Remember When Fascism Was a Catholic Problem?

A historian’s perspective on religious dogma

Cesare Orsenigo, Papal Nuncio to Germany from 1930 to 1945, with Adolf Hitler in 1939 (Source:

On November 17, 2018 the chief luminaries of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web (how anyone can use this phrase and keep a straight face is beyond me) will hold an event in New York City that’s guaranteed to ruffle a great deal of plumage across the political spectrum, although mainly on the left. The daylong conference at Lincoln Center, entitled “A Day of Reflection,” will feature the likes of Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Fareed Zakaria, Maajid Nawaz, Douglas Murray, the Weinstein brothers, Katie Roiphe, Sarah Haider, and Bari Weiss. They’ll take on lighting-rod topics in sessions like “Has #MeToo Gone #TooFar?”, “Can We Move Beyond Race?”, and “Does Islam Pose a Unique Challenge to Modernity?”

Yeah, lightweight stuff all around.

The Islam panel promises to be particularly interesting. Ex-Muslims like Haider and Hirsi Ali as well as reformist Muslims like Nawaz and Zakaria (and non-Muslim critics of religion like Harris) are known to combat Islamist dogma and the challenges posed by “conservative Islam”. Nawaz defines this type of Islam as one that, while free from Islamist political machinations, remains beholden to beliefs about gender, sexual orientation, freedom of speech, and freedom of belief that are anathema to modern secular values.

Anyone following Harris, Nawaz, Hirsi Ali, and the other masochists who plunge headfirst into controversial debates about Islam knows full well how radioactive this territory is. Harris, in particular, suffers regular beatings at the hands of journalists and authors like Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein, and even the occasional drunk Batman for his doggedness on the topic of Muslim communities today. Though it’s an important topic, our conversations are stuck in a perpetual loop of “Islamophobia is bad” versus “the Qur’an preaches violence.”

As a historian by training, it strikes me as problematic that no one in the Intellectual Dark Web studies history for a living (unless I’m forgetting somebody). A historical perspective on religion is essential to any meaningful debate on the subject. History shows how most (if not all) religions have, at certain times in history, been vulnerable to pathologies that reached the level of mass contagion before being contained and minimized. It’s educational from a how-did-we-get-here standpoint, and it offers constructive hints about the future.

The Roman Catholic Church is perhaps the best modern example of this. In the 20th century, Catholicism transformed from a quintessentially totalitarian institution to a largely benign cultural force — that is to say one that hangs on to some pretty terrible ideas but has less and less capacity to foist them on people against their will. In other words, it’s a textbook example of how religions can and do change with the times.

At a time when the Catholic church’s influence on matters of conservative social policy is waning (even in many of the most traditionally conservative Catholic countries like Chile and Ireland, both of which have recently overturned draconian anti-abortion laws) and the Vatican is headed by a liberal democrat with a zeal for universal human rights, it’s easy to forget that fascism (one of the chief bogeymen of the 20th century) was once an overwhelmingly Catholic problem.

This fact, and the fact that we’ve moved beyond it, should be among the chief talking points for the Intellectual Dark Web and others urging Islamic reform.

Of the famed Four Horsemen of the New Atheism (of which Harris was a member before be became an inductee into the similarly silly Intellectual Dark Web), none had a more finely calibrated sense of history than the late Christopher Hitchens. A savage critic of the Catholic church as ever there was, Hitch spoke frequently, and in no uncertain terms, about the inextricable ties between the fascist ideologies of the early 20th century and Catholicism:

Fascism, the original 20th century totalitarian movement, is really, historically, another name for the political activity of the Catholic right wing. There is no other name for it: Francoism, Salazarism, what happened in Croatia, in Austria, in Bavaria, and so on. The church keeps trying to apologize for it, but can’t apologize for it enough. It’s the Catholic Right. — Christopher Hitchens, “Hitler, Fascism, and the Catholic Church”

Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI both came to power in 1922. Thanks to their shared distrust of democracy and anti-communist zeal, the two leaders clicked immediately. The 1929 Lateran Accords, which ended decades of discord between the Italian government and the Vatican, essentially gave European fascism the Holy See stamp of approval. Within a decade, virtually all of Catholic Europe was under fascist rule — either as Nazi puppet states like Slovakia and Croatia, or as independent fascist states like Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal. Of Catholic European countries, only Belgium (annexed by Hitler in 1940) and the Republic of Ireland resisted the slide into fascism.

