Posted: February 6, 2004
Interview with Cardinal Attilio Nicora,
President of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See
February 6, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr.
Italian Cardinal Attilio Nicora, president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, was the architect of the financial dimension of the 1984 revision of the concordat with Italy signed as part of the Lateran Pacts. On Friday, Feb. 6, he sat down for an interview with NCR to discuss the 75th anniversary of these historic agreements. Following is a transcription of that interview.
As you know, the Lateran Pacts had three components: a treaty governing the juridical status of the Holy See, a financial convention, and a concordat with the Italian state. I'd like to discuss each one in turn, examining its significance historically and also for the church of today. Let's begin with the treaty.
Historically, it led to the definitive closing of the so-called "Roman question," that is, the state of grave tension that had been created between the Holy See and, indirectly, the Italian church, and the Italian state born from the events of the Risorgimento. This question had poisoned public life in Italy for several decades, notwithstanding the great Catholic tradition of our country and the role that the bishop of Rome has always had in Italy, both as bishop of Rome and as pope of the universal church. This solution was, in my opinion, a happy one, because it was able to put together two elements that up to then had been separated. On the one hand, it marked the full guarantee of the independence of the Holy See, attested to and based upon the current juridical instrument, which is the existence of a state. In our actual juridical culture and actual system of socio-political organization, the maximum form of guarantee of independence is certainly the reality of a state, even if it's rooted in a very meager territory. On the other hand, however, the Holy See understood that the existence of a state understood in the sense of its traditional territory, meaning the antique papal states, was no longer thinkable. It was enough to have that little bit of territory that juridically was sufficient to achieve the scope we've already mentioned. The solution, as you know, consisted in carving out 0.44 connected kilometers of territory (108 acres), in substance the ancient Leonine area, and this became the territory of the state. In this way Rome remained peacefully the capital of Italy without having to discuss once again its statutes, and at the same time a small state arose within it, the sign and guarantee of independence for the Holy See. This solution has endured 75 years, and has overcome extremely serious tests. It's enough to think about the years 1943-45, with the German occupation of Rome, and more generally the entire period of the war. Today this solution is not really contested by anyone. In fact, you could say that it represents in its own way an example of how, with wisdom and courage, one can find apparently unthinkable solutions to very difficult international questions. It succeeded in putting together Rome as the capital of Italy with a minuscule presence of a state with a different sovereignty.
It was a solution without precedent, yes?
Yes, in a certain sense unprecedented. It was due, first of all, to the passing of time, which slowly attenuated the original tensions. Also, it reflects the courage of those who decided to confront the problem. From the point of view of the Holy See, it was due to the decision of Pius XI to abandon the antique practice of supporting only Catholic powers, and to address himself directly to the Italian state seeking an Italian solution to the problem.
Is the treaty indispensable for the diplomatic role of the papacy today?
Strictly speaking, the two things are distinct. The Holy See enjoys a personality in international law independent of the existence of the Vatican state. In fact, from 1870 to 1929, there was no longer any papal state, and yet the Holy See continued to exist as a subject under international law. Hence we know that the diplomatic relations of the Holy See, its presence in some international organizations, could go on even without the dimension of a state. However, it's certainly true that the presence of a small sliver of sovereign territory is still today, in the actual cultural and juridical context in the world, the sure and visible guarantee of the absolute independence of this international subject. The Holy See is independent in itself, but it finds in this reality of a small state a sign and visible form of assurance of its independence.
Let's talk about the financial convention.
This was never the object of particular critical discussion, because it's well known that also here there was a dispute that had endured for decades. The occupation of the Papal States, their practical elimination, constituted a heavy economic blow for the Holy See, hence a compensatory solution was necessary that would also close this problem. The Italian state paid the Holy See a sum that was fairly significant, 1.7 billion lire.
That works out to $85 million in U.S. dollars, roughly $500 million in today's dollars.
