unjust seizure of the papal lands.

The problem, which became known as “The Roman Question,” gained international notoriety, and was not settled until 1929, when Pius XI signed the Lateran Pacts with the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. These accords re-established the temporal power of the Pope by ceding to the Holy See the 108-acre territory now known as Vatican City and recognizing the popes’ sovereignty as a head of state.

Peter R. D’Agostino, assistant professor of history and Catholic studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, examines “The Roman Question”—and its particular impact on Catholic Americans of Italian decent—in his new book, Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism. He analyzes the influence exerted on the Italian-American community by both the Church and the Italian government, as each tried to advance its point of view.

D’Agostino outlines three phases in the development of Catholic-American attitudes toward the reconstituted Italian State: (1) intransigence, (2) accommodation, and finally (3) support. His presentation of how ecclesiastical leaders wielded their influence within the United States—both over their co-religionists and over American politicians—stands as a powerful testimony to Catholicism’s power in forming public opinion during this period leading up to World War II. It also is a reminder of the influence that foreign governments can have over their own diaspora. The political debates and propaganda used by both the Church and Italian officials are brought to life by ethnographic materials gleaned from newspapers, magazines and local incidents.

The solidarity of the Catholic Church in America with the Vatican can be attributed primarily to the Irish-American bishops, many of whom had been educated in Rome and held Roman sympathies. Another powerful force was the influx of Italian priests who maintained canonical ties to their former dioceses. On the pro-government side, D’Agostino shows how Italian consuls exercised control over Italian-Americans through education grants, political pressure, and even through some Italian-American organizations. For example, the rapprochement between the Church and Italy’s government was greatly aided by “The Order of the Sons of Italy in America,” which incorporated both civic events and church participation in their activities. They were present at secular parades as well as religious feasts and processions. Their inclusion at such gatherings helped the Italian state and, unfortunately, the Fascists to gain credibility among American Catholics.

The willingness of Catholics to accept Fascism in exchange for the concessions that Mussolini granted the Church — e.g. by restoring, for the most part, Catholicism’s traditional privileged status as the state church of Italy — was indeed a Faustian bargain which D’Agostino examines thoroughly in the last third of the book. Catholic journals such as America and Commonweal, along with Catholic social thinkers such as theologian, Fr. John A. Ryan of Catholic University of America, gleefully extolled Fascism and Mussolini.

The few lonely voices that did condemn the Fascist tide, such as Monsignor Guiseppe Ciarrocchi of Sancta Maria Parish in Detroit, editor of “La Voce,” and Paulist editor James McGillis of the “Catholic World,” often had to endure the opprobrium of bishops and even pressure to be silent from the Apostolic Delegate, Ameleto Cicognani. It was not until Mussolini joined Hitler in the Axis of Steel Pact in 1939, causing bishops and Italian Americans to finally repudiate Fascism, that these lonely Jeremiahs were vindicated.

It is certainly obvious that the Church’s attitude toward democracy and freedom of religion seems quite different today from its pre-Vatican II condemnations. If one were to judge current liberal acceptance of church-state separation by the standards of the past, today’s Catholics could quite possibly be charged as heretical.

Peter D’Agostino has done a marvelous job of highlighting this dramatic episode in American Catholicism. His deft melding of political and theological issues, as well as his portrayal of foreign influence within America’s borders, make this book valuable for understanding our nation’s concerns in our post 9-11 world, when we are once-again witnessing attempts by foreign interests to shape American sympathies. It is timely indeed.

Fr. Michael P. Orsi
Ave Maria School of Law
Ann Arbor, Mich.

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