By contrast, much of Protestant Europe heroically resisted. Tiny Denmark fought off the Third Reich to the utmost of its abilities, protecting its Jewish population by evacuating them to neutral Sweden and elsewhere. Finland successfully defended its independence in the face of both Soviet and German machinations. As for Sweden, home to Scandinavia’s largest Jewish population, few if any countries did more to oppose the Holocaust. Swedes provided sanctuary to over 7,000 Danish Jews and over tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

The only Scandinavian country to truly succumb to fascist rule was Norway. Tiny Estonia and Latvia — which, like Finland, found themselves caught in the middle between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany — were unable to muster much in the way of resistance to the Reich. Latvia was unique among majority Protestant countries for nearly annihilating its Jewish population. Meanwhile, over 75 per cent of Estonia’s small Jewish community succeeded in escaping to the USSR.

Conversely, majority-Catholic countries had the worst mortality rates for Jews during the Holocaust. The most dangerous place to be a Jew during World War II was Lithuania, which saw 94 percent of its Jewish population (over 220,000 people) murdered. The Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia are not far behind. By contrast, only 2.8 percent of Finnish Jews and 1.3 percent of Danish Jews perished in the Holocaust, despite these countries being officially Axis-aligned. Large sectors of the Norwegian public heroically resisted the antisemitic pogroms of Nazi puppet Vidkun Quisling, thereby saving some 45 percent of Norwegian Jewry from the gas chambers.

Even Germany itself, as much a Lutheran country as a Catholic one, has a paradoxically lower Jewish mortality rate than many of the countries it occupied before and during World War II. In his superb book, The Meaning of Hitler, German historian Sebastian Haffner argues that Adolf Hitler’s antisemitism was more typical of his native Austria and Central-Eastern Europe than of Germany proper, and that his anti-Jewish policies enjoyed less widespread support at home than they did in many of the occupied territories. While it would be unfair to credit Protestantism alone for the anti-Nazi undercurrent in German society (many Catholics also opposed Hitler’s tyranny), opposition to Nazism proved fiercest in the staunchly Lutheran north.

Catholicism’s fascism problem did not go away at the end of World War II. While it did bring an end to the Nazi puppet states of central and eastern Europe, the neutral dictatorships of Franco and Salazar persisted until the mid-1970s. Meanwhile, authoritarianism remained the rule rather than the exception for Catholic countries outside Europe, especially in South America, where in many cases Nazi war criminals were welcomed with open arms. Despotism also prevailed in East Asia’s main bastion of Catholicism under Ferdinand Marcos, as well as in Catholic strongholds in Africa like Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Rwanda, Burundi, and the former Belgian Congo-turned-Zaïre under Mobutu Sese Seko (a man who, despite his aggressive “Africanization” campaign, never renounced his Catholic faith).

Even in Canada, support for authoritarian and fascist ideas reached its pinnacle in uber-Catholic Québec. This was thanks in no small part to the ultramontane views of influential cleric-historian Lionel-Adolphe Groulx and the explosive rhetoric of journalist-turned-fascist-agitator Adrien Arcand. Even former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, that paragon of secular Canadian liberalism, acknowledged in his memoirs that his early education in the 1940s at the Jesuit-run Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal instilled him with a positive view of Mussolini and other European Catholic Fascists of the era.

So what happened? Well, the Second Vatican Council happened, which radically transformed the Catholic church and marked a symbolic but nonetheless powerful break from the past. Latin American-style liberation theology would also play a role not only in overthrowing despotic regimes in places like Chile and the Philippines, but also in changing public attitudes toward the church (and towards authority more generally) in the Catholic world.

Of course, the dogma of papal infallibility remains on the books in the Holy See. Many aspects of the Catholic faith still run on inherently authoritarian lines. But nobody with a fair set of eyes could look at the present, and at the World War II era, and conclude that the Catholic church still has a “fascism problem”. Even Hitchens would be forced to admit that today’s Catholicism is a different beast from its former self.

It should be obvious too, but still worth restating, that every religion has its own blind spots, both historical and contemporary. While Protestantism indeed has a more laudable track record for democracy over the past century, it must be said that Protestantism has had a “race problem”. For all its innumerable sins, Catholic Europe’s colonization of the New World and of Africa did result in substantial mixed race populations, from Brazil and Angola to the Philippines and the Canadian plains, where French voyageurs interbred with predominantly Cree and Ojibwe women to create the still-vibrant (and predominantly Catholic) Métis culture. The same cannot be said of Protestant Europe’s colonial outposts, with the notable exception of Greenland, whose modern-day population is largely of mixed Danish and Inuit blood. Fascism may have been a predominantly Catholic phenomenon, but Jim Crow, Apartheid, and the White Australia Policy were not.