I don't know. I've never made the calculations. But it's interesting to know that Pius XI used this sum for three fundamental projects. First, to augment the services of the new Vatican state that was born with the agreement. It was necessary to operate a number of new entities, to construct new buildings such as the Palazzo di Governatorato, and so on. Second, he used the money in favor of the central-southern region of the Italian church. He felt that the victorious forces of the Risorgimento had damaged in significant ways the Italian church in that part of the country, and so he intervened, above all for the construction of certain regional seminaries in the center-south. With the remaining amount, he instituted a special office that had the duty of administering this sum in order to sustain with its earnings the work of the Roman Curia. The dicastery that I head is descended from this office, the so-called "extraordinary section."
This was the office headed by Bernardino Nogara?
Yes, Bernardino Nogara.
Obviously, for the economic stability of the Holy See, this was a very important step.
Certainly. With this solution, the Holy See was liberated from the onerous weight linked to the ancient regime. On the other hand, a new form of activity opened up, giving the Holy See the possibility of an international presence that unfolded in time, for which there is an obvious need of economic support. In this sense, the solution has shown itself to be appropriate, because it permits the possibility of support for this new modality of organization and presence.
When people hear the figures involved, they sometimes think this was a huge payoff to the church. But in fact, the value of what the Holy See lost, i.e., the Papal States, was much more than $85 million, even in 1929.
This is indisputable. I've never run the figures, but certainly this was an agreement whose intention was to close the dispute. Like always in these cases, each party presents its maximum expectations, and then works to find a point of equilibrium that can be comprehensive and conclusive. With respect to the advantages for both the church and the Italian state in resolving these ancient questions, I'm convinced that the negotiators did well in accepting any amount in the economic agreement. Certainly, the economic value of what was taken away from the Holy See through the occupation and annexation to the Kingdom of Italy of the Papal States was obviously far greater than the sum in the financial convention. The economic value of a state is in a certain sense impossible to measure.
Let's discuss the concordat.
The question here is more complex and articulated. There was an urgency at that time, related to the strong desire of Pius XI to do something about the legal order born in Italy from 1861 onwards, that is with the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. It was an order in which the religious liberty and the possibility of an organized presence of the Catholic church were not fully recognized. There were still forms of anti-clericalism and exaggerated legalism, and certain forms of control over church institutions and ecclesiastical nominations. They were not typical of the ancient jurisdictional regimes, such as that in Austria under Franz Joseph, in which the idea was a sort of protective control by Catholic monarchs, but instead were typical of the anti-clerical liberalism of the 18th century that sought to control and subvert the church. In such a context, that was not yet open to a more mature, more respectful, more open kind of lay state, it was urgent to guarantee certain forms of presence and expression for the Catholic church in Italy. Obviously, the concordat was with the Italian state. Certainly the characteristic conception of Pius XI also played a role, which was that in a country like Italy, it was right to ensure as much as possible that the fundamental institutions of social life had a Catholic character. His famous expression was, "We have given back God to Italy, and Italy to God." It alluded to the fact that in the institutional order, the possibility was created of convergence between civil and religious authority. One thinks of marriage, for example, also the question of teaching religion in the schools, chaplains for the military, spiritual assistance, and so on. The third element important for understanding the concordat was that the interlocutor was no longer a democratic state in the current sense of the term, but a strongly autocratic state on its way to becoming a dictatorship, in which fascism was slowly imposing itself upon the political culture and the apparatus of the Italian state. From this point of view, Pius XI strongly defended the exigency of having a concordat alongside the treaty, to the point of insisting aut simil stabunt, aut simil cadent, that is, he stabilized a sort of connection between the two fundamental acts, the treaty and the concordat. Obviously, a concordat born and configured in such a context, which was fairly unique, although it bore the marks of a wider European phenomenon of a certain anti-clerical legislation such as in Spain and other places, would have to take stock of history. Things change, and while the treaty itself remains relatively unscathed, because it reflects the more structural and institutional aspects of the status of the Holy See, and is in a certain sense ideological, the concordat suffered more from the process of historical change. Perhaps most important of these changes were the internal developments in the church generated by the Second Vatican Council. Hence there have been two important moments in this story of 75 years. The first was in 1946-47, during the debate over the constitution, when the question arose of whether to recognize the Lateran Pacts in the Constitution of the Republic of Italy. Through a difficult, but also very noble cultural and juridical effort, the famous Article 7 of the Italian Constitution resulted. It explicitly recognizes the Lateran Pacts, but at the same time declares that they can be modified by common accord. That opened the door to an eventual adjustment of the content of the concordat to the new principles of the constitution.
