Lateran Treaty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Lateran Treaty settled the question of the relationship between the Vatican and the government of Italy, which had seized the formerly independent Papal States in 1870. The treaty made Vatican City a sovereign state separate from Italy, and it instituted Roman Catholicism as the Italian state religion.

Summary of Event

When the army of the new Italian state took the city of Rome from the papacy in 1870, Pope Pius IX retreated to the Vatican palace and proclaimed himself “prisoner of the Vatican.” Alleging that the Italian government had usurped lands that were the heritage of the Roman Catholic Church, he condemned the government and refused to have anything to do with it. The pope hoped that his condemnation would rally pro-papal forces to overthrow the Italian state and restore him to his temporal possessions. He furthermore prohibited Catholics, by threat of excommunication, from running or holding office in the national government or voting in state parliamentary elections, hoping that their abstention would also weaken the government. [kw]Lateran Treaty (Feb. 11, 1929) [kw]Treaty, Lateran (Feb. 11, 1929) Lateran Treaty (1929) Vatican City;Lateran Treaty Roman Catholic Church;Lateran Treaty [g]Italy;Feb. 11, 1929: Lateran Treaty[07220] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Feb. 11, 1929: Lateran Treaty[07220] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Feb. 11, 1929: Lateran Treaty[07220] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Feb. 11, 1929: Lateran Treaty[07220] Mussolini, Benito Gasparri, Pietro Pius XI Victor Emmanuel III Barone, Domenico Pacelli, Francesco

Benito Mussolini (center) and other Italian government officials pay their first state visit to Vatican City after the signing of the Lateran Treaty.


Instead, the Italian government flourished and, in the absence of Catholic deputies, passed anticlerical legislation. Successive governments, however, respected papal possession of the Vatican palace and Saint Peter’s Basilica and offered the papacy a Law of Guarantees, guaranteeing the pope residence at the Vatican and a large sum of money. The pope rejected this offer because acceptance would mean the Vatican would exist as charity of the state and imply that the pope served under allegiance to the state.

After 1870, despite official unwillingness on both sides to solve the so-called Roman Question—an expression referring to the politico-religious conflict between the papacy and the kingdom of Italy—a tacit understanding was worked out between the papacy and the state. Neither interfered in the other’s affairs, but the underlying conflict between church and state still existed as a constant strain to the whole country in a time that witnessed political unrest throughout the world and the threat of communism at Italy’s border. With the exception of extreme clericals, both sides wanted to effect a compromise settlement of the Roman Question, but it was a matter of prestige that neither side be the first to give in.

Early in the twentieth century, the papacy began to lift the ban on Catholic participation in national political life. In 1919, it was completely removed to allow the formation of the Catholic-oriented Popular Party, led by Sicilian priest Don Luigi Sturzo. The Popular Party originated with the hope of propagating faith in the Church among the Italian people, for the pope knew that no answer to the Roman Question could be settled by treaty alone.

In 1922, Benito Mussolini, leader of the Fascist Party, was named prime minister, and he set out to establish a dictatorship. In the process, Mussolini was anxious to reconcile with conservative groups and institutions to win them over to his side. He maintained the monarchy, assuring King Victor Emmanuel III that he had no intention of overthrowing the Italian royal house. In order to gain the support of both the papacy and the Catholics, he announced his desire to settle the Roman Question. Mussolini’s seizure of power coincided with the election of Pius XI as pope. When Mussolini made public his desire to work with the papacy, Pius cautiously proceeded to cooperate with Mussolini in an effort to ward off a mutual foe of the Vatican and Mussolini: communism.





In 1926, the two leaders made secret preliminary contacts for negotiation of the problem. The pope selected Francesco Pacelli, brother of the future Pope Pius XII, as his envoy, and Mussolini directed the Italian diplomat Domenico Barone to represent him in the talks. Early in 1929, agreement was reached, and the Lateran Treaty was officially signed on February 11, 1929, by Mussolini and the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri.

The Lateran Treaty contained three separate sections (and is therefore sometimes referred to as the Lateran treaties, or the Lateran Pacts): a treaty, a financial agreement, and a concordat. The first was an agreement between the Italian state and the Vatican. By its terms, Italy recognized the Vatican as a separate and sovereign state with all the attributes of an independent nation. Italy, furthermore, recognized its usurpation of papal lands in 1870 by compensating the papacy for its loss of temporal possessions. A cash settlement of forty million dollars was paid to the pope along with another fifty-two million dollars of interest-bearing Italian government bonds. In return, the Vatican recognized the Italian government.

