On July 18, 1931, the Liverpool Weekly Post reported some startling news. It said that owing to “quarrels with Fascists and Mussolini”, Pope Pius XI was considering transferring the Vatican to the Irish Free State.
“Ireland is still the land of rumours as well as of romance,” the report said. “The latest belief among the peasants in the Southern Free State is that the Pope is coming to live in Ireland in order to get away from Fascist irritations.”
This article could be dismissed as a journalist’s vivid imagination spurred on by gossip in the Free State and the “London clubs”. But once the international climate of 1931 and Church-state relations in Italy are considered, this seemingly preposterous idea is more understandable.
The newspaper claimed that a “luxury mansion” was being prepared for the pontiff’s arrival. “The fact that the large untenanted mansion in the vicinity of Mount Mellary [Melleray] Monastery is being lavishly put in order has given sufficient colour for the fantastic tale to be widely credited,” it said. This possibly referred to the nearby Anglo-Irish big houses of Dromana and Cappoquin.
The paper referred to the Avignon papacy in the 1300s for historical context and added: “Having regard to the recent revolutionary attitude towards the Church in Spain, the Free State of Ireland would now appear to be the most ardent supporters of Roman Catholicism.”
With the dramatic collapse of the status quo after the Great War and the Russian Revolution, the Vatican feared that more countries would fall under atheist, communist rule. But most likely the speculation was driven by an invitation made to Pope Pius XI to attend the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932, as well as the turbulent political climate in Europe.
The newspaper argued that in order to stress the independence of the Vatican from Italy, and “in view of the strained relations between the Vatican and the Quirinal” (the Italian head of state’s official residence), the prospect of an Irish papacy was not absurd.
His Holiness may take this step for several reasons, the chief of which would be the proud assertion that the papacy is not the private possession of Italy, but belongs to the world … Dublin is ready to give the Pope her permanent hospitality, with full extraterritorial rights. This subject is constantly discussed in high circles in the Free State, which has its own ambassador at the Vatican.
Yet the Liverpool Weekly Post article was not followed up by any of the Irish newspapers, meaning that it was likely dismissed as tabloid gossip.
The article appeared in a specific historical context. On February 11, 1929, the Lateran Treaty was signed, which put an end to the Roman Question: the position of the Vatican in Italy. This had loomed unanswered since the reunification of Italy in 1870. The treaty included the independence and foundation of the sovereign state of Vatican City, recognition of Catholicism as the state religion of Italy and a financial settlement with the Vatican relating to damages sustained and loss of territory.
Catholics hoped the treaty would lead to a Christian restoration in Italy, with better Church-state relations. However, while the Lateran Accords of 1929 eased some of the tensions between the papacy and Mussolini’s regime, difficulties quickly arose, coming to a head in 1931.
Central to efforts to re-Christianise Italian society was Catholic Action, an umbrella group made up of various lay Catholic organisations, aimed mainly at fostering Catholicism among young people and families. One of the initial sparks of the conflict was the Fascists’ fear that Catholic Action was organising like a trade union.
Rivalry grew between the Catholic and Fascist youth groups, with the Fascists occasionally descending into violence. Tensions grew when the police investigated the activities of Catholic Action to see if they were political in nature.
This took place at a time when Mussolini was implementing a policy of “fascistisation” in education institutions, with schools and universities targeted for indoctrination. Teachers were forced to swear oaths of loyalty, while heads of schools in universities had to have been Fascist Party members for at least five years. Another contributory factor was the change in leadership in Catholic Action to leaders more willing to challenge the Fascists.
In his study of the conflict, The Vatican and Italian Fascism, 1929–32, John F Pollard argues that a combination of factors led to the 1931 crisis. As more ideologically driven fascists took up leadership roles, the drive towards totalitarian control of youth organisations increased, escalating tensions. The 40th anniversary in 1931 of the encyclical Revum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII led to displays of Catholic activism. The effects of the Great Depression encouraged anti-Fascist sentiments as well as swift displays of force by Mussolini.
Seeing the activities of Catholic Action under sustained attack, Pope Pius XI had issued the encyclical Rappresentanti in Terra in 1929, which although not specifically mentioning Italy was directed at the regime. The encyclical insisted that “it is the inalienable right as well as the indispensable duty of the Church to watch over the entire education of her children”.
More than 10,000 foreign delegates of Catholic social organisations travelled to Italy at the beginning of May to celebrate the anniversary of Revum Novarum and meet their Italian counterparts. These celebrations, along with the social encyclical Quadragesimo anno, published on May 15, infuriated the Fascists. Catholics were attacked in Italian cities and on university campuses. Spurred on by extremists inside his party, Mussolini dissolved the Catholic youth organisations on May 30.
One of the Vatican’s first reactions to this was to ban Corpus Christi processions (though the order was largely ignored in the pro-Fascist south of the country).
In his emphatic encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno published on July 7, Pope Pius XI condemned the attempt to create a “revolution which snatches the young from the Church and from Jesus Christ, and which inculcates in its own young people hatred, violence and irreverence”. He condemned the indoctrination of Italian youth, which he decried as the “veritable pagan worship of the state … in complete conflict with the natural right of the family and with the supernatural right of the Church”.
Pollard describes the encyclical as “a masterpiece combining a clear warning to the regime of the dangerous consequence of a continuation of the dispute with an implicit invitation for negotiations to bring it to an end.” It caused fascist violence and widespread condemnation in the press, culminating in Fascist leaders pronouncing the incompatibility of belonging both to Catholic Action and government organisations. This led to hundreds of members leaving Catholic Action because of loyalty to (or fear of) the regime.
On July 11, the Times reported that the pronouncement broke ‘‘one of the bridges between the Vatican and the Quirinal which it will need the greatest care and patience and ingenuity to rebuild”. The “Irish papacy” article appeared in the Liverpool Weekly Post just days later.
With Italy’s reputation damaged by the crisis, Mussolini was keen to negotiate. The Vatican was concerned that if the crisis continued it might result in the Lateran Accords being dissolved. In September a treaty was finally agreed between the two sides. While the non-political nature of Catholic Action was re-affirmed, it was conceded that only the national flag would be flown at local associations of Catholic Action. The agreement also underlined the exclusively spiritual and religious nature of Catholic Action. Catholic youth associations would be allowed to operate solely for the purposes of the spiritual and educational wellbeing of the youth.
The Vatican had been forced to make concessions, but crucially it had safeguarded the role of Catholic youth organisations in education. They were allowed to operate again from that September.
We can now understand why the idea of moving the Vatican to the Free State appeared to some as a viable option in 1931. In the preceding decade the Irish Free State had transitioned from one blighted by civil war into one of the few remaining stable democracies in Europe, free from the large-scale socialist movements that had gained traction across the continent.
Amid the totalitarian evils of fascism and communism sweeping over mainland Europe, and the political uncertainty created by the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic, the violent persecution of Catholicism in Mexico and the chaos of the Great Depression, the Irish Free State appeared potentially to be a peaceful harbour of Catholicism in stormy seas.
Ronan Doheny has an MPhil in Modern Irish History from Trinity College Dublin and is currently studying at UCD for an MA in Archives and Records Management
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