Before we turn to the revisions to the concordat of 1984, let me ask you to respond to the central criticism of the Lateran Pacts, which is that at a critical time the church legitimized the fascist regime of Mussolini in exchange for a payoff and a piece of land.
Historically, it's certain that fascism drew advantages from the pacts. A few months after the signing of the concordat, Mussolini held a plebiscite modifying the system of composition of the parliament, transforming it from an electoral system to one based on plebiscite. He was significantly advantaged by the fact that he had resolved that which no one else has resolved, i.e., the Roman question and the position of the church in the Italian state. Historically, that this was of benefit to the fascists is indisputable, and in a certain sense that was inevitable. It's very delicate, very complex, and I think to some extent it's impossible to theorize whether or not in view of this risk, it would have been better to avoid going forward. To me, this is an abstract discussion that goes nowhere. One could also ask why the liberal Italian state didn't pursue with greater courage those openings that existed [prior to the rise of fascism] towards a reconciliation. Mussolini certainly wasn't the first figure to raise the possibility of a reconciliation. Private contacts and cultural impulses towards resolving the Roman question, and towards a more serene relationship with the state, had already taken place, especially in the period just after the First World War. The problem was a certain anti-clericalism, and a great degree of caution. In these things, I think the important thing is to take advantage of the moments of possibility when they occur. One could make an analogy here with the revisions of 1984. Craxi also took advantage of an opportunity that one year before the government of Spadolini could have exploited.
Was Pius XI consciously trying to aid the fascist regime?
I certainly don't believe so. Instead of trying to support fascism, from his fairly realistic point of view, the idea was to take advantage of the possibilities that emerged and that were waiting to be developed. As you know, there is a famous phrase that circulated in Italy attributed to Pius XI, that Mussolini was a "man of providence." But formally, this was an ironic remark. In reality, in a speech that he made without notes a few days after [the pacts], he did not say that Mussolini was a man of providence. He said that to resolve this question, "it took this man that providence arranged for us to meet." He meant that Mussolini was a man free of the concepts of a certain liberal anti-clericalism. Obviously this is not a dogma of the faith, it was a historical analysis with which one can disagree. But you have to be attentive to the words that were used, because it's not true that Pius XI defined Mussolini as a "man of providence." He said that providence had us meet a man that in this material was more free, in the sense of recognition of the social and cultural value of the church in Italy and of the Holy See. Hence, he was more inclined to find a solution to the problem. This is, I think, a sign of realism more than anything else.
Let's talk now about the revisions of 1984.
This was the second decisive moment in the historical development of the concordat. In 1947, the possibility of a revision was recognized, but the historical process for creating the conditions in which such a modification became possible was very slow. In Italy, the principles of the new constitution had to be pondered and metabolized, in a very difficult political equilibrium because of the split between the Christian Democrats and the Communists, the Iron Curtain, and all the conditions of that time. In the Catholic church, the Second Vatican Council had to arrive in order for the theme of religious liberty to evolve in a more limpid fashion, understood in a mature and complete sense, and not just as it was referred to in certain addresses of Pius XII. This maturation came with Vatican II. This explains why it was only in 1967, two years after the council, that a debate opened in the Italian parliament on the modification of the concordat. It also explains why the Holy See immediately agreed, and did not contest the appropriateness of modifying the clauses of the agreement. However, it was necessary to wait almost 15 years for concluding this process, because during the work of preparation two other historical moments arose of strong tension between church and state in Italy, first the introduction of legislation for divorce and then the introduction of legislation for abortion. The first came in 1970, the other in 1978. Both were followed by popular referenda, thus with all the controversy these measures created. When finally the general picture was less turbulent, less agitated, the times were by then fairly mature for arriving at a fairly profound modification. Also, that strange contingency was created, fairly one of a kind, which was the first government led by Socialists, which paradoxically found it easier to do that which preceding governments led by Christian Democrats were unable to do.
When did you start to work on the revision?
In 1984, but not for the general modification of the concordat, but for the questions of ecclesiastical entities, ecclesiastical goods and state financing, which were set apart because of their technical and juridical complexity, and entrusted to an ad-hoc commission. I was called on behalf of the Holy See to be part of this commission.
