The final installment of a series of meditations on Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine
In his 1938 novel School for Dictators, Italian socialist Ignazio Silone writes, “The fascist leader’s superiority over his opponents consists above all in this: That he aspires to power, only to power, and nothing but power. Whether he is on the side of the capitalists or the workers, the church, or the devil is a secondary matter to him. What matters to him is power.”
How must the Church respond to such power? Silone offered an answer a year earlier in his novel Bread and Wine.
Unlike many socialists of the age—both in Italy and in the corridors of Marxist power in Russia—Silone was not a materialist or an atheist. Although he had little appetite for the Church’s dogma (he described himself as a “Christian without a Church”), Christianity informed his activism. As biographer Stanislao Pugliese writes, “A doggedly persistent deity haunts Silone and his characters, seeking them out in desolate landscapes and humble farmhouses, donkey stalls, and empty churches.” For Silone, Pugliese adds, Christianity was both a “historical movement, tied to a certain place and time, and a transcendent, timeless moral force.”
In Bread and Wine Christianity offers a prophetic voice, an alternative moral vision that speaks truth to the power of Mussolini’s fascism. Christian faith requires “putting one’s life in jeopardy,” as Pietro Spina’s teacher Don Benedetto describes it.
In one of the most telling scenes of the novel Spina, the socialist activist hiding in the Abruzzi mountains disguised as a priest named Don Paolo, chats with a neighboring priest—a real priest—named Don Angelo. Don Paolo asks Don Angelo about his teacher, a man he has not seen in twenty years. “Yes,” Don Angelo replies, “[Don Benedetto] is still alive. He is a very reckless man of God. For many years he lived an exemplary life, and in learning virtue he was the master of us all. But now, on the brink of eternity, his contempt for the opinion of men and his excessive confidence in God prompt him to utterances that border on heresy.”
One of Don Benedetto’s heresies is his refusal to join the rest of the Catholic church in turning a blind eye to the atrocities of Mussolini’s fascist state. This entire scene must be understood in the context of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, a pact between Mussolini and the papacy that gave the Church autonomy in exchange for an oath of loyalty to the state. Benedetto condemns the Church’s willingness to sign such an oath. As a result he spends the final years of his life stripped of his priestly and classroom duties, living in seclusion with his sister, tending to his garden, and reading old books. To many in Don Benedetto’s village he is a “misanthropic and cantankerous eccentric, and probably something of a simpleton.” But to those who know him well, he conceals “a liberty of spirit and liveliness of mind that in his station of life” is “positively foolhardy.”
For Don Angelo, a loyalty oath is less than ideal, but it is certainly a better option than facing persecution from Italy’s fascist regime. Don Benedetto disagrees: “The theory of lesser evil may be acceptable for a party or a government, but not for the church.” When Don Angelo reminds Don Benedetto of the consequences the church might face if it does not conform to Mussolini’s government and support his invasion of Ethiopia, the holy fool replies, “Can you imagine John the Baptist offering Herod a concordat to avoid having his head cut off? Can you imagine Jesus offering Pontius Pilate a concordat to avoid the crucifixion?”
Spina eventually makes a clandestine visit to his old teacher. Several days prior to his arrival the activist, frustrated by the Abruzzi peasants’ failure to grasp the threat of Mussolini’s fascism, uses a piece of charcoal to write anti-Mussolini graffiti on a local train station, church, and tax office. When Don Benedetto hears the news his instincts tell him that his former student—his favorite student—is behind the act of vandalism.
During their brief visit Spina tells Don Benedetto about his loss of faith. But the elderly priest is not willing to accept his student’s confession. To Don Benedetto, Spina’s work in resisting tyranny, living a “conspiratorial life,” and defending the dignity of all human beings is a clear sign that the socialist intellectual is working to advance God’s will. The voice of the Lord is not to be found in the patriotic cries of Italians celebrating Mussolini’s “butchery” in Africa and his bombing of Abyssinian villages. Rather, “if a poor man alone in a hostile village gets up at night and scrawls with a piece of charcoal or paints ‘Down with the war’ on the walls the Lord is undoubtedly present.”
Spina, in his disguise as Don Paolo, would later tell Christina, the peasant girl from the mountain village of Pietrasecca with whom he is falling in love, that Christianity is less about consoling oneself with the “expectation of an ultra-terrestrial life” and more about displaying love, sacrifice, and “self-abnegation” in a “practical life” in service of others. “The evil to be combatted,” he continues, “is not the sad abstraction that is called the devil; the evil is everything that prevents millions of people from becoming human.”
When Christina asks Spina/Paolo how he reconciles his radical views with Christian faith, he replies, “In our time there are many ways of serving God.”
John Fea is Executive Editor of Current