Forty Years After the Lateran Pacts

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano

Forty years have passed since the signature of the Lateran Pacts, which took place on February 11th, 1929, in the Popes' Room at the Lateran Palace. The grandiose event ended decades of vicissitudes of the Papacy and the Church in Italy, beginning a new period ofthe history of the Church and of the Italian People. To remember it is a duty of gratitude to God, who had caused His hour to ripen, and of tribute to Pope Pius XI, the thirtieth anniversary of whose death falls on February 10th.

The Lateran Pacts occupy a primary and unique position in the sphere of the relations with Governments and States maintained by the Holy See. Of the two documents which are complementary, the first, the Treaty, is intended to solve definitively the problem of the temporal sovereignty or the civic supremacy of which the Holy See had been deprived in the years from 1859 to 1870; and the second, the Concordat, to regulate the conditions of the Catholic Church in Italy for the exercise of her religious mission.

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On the very day of the signature of the Agreements, on February 11th, 1929, Pius XI stressed the significance and value of the Treaty. Speaking to the parish priests and Lenten preachers of Rome, he declared that through it, while renouncing the old Church States, the Holy See obtained "a true, proper and real territorial sovereignty... necessary and due to One who, in view of the divine mandate and the fact of representing Christ, cannot be subject to any earthly sovereignty". A territorial dominion over "just that amount of material territory that is indispensable for the exercise of a spiritual power entrusted to men for the benefit of men", and which became in the eyes of the millions of faithful, scattered all over the earth and belonging to nations with different political and state systems, an expression and guarantee for the Vicar of Christ of freedom and independence in the exercise of his ministry.

Two days later, on February 13th, receiving professors and pupils of theCatholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, the Pope explained the characteristics of the second of the Pacts signed at the Lateran, the Concordat, the finalities of which consisted, on the one hand, of "revising, altering and, as far as possible, re-arranging and regulating all that immense medley of laws... contrary... to the rights and prerogatives of the Church, of persons and things of the Church, accumulated" in the course of so many years of conflict; and, on the other hand, positively, of establishing a set of provisions such as the juridical personality of the Church and of religious Families, the recognition of the value of the sacrament of marriage, the place secured for religious instruction and Catholic Action, which were giving new being and new life to the Church. An immense work, contemplating which he deemed "to his deep satisfaction... that with it he had restored God to Italy and Italy to God".

Pius XI did not fail to stress in both addresses the connections uniting the two documents. The Concordat had been "inseparably joined to the Treaty", in fact it had been set as a "conditio sine qua non", because he considered that "the conscience and sense of justice of the Italian people" would offer "a guarantee properly speaking" "to make the Treaty vital", by overcoming "the condition to which so many years of tampering, plundering and destruction of every kind had reduced Italy". From these statements and others, perhaps more peremptory, uttered in May of the same year, during the polemics that arose before the ratification of the Pacts, it seems clear that, in the Pope's mind, alongside awareness of his good right, and faith in the divine assistance promised to the Church and particularly operative for the Representative of God on earth, the Catholicism of the Italian people had its place as aguarantee valid on the human plane.

The Pope, a scholar and a historian, was certainly aware that this guarantee had already been offered by Cavour in a famous address to the Piedmontese Chamber. But if he had been reminded of this, he would certainly have answered, expressing other thoughts that had germinated in the statesman's mind but had not been able to ripen, that it was just the bilateral undertakings of the Concordat that were preparing an atmosphere favourable to the preservation and development of this national characteristic, in the perspective of a future that can be foreseen, shaped but never completely determined.

But this very uncertainty of the future and the inevitable developments and changes it brings, while, on the one hand they left him unconcerned because "the future is in God's hands", on the other hand induced him to accept in all conscience the insertion of the clause on mutual consultations to reach a friendly solution in case of any difficulty of interpretation; mutual, friendly consultations, he being ready to see the collapse of the whole edifice so laboriously constructed, rather than accept substantial alterations, carried out by the other party on their own initiative and without a prior agreement.

