Around 1870, evangelical Christians, as their Catholic adversaries would put it, “invaded” Italy in large numbers. Before unification and the inception of a new liberal order, the extension of rights of toleration to Jews and non-Catholic Christians, and the dispossession of the papal states, Protestant missionaries, by and large, steered away from Italy. Many of the confessions sent missionaries to Italy around 1870 because they were persuaded that a new political order would pave the way for a religious transformation of Italy. Some even viewed the events of 1861–70 in apocalyptic terms: unification was the divinely designed, auspicious moment at which pure Christianity could be re-introduced in the land that had done more than any other to defile it. Evangelical enthusiasm for political liberalism, and the anti-clerical sentiment of many leaders of the Risorgimento, would pave the way for the evangelical denominations to enter Italy. By 1920, British and American evangelical missionaries, especially those Italians who were returning home from America, where they had been converted, had established hundreds of often tiny communities, especially in the traditionally impoverished south.
When the fascist government of Mussolini came to power, and even more when the Lateran Accords (1929) brought church and state into union, the fortunes of the evangelical missionaries began to change. Indeed, the newly established Vatican, with the help of the fascist government, launched a fearsome campaign of restraint and repression, which could even, as with Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, result in criminalization. Why was the Vatican so hostile to the evangelicals? Naturally, there were religious reasons, and these are perhaps primary. However, members of the Roman curia also had cultural and political reasons to fear evangelical Christianity, and these loomed especially largely for the fascist officials in league with key cardinals in the Vatican.
To begin with, the political associations of the evangelicals with the founders of the new liberal order—which had done so much to strip the papacy of its power and its say in public domains like education—had not been forgotten. As liberal politics gave way to fascistic government, Catholic writers reminded readers that Protestantism was not only heretical: it was the source of all modern political errors (including “liberalism” itself), most of which the Catholic Church had condemned in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Church had turned its back on modernity, of which evangelicals were despised as foreign, alien carriers.
The foreign, almost always British and American origins of the missionaries also made them suspect. The backing of prosperous Anglo-Saxon nations caused many Italians to distrust all foreign missionaries, especially those bringing gifts, like the American dollar. Those who went over to Protestantism were said to be “dollar converts.” Not only were they foreign. They brought a culture, a worldview, and an economic outlook—not to mention a religious style and message—almost entirely strange and unfamiliar. Some had strong links with deeply anti-clerical freemasonry, itself condemned by the Roman Church. All of this strongly implied that, once the liberal period had passed, Protestants would face intolerance and worse, and they did.
Some influential polemicists expressed fear that the religious project of Anglo-Saxon Protestants was relatively innocuous and innocent when understood against the background of a broader, more portentous Protestant plan of domination. In this view, the Protestant deconversion campaign was merely a stalking horse for the political conquest of Italy. This is why “plutocratic-imperialistic Anglo-Saxon and North American elements, notoriously influenced by international Jewish and Masonic sectarianism,” had sunk capital in Italy so lavishly. Protestant missionaries were hardly actuated by altruistic concerns in pouring so much money into Italy. They were driven by anti-fascist hatred, and they aimed to sabotage and finally abolish the government and eradicate fascist ideology. The Protestant danger was not just a religious but a national danger. It aimed not just to de-Catholicize the Italian people; it wanted to de-nationalize it and de-fascitize it. For some clerics, the danger of “plutocratic Protestantism,” which was “allied with Masons, Socialists, and subversives of every stripe,” was particularly acute, as it could penetrate the Italian masses so easily, oblivious as they were to the insidious methods of the Protestants. In short, evangelical missionaries were allied with the traditional enemies of Roman Catholicism: Freemasons, Jews, Marxists, and others to de-Catholicize Italy and de-fascitize its government. Vatican polemicists may not have believed all this. But they knew it would get the attention of Catholics, stir Catholic and Italian pride, and, especially, alarm the fascist government. Mussolini, however, was never frightened. Protestants never made up more than .5 percent of the Italian population. From the demographic point of view, they posed no political, military, or cultural threat, and Il Duce was never moved by the arguments of Catholic clerics that they did.
Evangelical missionaries also exposed some embarrassing things about routine parochial life. Protestant responsiveness in situations of disaster (like earthquake) humiliated Catholic indolence or indifference. Roman Catholic clergy, many made desperate by the poverty of their parishioners, were living in irregular circumstances. Many were poorly educated; if well-educated, they were recruited away by a learned order. Some poor priests were recruited by their evangelical counterparts. They were especially feared because, as former insiders, they emphasized the clerical defects they knew so well, and their criticism stung. One of the ways in which bishops could involve fascist authorities in local disputes was to insist that evangelical missionaries were a cause of “disorder.” They occasioned division and the establishment of factions, especially in families, with their public preaching and sometimes-aggressive proselytizing style.
In the end, for the clerical caste at least, the principal source of hostility remained religious. The following point requires emphasis, though in 1922 no Roman cleric would have thought so. Far from thinking that the Roman Catholic Church had fallen away from the original, ancient order, all Catholics believed, and affirmed weekly in the liturgical creed, that theirs was the “one, holy, apostolic” Church. This was a theme that anti-Protestant polemicists underscored in the fascist period: no other church could trace its origins to the Apostles or claim an unbroken chain of continuity with them. The Roman Church alone had handed down the gospel from Christ through the Apostles and, from them, to the uninterrupted line of episcopal succession. The true Gospel was in the custody of the Roman Pope alone. In short, Roman clerics believed that the Truth was one, that it had been given to Peter and his successors, and that those outside the line of apostolic succession were simply heretics—a word still used constantly in the 1930s debates. In this sense as in others, little had changed since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when heretics were feared, bands of gospel preachers were hunted, the Inquisition formed, and dissidents punished.
Kevin Madigan is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School.