Under the terms of the concordat between the Italian state and the Holy See, the anticlerical laws were formally revoked. The Catholic religion was to be taught in all state schools, and Catholicism was proclaimed the official religion of the state. The clergy were given a generally favorable position in civil law. In return, the Italian government obtained the privilege of nominating candidates for the higher clerical positions in Italy.


The announcement of the signing of the treaty immediately raised Mussolini’s prestige both in Italy and throughout the Catholic world. Hailed for having solved one of the world’s outstanding diplomatic problems, Mussolini transformed his international image from that of a violent Blackshirt to a wise and compassionate statesman. Pius also garnered prestige for recognizing that the necessity of papal temporal possessions did not require large amounts of territory: Vatican City was one of the smallest nations in history.

The Lateran Treaty was, however, the prelude to further disagreement between the pope and Mussolini. The concordat had specifically guaranteed Catholic lay organizations freedom to function in Italy. One of these societies, the Italian Catholic Action, Catholic Action soon became a refuge for anti-Fascist elements, who used the organization to criticize the regime. Mussolini sent his Blackshirts to break up Catholic Action meetings, and the pope responded in 1931 by condemning Fascism in the encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno. Papal encyclicals;Non abbiamo bisogno After threats and counterthreats, the state and the papacy reached a tacit agreement: Catholic Action would no longer criticize the regime, and in return it would be allowed full freedom to operate outside this restriction. The pope thereafter maintained a discreet caution toward Mussolini, and when he died in 1939, Pius was considerably disenchanted with the Fascist regime.

Not even all initial reactions to the signing of the treaty were positive. Anti-Laterans were as strongly opposed to the treaty as supporters highly exalted Pius and Mussolini. The issue of equality between the pope and the state was called into question by Americans and Europeans who viewed the treaty as an opportunistic maneuver by Mussolini and believed that the pope lost prestige for the Church by compromising with a political power whose beliefs were opposed to human rights and religious devotion. Opponents of the Lateran agreements, then, hated the implied surrender to Fascism that the treaty invoked rather than the settlement itself.

Although the Lateran Treaty dealt primarily with the sovereign relations of the Holy See with the government of Italy, it was consistent with an effort by the Church to restore its rights to minister to the faithful through a series of agreements and concordats with the anticlerical governments of European countries that had been hostile to Roman Catholicism. The Lateran Treaty was essentially respected by the various governments of the Italian state throughout the confusion of the war years: In 1948, it was officially incorporated into the constitution of the new Italian Republic and remained in force until 1984, when Catholicism ceased to be the state religion of Italy. With regard to peace and mutual understanding, however, the treaty barely survived its birth in 1929. Lateran Treaty (1929) Vatican City;Lateran Treaty Roman Catholic Church;Lateran Treaty

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brendon, Piers. “The Duce and the Pope.” In The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930’s. London: Jonathan Cape, 2000. Discussion of the Lateran Treaty and the relationship between Mussolini and Pius XI; part of a massive volume surveying the international socioeconomic and political situation and developments of the 1930’s. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">DeGrand, Alexander J. “Cracks in the Facade: The Failure of Fascist Totalitarianism in Italy 1935-1939.” European History Quarterly 21, no. 4 (1991): 515-535. Describes weaknesses in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist reign that made it impossible for totalitarianism to survive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drake, Richard. “Julius Evola, Radical Fascism, and the Lateran Accords.” Catholic Historical Review 74, no. 3 (1988): 403-419. A profile of anti-Lateran Julius Evola that critiques the Catholic Church and discusses the complexity of Fascism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knee, Stuart E. “The Strange Alliance: Mussolini, Pope Pius XI, and the Lateran Treaty.” Mediterranean Historical Review 5, no. 2 (1990): 183-206. The Lateran Accords sought to end antagonism between the Italian state and the papacy. Optimism following the agreement did not last long. Discussion of Fascist and papal motivations behind the Vatican Treaty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Brien, Albert C. “Italian Youth in Conflict: Catholic Action and Fascist Italy, 1929-1931.” Catholic Historical Review 68, no. 4 (1982): 624-635. Discusses the conflict and competition between the Catholic Church and Italian Fascists for control of Italian youth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rhodes, Anthony. The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, 1922-1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973. An in-depth look at the motivations behind initiation of the Vatican Treaty and the consequences for church and state after signing the treaty.

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Categories: History