Nor does Catholicism have a monopoly on authoritarian impulses within the Christian world. As I mentioned earlier, Orthodox Greece was among the most dangerous countries in Europe for Jews during World War II. The situation was not much better in Orthodox-majority Ukraine, Belarus, and Serbia — although somewhat better in Romania and Bulgaria. Today the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church enjoys cozy relations with the despotic regime of Vladimir Putin, where it plays an outsize role (relative to the still-minority percentage of Russians who actually attend religious services) in leveraging socially conservative policy with regards to freedom of speech and expression, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights.

Of the nine European countries that oppose same-sex marriage at rates of over 80 percent, all but two (Muslim-majority Bosnia and Herzegovina and Catholic-majority Lithuania) are majority Eastern Orthodox, with only one Orthodox-majority country (Greece) reporting 50 percent or higher support — and even there just barely. For more in-depth perspective on the Russian Orthodox Church’s fascist inclinations, Sam Harris’ recent interview with exiled queer Russian journalist Masha Gessen paints a very depressing picture of a reinvigorated national church that staunchly opposes progressive and democratic values.

Other religions outside Christendom have social viruses of their own. Hinduism has a very obvious problem with social stratification — caste-based discrimination remains a massive problem in India, Nepal, and Hindu communities elsewhere. Buddhism, for all its positive traits, also has a bit of an authoritarianism problem. In modern times, Buddhism has proven conducive to a particular brand of ethnonationalism exemplified by wartime Japan and modern-day Therevada Buddhist-majority cultures like Sri Lanka and Myanmar — and their pogroms against the Hindu Tamil and Muslim Rohingya minorities respectively. In wartime Japan, Zen Buddhism proved to be a particularly potent vehicle for militarism, and perversely fed into the spiritual underpinnings of the tokkotai (kamikaze) suicide pilots thanks to a creative reading of Buddhist references to the “obliteration of the self” (śūnyatā).

As for Judaism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion remains tethered to an ancient book that proclaims its adherents to be the chosen people of the creator of the universe, a notion to which the state of Israel owes its very existence. This notion continues to animate extremists intent on never giving an inch to the beleaguered Palestinian Arabs.

Seen from this perspective, it appears easier to talk about the problematic nature of rhetoric surrounding Islamic jihad and martyrdom. It bears repeating that Islam, while definitely worse that other religions in some respects, is not a worse religion across the board. Indeed, when it comes to stem cell research and reproductive rights, Islam is generally rather more progressive even that the modern Catholic church and evangelical Christianity. That said, when it comes to gargantuan geopolitical problems that threaten millions of lives, terrorism and ISIS-style subjugation in the name of Islam is the big faith-based virus of our time. That whole Catholic-fascist virus — well, this is just the modern-day equivalent of that.

The Muslim world today does indeed suffer from some very specific ailments. Aside from the jihad-inspired terrorism issue, the Islamic world continues to rank at or near the bottom on many international human rights indicators. Of the 144 countries surveyed in the 2016 World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, all but three of the bottom 20 are Muslim-majority countries, ranging from impoverished war-ravaged places like Syria and Yemen (the bottom-ranked country) to affluent but repressive places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The Islamic world also, generally speaking, accounts for the worst places on earth for sexual minorities, albeit with competition from Russia and other Orthodox-majority Eastern European countries and many Protestant-majority countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean. The Islamic world is also, generally speaking, includes the most hostile places in the world for secularists and atheists, although reports indicate a growing (if largely silent) atheist movement in the Muslim Middle East, even in places like Saudi Arabia where apostasy remains a capital offence. As with fascism in the Catholic world, nothing is ever etched in stone and attitudes can always change.

As Sam Harris is fond of saying, the only solution to bad ideas is more and better conversation. I wholeheartedly agree, but would add that historical perspective is an essential ingredient of any sort of enhanced conversation on controversial topics like religion. If the Catholic church can transform itself from the church of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Pavelić, Pinochet, and the junta leaders of 1970s Argentina to the church of Pope Francis and endless apologies for the innumerable sins of its past, there is no reason why Islam, or any other spiritual leviathan, can’t do the same. Not all history lessons are in fact depressing.

The Intellectual Dark Web needs a historian or two in the mix. Also, it needs a less silly name. Isn’t the real dark web that place where you go to find Fentanyl and kiddie porn? If we’re really looking to bring vast swaths of humanity over to the side of Team Liberal Values, this probably isn’t the image you want to convey.