This is the commission that came up with the famous "otto per mille" system.
What's the significance of the revision of 1984 for the church of today?
From the point of view of the Italian state, it was the development and more complete translation of the guiding principles of the Republican constitution. As you know, the concordat itself had theoretically created the possibility of agreements with the non-Catholic confessions, in article 8. But this remained frozen in place. The revision of 1984 for the Italian state meant bringing to realization, in this delicate and complex area of the relations between the state and the confessions, the guiding idea of its constitution. It was there in the concordat, but it had not yet had an operational effect. From the point of view of the church, it meant the attempt to translate in a concrete way, modifying the antique equilibrium between church and state, the principles of Vatican II. I would say that in Italy, the concordat was somewhat analogous to the liturgical reform. The council was translated in the most visible fashion above all in the liturgical reform, because it brought changes that Catholics could see with their eyes. In Italy, another very perceptible dimension of the conciliar reform was the modification of the concordat. This touched an ancient equilibrium that was not easy to touch. At bottom, the logic was the transition from a system that anticipated guarantees and interventions in favor of the church of an automatic sort, to a system based upon the free choices of citizens. This was the most fundamental change. For example, every civil recognition of a religious marriage must be based on the desire of the two parties, there is nothing automatic about it. As far as support of the clergy goes, there is no longer the "adjustment of the state," the supplementary check from the state that used to be issued whenever an administrative situation arose in which there was a scarcity of earnings or of goods. Under that system, it was enough to show that a priest's earnings did not meet a certain level, and the state would issue a modest supplement. Now everything has been overhauled. The principle is that the state continues to have an interest in the Catholic clergy, because their presence in the country has a great social value. But it entrusts to the citizens, in the form of their income text report, the free choice of whether or not to contribute to the support of the clergy through the "otto per mille" system. Religious education in schools was obligatory unless one subtracted oneself. Now religious education is ensured in the schools, but it's up to the family to decide to take advantage of it or not. This was the fundamental philosophy. This was all part of the democratic legitimization of the concordat. In my opinion, any criticism that wants to continue to sustain that the concordat is an equivocal, obscure agreement between 'the powers that be' is weak, because everything has been turned over to the free choice of citizens.
All things considered, were the Lateran Pacts indispensable for the creation of the modern papacy?
In contingent historical matters, nothing is 'indispensable' in a strictly dogmatic sense. The Holy See exists based on the promise of Jesus Christ, that the gates of Hell shall not prevail. But having said that, it is certainly true that the guarantees envisioned by the treaty of 1929 are still very important, more than ever, for visibly ensuring to the pope and the Holy See the independence that renders their work credible on the world stage.
The Lateran Pacts gave the pope a unique status among the world's various "voices of conscience."
It's certainly unique. Your question also reminds me that this status is rooted in the history of medieval Europe. The international subjectivity of the Holy See was not born as an arbitrary pretense, but as a recognition by the international order then taking shape of the singular role played in that era, in a Europe that was still "Christian," by the Holy See. Thus, in contrast with other global religious realities, the Holy See has this precise characteristic, which is intrinsically connected with the rise of the international order itself. The international legal order was born in Europe, in Christian Europe, and hence there is an original link with this singular institution of the Holy See. There is also the unique configuration of the Catholic church, which is the only religious institution that has an internal structure that requires this central figure of reference and of hierarchical communion, the pope. Other religions don't have anything comparable. When one reasons about these things, the historical dimensions reveal themselves. It's not an accident that the Holy See has these characteristics. It was born with the international legal system.
One can say that the Lateran Pacts were a decisive turning point for the modern Catholic church?
Yes, above all with respect to the treaty and the position of the Holy See. With the concordat, in Italy the problems are more complex. You know that in Italy there is still a debate over the laws governing religious liberty, which touches upon issues of multi-ethnicity and religious pluralism. Thus it's to be expected that new problems and questions will arise as we move through time. The treaty, on the other hand, given its brevity and its more general thrust, stands a bit above these problems. This should make us reflect, you know. Seventy-five years are not so many, but they're still something, especially with everything that's happened over that span of time. It's striking that it's held up so well.
National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004