On Sunday, the Catholic Church will canonize both Pope Paul VI and Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador. Saints are not born holy, and very rarely if ever do they have a sudden and immediate conversion to the “life of heroic virtue” required to be recognized by the church as a saint. Rather, they undergo a gradual process of conversion, experiencing God’s grace in different dimensions of their life at different points in their life. In this post, I want to examine one moment of conversion in the life of Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, that is particularly relevant for Catholic political theology—his chaplaincy of the Italian Catholic Federation of University Students (FUCI) from 1923 to 1933, during the rise of fascism in Italy.
Montini’s father Giorgio was a newspaper editor and parliamentarian of the Italian People’s Party (PPI), the Christian democratic party founded by the priest Luigi Sturzo, and his brother Lodovico was also involved in the PPI. As an ordained priest, Giovanni Battista could not share the political ambitions of his family members, but he shared their political sympathies. Nevertheless, in the first years after his ordination, Montini dreamed of a career devoted to the study of literature and philosophy. He was dismayed when he was tapped by Giuseppe Pizzardo, the substitute for the Secretary of State of the Holy See, for a career in the diplomatic corps, and he languished in his studies at the academy for diplomats.
Perhaps because he was absorbed in these studies, unlike his father and brother, Giovanni Battista did not seem overly concerned about Benito Mussolini’s rise to power between 1922 and 1924. Indeed, Montini was absent from Italy at key moments of victory for the fascists. While he was sent by his superiors on a visit to Germany in 1922, he missed the “march on Rome” when Mussolini was appointed prime minister by King Victor Emmanuel III. Montini was stationed at the nunciature in Poland in 1923 when Pope Pius XI pressured Sturzo to step down as leader of the PPI and the fascists pressured the Italian parliament, over the objections of the socialists and some of the Popolari, to adopt an electoral law that ensured a fascist majority in the 1924 elections.
When he returned to Rome at the end of 1923, Montini was appointed the chaplain of the Rome chapter of FUCI, in addition to his duties at the Secretariat of State. FUCI was the branch of Catholic Action, recently reorganized by Pope Pius XI, devoted to university students. This seemed like an ideal post for the academically-oriented Montini; he was responsible for promoting the spiritual life of the students and helping them integrate it with their academic studies, and his duties included lectures on theological topics like Christology and ecclesiology and participating in discussions on art, literature, and history. Montini developed close relationships with the students he shepherded.
Then Montini’s life took a turn. In May 1925, a fascist sympathizer denounced Montini to Pope Pius XI, accusing the former of promoting political agitation amongst the students after he invited his brother Lodovico to speak on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum and the church’s social doctrine. A few days later, on two occasions fascist students brutally assaulted Catholic students under Montini’s care. The fascists could not abide the church having an autonomous role in the formation of students. Shaken by these incidents, Montini offered his resignation from the chaplaincy. Two months later, however, Pizzardo instead appointed him the nationwide chaplain of FUCI. Buoyed by Pope Pius XI’s defense of Catholic Action after the assaults, Montini took the new position with renewed enthusiasm. Even so, the political situation became more dire; the fascist government formally dissolved all opposition political parties, and at the personal level, Montini’s father Giorgio’s newspaper was shut down.
Although not by design, FUCI became the primary opposition to the fascists among Italy’s university students. And yet the organization was only indirectly political, focused as it was on the spiritual and intellectual development of its members. Inspired by the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, among others, Montini taught his students that it was precisely because the human person is spiritual by nature—that he or she reaches out for truth, beauty, and goodness through both intellectual study and religion—that the person cannot be completely subordinated to the state, as the fascists demanded. And drawing on the work of Antonin Sertillanges, another French Catholic philosopher, he insisted that rather than being a matter of personal ambition or a solitary pursuit, the intellectual life is a communal endeavor based on dialogue, cooperation, and friendship, and he encouraged such a community among the students.
Although not overtly political, FUCI developed a Catholic and democratic spirit under Montini’s leadership. Not incidentally, the lay leadership of FUCI was democratically elected, making it one of the few democratic institutions in Italy under fascist rule. And Montini had undergone a kind of personal conversion, no longer turning to academic study as an escape from worldly affairs and personal responsibility, but rather integrating the spiritual life, study, and the pursuit of the common good. As he wrote to his friend Giuseppe De Luca, perhaps seeing his former self in his friend, “Take care that your expertise and erudition do not make love grow cold, eliminate sacrifice, and fragment the Body of Christ. You choose books, I prefer to choose souls.”
Montini’s work with FUCI would lead to conflict on two fronts: on the one side from his ecclesiastical superiors, and on the other from the fascists. By the late 1920s, the Secretariat of State was engaged in negotiations with Mussolini over the restoration of territorial sovereignty to the Holy See. Montini worried that the negotiations represented an attempt at the reconciliation of the church with fascism. In 1929, the two parties successfully negotiated the Lateran Treaty which created the Vatican City State and also recognized a privileged status for the Catholic Church in Italian society: the government would provide financial support to the clergy and the Catholic religion would be taught in schools, for example. Pope Pius XI and his Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri believed that the treaty showed that fascism could be tamed and its totalitarian excesses moderated; they pursued a strategy of alliance in pursuit of the church’s aims. The fascists had no intention of binding themselves to the arrangements laid out in the treaty, however.
Over the years FUCI students were the victims of sporadic violence from fascists, and the secret police spied on Montini and the ex-Popolari who were sheltered in the Vatican (such as the former PPI delegate and future prime minister Alcide de Gasperi). Early in 1931 the government cancelled all FUCI conferences. In May, the police surrounded the headquarters of FUCI in Rome, a threat of things to come, as the students prayed the rosary inside. A week later, FUCI offices in Florence, Genoa, Milan, and Venice were physically attacked. And then the government dissolved all the youth associations affiliated with Catholic Action, including FUCI.
These actions led Pope Pius XI to write his encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno a month later. Pius condemned the fascists’ actions and their pretensions to totalitarian control over society. Nevertheless, Pius continued to hold out hope that the fascists could moderate, that there could somehow be a modus vivendi between the fascist state and autonomous Catholic associations like Catholic Action. He failed to see that there was a fundamental clash between fascism and Catholicism, and that the moment demanded a quite different form of Catholic resistance to fascism, the Catholic democratic spirit embodied in FUCI under Montini’s leadership. This misjudgment would lead Pius to make a similar mistake with the 1933 concordat with Nazi Germany.
Although FUCI was revived after the publication of Non abbiamo bisogno, in 1933 Montini was forced by Pizzardo to resign from his chaplaincy, to be replaced by a more apolitical figure. A number of FUCI alumni, however, had formed a similar association of university graduates called the Laureati, and Montini continued his work among them until war broke out at the end of the decade.
During these years, Montini underwent a personal conversion from bookish retreat from a world going mad to confident engagement and spiritual leadership. His transformation did not represent a rejection of the contemplative life in favor of the active, but rather an integration of the two. Montini’s transformation was also a prefiguring of one that took place in the church at large in the decades that followed. Many former associates of FUCI and the Laureati went on to help rebuild Italy in the post-war years as leaders within the Christian Democratic party or as lay leaders within the church. The Catholic democratic spirit nurtured by Montini was taken up by Pope Pius XI’s successor Pius XII in the years after the war. And this spirit was even more clearly articulated in the teachings of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, the latter the name Montini took for himself when he was elected pope in 1963.