Review of Kevin Madigan, The Popes Against the Protestants: The Vatican and Evangelical Christianity in Fascist Italy

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 1/2 (Summer 2023)

Review of Kevin Madigan, The Popes Against the Protestants: The Vatican and Evangelical Christianity in Fascist Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021). 368 Pp. ISBN: 9780300215861.

By Rebecca Carter-Chand, US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Readers familiar with the historiography of the Vatican in the first half of the twentieth century may recognize the reference in Kevin Madigan’s newest title, The Popes Against the Protestants. Madigan intentionally echoes David Kertzer’s 2002 book, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, signaling the intensity with which the Vatican pursued a campaign to suppress Italian Protestantism in a sustained manner for decades. In fact, from the period of Italian unification in the second half of the nineteenth century until well beyond the fascist period, these anti-Protestant efforts consumed more of the Vatican’s attention than its battle against Italy’s Jews. But while the Church’s antisemitism is well known, it’s antipathy toward the so-called “Protestant danger” has been unexplored in English-language scholarship until now. Madigan explains the Vatican’s outsized response to Protestant activity, which, by any measure, remained miniscule, by showing that Protestants posed an existential threat to Catholic hegemony and the pope’s ambitions to establish a confessional state.

The main source material that Madigan draws upon comes from the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939), the records of which only became available in 2006. But the story begins in the Risorgimento in the mid-nineteenth century and the triumph of a new liberal order that brought religious tolerance in the form of openness to non-Catholic religious confessions. Into this environment emerged evangelical Protestant missionaries from England and America, many of whom were Italian immigrants who had converted to a form of Protestantism in their new country and later returned to Italy. Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, the Salvation Army, the YMCA, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Adventists brought with them an evangelical style of preaching that emphasized conversion and an array of educational, medical, and social programs that benefited the Italian lower classes and peasantry. The fact that this Protestant missionary activity mapped onto a global trend of Protestant expansion in this period was all the more concerning for the Vatican, especially after World War I and the growth of Anglo-American power.

The first significant Vatican official to spill much ink on the dangers of Protestantism was Pietro Tacchi Venturi, a Jesuit who served in an incredibly powerful position as intermediary between the pope and Mussolini. Venturi succeeded in portraying Protestants not only as heretics but also as enemies of the fascist state by linking Protestantism to a long list of political and social movements that the Church opposed. Despite sounding dissonant to a twenty-first century ear, Italian evangelicals in the 1920s were associated with socialism, Freemasonry, Judaism, and women’s rights. Madigan tells us that Pope Pius XI was gravely concerned about the reported growth of these Protestant groups but that Mussolini was less convinced that their tiny numbers would pose a threat to his power. In the 1920s, only 1 in 10,000 Italians were Protestant. Moreover, he was cognizant of international public opinion and did not want to unnecessarily antagonize the Anglo world. In this dynamic, as in so many other parts of this story, we see clear parallels between the treatment of religious minorities in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

A major turning point came in 1929, when the Lateran Pacts recognized papal sovereignty over Vatican City and made Roman Catholicism the official religion of the state. Immediately following the Lateran Pacts, the government passed a law guaranteeing rights of free speech on religious matters to non-Catholic groups. With this law, Mussolini was showing the world that he was not bowing to Catholic aims to make Italy a confessional state. Protestants were initially encouraged by the new law, but it soon became clear that the Catholic hierarchy found plenty of room for interpretation about what the law covered.

The key figure in interpreting and enforcing the law in the 1930s was the papal nuncio to Italy, Francesco Borgongini-Duca. It was Borgongini who argued that proselytizing should not be considered protected speech. According to his logic, potentially any activity enacted by the Protestant groups could be considered to include proselytizing, even meetings held in private homes. Borgongini also clamped down on the sale or distribution of Bibles, when they were discovered to be Protestant Bibles. An interesting side note we learn from Madigan’s sources is that often ordinary Catholics were so poorly catechized that they could not distinguish a Protestant from a Catholic Bible or even know that different versions existed.

For all of these efforts, Tacchi Venturi, Borgongini, and Pius XI found only limited success in suppressing Protestant growth. Pentecostalism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were criminalized in 1935, although local government authorities did not always enforce it. In the end, none of the evangelical groups were eliminated from Italian society but instead they proved resilient, if still small in number.

This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the symbiotic yet competitive relationship between the Vatican and the Italian fascist state. The parallel narratives of Catholic persecution of Jews and Catholic suppression of Protestants shows not that they were equal in measure or in consequence, but that they both represented an outsider status that was not compatible with Catholic aims of religious purity or fascist aims of ethnic purity.