This point was the core of the controversy that arose before the ratification of the Pacts and was, in a certain sense, repeated by means of the declaration inserted in the minutes of the ratifications on June 7th, 1929, in which both parties undertook to observe the letter and the spirit of the Treaty and the Concordat. It was also at the basis of the grave disagreement in 1931 over the measures against the young branches of Catholic Action taken by the Fascist Government, and likewise of the controversy over the racial laws in 1939, which forbade Italians to contract marriages with persons belonging to non-Aryan races. The measures were in themselves arbitrary, illegitimate, contrary to rights recognized by conventions, but they were all the more offensive in that they were taken unilaterally with the refusal of a negotiation for which the Pope rightly appealed.

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Actually, however, religious pacification did take place in Italy, and the measures laid down in the Pacts were able to exercise their beneficial influence over the whole nation. Under Pius XI's watchful eyes, nothing was missed of what was going on in Italy. He was so much aware of this that he wished to render public testimony to it on the tenth anniversary of the Pacts, in 1939. Even if the bad temper of the Head of the Government left him in painful and bitter uncertainty regarding the participation of the Italian Government in the solemn religious celebrations he had arranged to be held, a feeling of happy gratitude prevailed at the bottom of his heart. This was emphasized in the pages written for the commemorative address he intended to deliver to the Bishops, quoting and commenting on St. Paul's words: "Et grati estote!". While the sight of the good that had accrued in those ten years prompted him to make a prophecy of confidence and good for the future.

If it was not, granted to Pius XI to express this sentiment, stopped by God's hand on the very eve of the event, in the morning of February 10th, 1939, it was declared solemnly, in the most natural and apparently most unexpected place, that is, in the Quirinal Palace, by Pius XII, on December 29th of the same year, when he went there to repay officially the visit to the Sovereigns of Italy, who had gone to the Vatican to pay homage to him a few days before.

The war had already broken out in Europe then,and the visit was part ofPius XII's programme to prevent the extension of the conflict and shorten its duration.In those years the Lateran Pacts turnedout to be providential, because, in theterritory of Vatican City, the Pope wasand appeared free and independent, in a condition, albeit often a difficult and dangerous one, when Rome itself was involved in the theatre of operations, to remain in touch with the faithful all over the world, and maintain relations with the conflicting parties, giving hospitality to their representatives and receiving their envoys. If this was an advantage for the Holy See and the Church, it was no less so for the Italian people, who were quick to see the precious aid afforded by the presence of the Pope for the defence of their own existence and for the march towards new destinies.

In this atmosphere, the insertion of the Lateran Pacts in the Italian Constitution becomes understandably, justified.

With the approval of art. 7, the Constituent Assembly showed itself the real representative of popular conscience, and the wide debate to which it gave rise revealed beyond the slightest shadow of doubt how anxious the political parties were to take into account this will of the popular masses, a will that could not and should not be ignored or set aside. In this matter the Constituent Assembly was following the best Risorgimento tradition, since Cavour had thought of making theconventions that, with the Pope's consent, were to solve the Roman question, a fundamental law of the State. And it can also be said that it was the will of a king, that of Carlo Alberto who caused art. 2 of the Statute to be inserted, as the regulation of the conditions of Catholicism and as the basis of relations between State and Church; in 1947 the proclamation of the Lateran Pacts and of the juridical system it set up for mutual relations between Church and State in democratic and republican Italy, became the will of the sovereign people.

This organic development of history was, moreover, a fruit of the Pacts themselves, since it was just owing to their influence in the life of the Italian people that the contribution of the Catholics had been made, without delayorconditions, to the reconstruction of their native land, to bring it back to the paths of civic freedoms and social, economic and political progress.

