Abyssinian Christianity – The First Christian Nation? (Part 1) By Mario Alexis Portella and Abba Abraham Buruk Woldegaber
The following is an excerpt detailing how the Roman Catholic Church, under the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, made every effort to defend Ethiopia against the Italian Fascist aggression of Benito Mussolini in the 1930s.
The Crusade of Pope Pius XI Against Fascist and Nazi Aggression – Part I of II
Pope Pius XI came from the field of international diplomacy and pastoral sensibility, which enabled him to tackle the problem of the ItaloEthiopian conflict, in addition to the growing problem of antiSemitism in the 1930s. It can also be affirmed that he was one of the popes who had a particular affection for the Ethiopians and for the Jewish people.
In the months preceding October 1935, the position of the Holy See was ambiguous with regards to involvement in the Italo-Ethiopian question. After having resolved the Roman Question, i.e., the recognition of the Vatican City as an independent sovereign state in 1929, the pope returned to his dual function of spiritual head of the church, as well as temporal though in a limited way. In the Lateran Treaty, the pope had consented to remain “outside of the temporal rivalries between States and the international conferences convened for such an end lest the contending parties would come to an agreement in appealing to him to bring about peace.” The tradition, as obliged by the treaty, coerced the Vatican to remain outside the eventual contest within the political field, which was exclusively secular. In fact, the Vatican never “distanced itself with words or with acts of formal neutrality” in its official political position. Neutrality, however, does not mean indifference, and the pope and Vatican diplomacy concerned themselves over the consequences of the Italian campaign in Ethiopia. From January 1935, the Vatican knew that Mussolini planned an attack against Ethiopia, which placed the Church in an extremely delicate dilemma.
The pope lamented the invasion of Ethiopia, referred to Mussolini as a “rambling madman,” viewed the war as “abominable” and refused to believe that “Italy truly wishes to seek and destroy a country that had for thirteen centuries defended Christianity against Islam.” The Holy See tried one last time through diplomacy to keep the invasion from taking place. On 29 September, Fr. Venturi [a Vatican personnel] called on Mussolini to urge him if possible to avoid war “so as not to put Italy into a state of mortal sin.” Unmoved, the Duce replied that the democracies were determined to “inflict a mortal blow against fascism.” The invasion took place; Italian gunners fired upon sword-carrying Ethiopians on horseback on 3 December 1935. Mons. Tardini wrote, “The ambition of one man is digging the grave for all in Italy.”
This had been the historical approach of Pius XI. He had no other approach. And never had he been a promoter of Mussolini or of the massacre of the Ethiopians on the part of Mussolini’s soldiers, as depicted by anti-Catholic critics today. Pius XI, notwithstanding his reservations of the Fascist government, especially after the waves of violence against Catholics in Italy on the part of the Fascists, sought to establish some sort of trust with Mussolini with the hope that he would “Christianize” his party, which was believed to be dominated by Masons. Since Mussolini had publicly declared himself to be a believer in the Catholic faith, his “openness to the faith was an opportunity in Pius XI’s eyes, for access to his conscience, and by means of which it would also have been possible to use a ‘fatherly’ tone of voice, as compared with the approach to other Heads of State or Government, atheists or skeptics, with whom the Pope would have to rely on the language of diplomacy alone.” Hence, the Church awaited from Mussolini a new political system that would not be weakened by the old “MasonicLiberal” agenda against the Holy See. Nevertheless, from the very beginning of the Fascist movement, before it became a political entity, the Church condemned its secular doctrines, as it did their violence as a means to rise to power.
About the Authors: Mario Alexis Portella is a priest at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and is a Doctorate candidate in Utriusque Iuris (Civil and Canon Law) at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He received his Bachelor Degree in Government and Politics at St. John’s University in New York, where he taught as an Associate Professor. In addition, he holds a Master of Art in Medieval History from Fordham University, also in New York. Abba Abraham Buruk Woldegaber, O. Cist., is a Cistercian monk from Eritrea who earned his Bachelor Degree in English from the University of Asmara. He was Director of the Cistercian Technical School in Mendida, Ethiopia and Prefect of Philosophy and Theology, as well as Rector of the Cistercian Minor Seminary, Asmara, Eritrea. He inspired the original research for the book.