Luigi Sturzo was born in 1871, and came of age in an era when Italian Catholics were by papal decree prohibited from taking part in the secular politics of the constitutional monarchy established with the creation of the new Italian kingdom. That changed after World War I with the end of the non expedit, an obstacle whose removal seemed to release pent-up demand for participation in political life. Sturzo himself wasted little time, in 1919 founding the Partito Popolare with the aim of encouraging Catholics to become involved in politics. It was only in a 1944 Commonweal article that Sturzo revealed the gritty details behind the party’s creation, which required approval by the Vatican. He got the go-ahead, but along with it a warning: “[Secretary of State Cardinal Gasparri] repeated to me several times: ‘You will never speak in the name of the Church, nor in the name of Catholic Action [the most important organization of lay Catholics, under the control of the hierarchy].... Remember that the responsibility is yours. The Church and Catholic Action will never be implicated in the policies of the party. If you make a mistake, the blame will fall on you.”
The blame fell within five years, Sturzo’s “mistake” being his early opposition to Fascism. Partito Popolare was an obstacle between the Vatican and Mussolini, blocking direct negotiations between the two and defying a church whose main concern was not the Fascists but the Communists, both in Italy and internationally. In 1923, the Vatican forced Sturzo to step down from leadership of the party; in 1924, amid an assassination campaign waged by Fascists against their political opponents, he fled Italy for London. With Sturzo gone, the Vatican officially disavowed the Partito Populare and opened direct negotiations with Mussolini, who in a deal with Pius XI forced the eventual disbanding of the party—the first such action by the Fascists and a key step toward the Lateran Treaties of 1929, which in turn helped preempt any possible political cooperation between Catholics and Socialists in Italian politics.
From his relatively safe vantage in London—where he would remain until 1940—Sturzo was able to reflect not only on the rapidly developing political picture, but also on what the future might hold for the international order. He developed connections with the Round Table movement, which at that time was advocating collaboration among dominions of the British Empire as a “commonwealth of nations,” and with the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House. Following the debate over how to imagine a world in which Great Britain could no longer rely on the militarily imposed loyalty of its colonies, he soon published, in English, The International Community and the Right of War (1929). Here he articulated his vision of the links between democracy, internationalism, and peace, a vision that found receptive audiences in France and Spain (where translations were quickly published), as well as in the United States. A capsule review in Foreign Affairs said the exiled Italian Populist leader was “quite as vigorous in the field of thought as he formerly showed himself in the field of action.” It called his treatment of the philosophical question about the necessity of war
pronouncedly Christian and Catholic…. Don Sturzo finds no difficulty in disposing of the usual arguments advanced in favor of war as an instrument of justice, as a necessary attribute of state power, or as a purely biological factor, and comes to the conclusion that the idea of the necessity of war is a pure illusion.… As the social system changes and the tendency towards international organization replaces the purely national system, the ideas of moral constraint will inevitably prevail over the ideas of force.
The book wasn’t translated into Italian until 1954; it was never translated into German, despite multiple attempts.
Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940 turned Sturzo’s “relatively safe” perch in London into something less so. The British by then were coming to see the Italian exiles in their midst as enemies or possible spies. In September of that year, Sturzo left London for the United States. His belief in “ideas of moral constraint” might still have been a factor in his not being convinced of the need for the United States to enter the war against Fascism and Nazism. Yet he’d also come to America at a time when there remained among certain sectors of the populace something of a fascination with Fascism. This included the emergent (and largely Catholic) Italian-American immigrant community. But it also included the national audiences of public figures like the anti-Semitic, Mussolini-defending Charles Coughlin. There were also Catholic authors like James J. Walsh (What Civilization Owes to Italy, 1923) and John Gibbons (Old Italy and New Mussoliniland, 1933), who dedicated their books to the Italian leader. Columbia University historian Carlton J. H. Hayes exalted the Lateran Treaties of 1929, and in a two-part article in Commonweal (March 27 and April 3, 1929) talked about the “liberal principles” (sic!) of the Concordat signed between Italy and the Fascists on February 11 that year. “If Fascism eventually disappears,” Hayes wrote, “changes of detail may then be effected in the concordat—changes about education, about property, etc.—but hardly changes in the liberal principles which underlie the present document.”
But Sturzo’s reluctance to call for war against Fascism was balanced by the writing he had already done to introduce American Catholics to the danger it presented, even prior to the rise of Hitler in 1933. Much of this work appeared in Commonweal, including the 1927 essay “The Problem of Italy.” Here Sturzo put the Italian situation into historical perspective: “Italy’s institutional problem will have to be brought back into the foreground; it will be necessary to face in its entirety the unsolved problem left by the Risorgimento—the problem, that is, of the complete participation of the people in political life.” Sturzo’s view of Mussolini and Fascism was also clearly different from that of many American Catholics, which he made plain in Commonweal a decade later. In “Communism: Fascism” (published in April 1937), Sturzo disabused Catholics of the notion that the Concordat of 1929 had changed the violent nature of Fascism or that it would give the Catholic Church protection:
At the moment, relations between Fascism and the Vatican are good, partly because the Vatican has sought to avoid further motives of dispute, in view of the very grave ones it has with Hitler’s Germany, but given the Fascist spirit of domination, pride and violence, it should be no surprise if the Church were to be subjected to persecution or humiliation…. The real fact is that Fascism paves the way for Communism or for something of the kind, and that Communism paves the way for Fascism or for another regime of the same type.
Two years after the anti-Semitic “racial laws” were passed by the Fascist regime in November 1938, Sturzo wrote about the relationship between Mussolini and Hitler in an article titled “Hitler’s Teacher” (January 10, 1941). Then, in “Italy at the Crossroads” (February 21, 1941), Sturzo made clear that there was no easy parting of the ways between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, now allied in the war: “It is painful for an Italian to write such a diagnosis of the situation: but it is what it is, as I have pointed out in the previous article and in this. Fascist Italy will remain with Germany in victory or in defeat: their destinies are bound together.”
World War II had pushed Catholics to see Fascism and Nazism as the only available counterweights to Communism. In 1941, after the Russians and Germans went to war, Sturzo warned in his Commonweal article “The Ways of Providence” (November 21, 1941) against the illusion that Nazism and Communism would destroy each other. Nor would the destruction of Communism by Germany usher in the political participation of the people as a solution to economic and social issues. He wrote:
In one of the beautiful churches in the heart of Paris a preacher was speaking with a good deal of efficacy against communism, demonstrating its descent from liberalism, its relationship to democracy, describing with lurid touches its effect upon the working classes, which had become materialistic and revolutionary. Not to touch upon the question of whether such a sermon be opportune in connection with a liturgical celebration, we observe that the congregation belonged to the world of fashion. This elegant world of the aristocracy and rich bourgeoisie must have felt happy at the thought of indicting the masses as responsible for all the evils threatening the France of Saint Joan of Arc and of Saint Louis.