Thusthe Lateran Pacts showed themselves to be alive, operative and, in fact, organically inserted in the tissue of the nation. Two decades after their signature, on February 11th, 1949, Pius XIIreceived the Prime Minister, Alcide de Gasperi, in a solemn audience. On that significant day, he hailed in his visit "the recognition of the great work of peace and reconciliation conceived and carried out by a farsighted and great-hearted Pope, and at the same time a promise to keep for this work its beneficial place in the progress and ascent of the Italian nation".

Pope John XXIII also considered them as such, at the expiry of the third decade. Answering a message from President Gronchi, the Pope expressed the wishthat their faithful application may continue with great fruits for the Christian prosperity, the tranquillity and peace of the Italian people in the wake of the traditions of their ancestral faith andof the preeminent spiritual and moral values, the valid foundation and certain spring of just order and true civic and social progress".

The sentiments and finalities of Paul VI are exactly similar to those of his predecessors. On numerous occasions he has given noble attestations of the benefits derived for the Church in Italy, the Italian people and the Holy See. We might recall the words he spoke at the Quirinal Palace during his visit to the President of the Republic, Segni, after the memorable days of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But it is better to quote the words he addressed on Sunday, February 11th of last year, to the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square.

"Today's anniversary of the drawing up of the Lateran Pacts, thirty nine years ago, reminds Us not only of the end of the painful conflict between the Italian State and the Holy See, but rather of the normal relations established since then between Italy and the Papacy, nay rather, the balance, the harmony, the friendship, that became possible between the State and the Church; religious peace in the life of the Italian people.

"It is, therefore, a happy date, which deserves to be remembered, and which must be present in this Sunday prayer of ours. Also because it gives Us the opportunity to renew, from this dwelling that remained closed for so many years, Our blessing on the whole Italian people, and to invoke upon its sons, upon its good and civil aspirations, its labours and its fortunes, the mysterious, but real and, operative aid of divine assistance.

"And for Ourself We will reserve the confidence that We will never have to regret having ensured and made evident the independence of the Papacy with the recognition of a tiny and almost symbolic Vatican State, but that We did well to entrust the moral custody of the freedom and dignity of the Apostolic See to the civic loyalty and religious faithfulness of the Italian people, amongst whom, fortheir own honour and fortune; this same Holy See is carrying out its universal and salutary mission, in history and in the world".

With these words Paul VI gave ample recognition to the happy reality of the harmonious, well-balanced and friendly relations between Italy and the Papacy, the cause and fruit of religious peace within the Italian people.

He drew two important consequences from this result. The first one, absolutely worthy of the spiritual fatherhood of the Vicar of Christ, was the joy to be able to bless the Italian people from a dwelling that had had to remain closed for so many years; and, blessing the People, to gain for them the mysterious, real and operative aid of divine assistance. This blessing is the substance of the religious and supernatural mission of the Church and the Papacy: to send it down upon a faithful people, who, busy and harassed as they are building an earthly city, turn their eyes towards Heaven, because they well know from the lessons of history, even recent history, that "if it is not the Lord who builds the house, those who are constructing it will labour in vain".

The second consequence was a realization: the moral custody of the dignity and freedom of the Apostolic See becomes, with the Lateran Pacts, the duty and privilege also of the civic loyalty and the religious fidelity of the Italian people. Accepting the territorial solution that gave Italy all the old States, reserving for the Holy See such a tiny piece of land as to seem almost symbolical, the Pope showed that he wished to rely for its fate and the free government of the universal Church on the guarantees offered by a people who so loved law that they could proclaim their country its cradle and native land, and by a nation that, in the many centuries of its history, had raised up a legion of Saints from among its children.

Pius XI had not thought differently when he decided on the great step. Civic loyalty and, still more, depth of religious faith, the substance and force of civil loyalty, seemed to him a solid guarantee alongside the mysterious guidance of divine Providence.

In this perspective every return February 11th is to be remembered and hailed. But even more today when drawing up the balance sheet of 40 years of profitable and fruitful collaboration we cannot but arrive at a renewed and deeper conviction to keep faith to our commitments, in the evident interests of the real good of the Italian people and its destiny.

A. M.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
20 February 1969, page 8

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