Bishop Michael Browne on the Prosecution of Bishop Pietro Fiordelli
The following statement was issued by the Most Rev. Michael Browne, Bishop of Galway and Kilmacduagh, on 14th March, 1958:
The fact that the Holy Father has cancelled the celebration of the anniversary of his coronation on March 12th, because of a decision given by the Civil Court in Florence against the Bishop of Prato is a striking proof that the Pope regards it as a very serious matter for the Church. For the present Pope is a diplomat, of a very calm and balanced temper, who would not take such strong public action without grave reason. What is the reason? It is a matter of concern to all Catholics.
In Italy the Communist Party is very strong since the War: one-third of the adult population, the voters, support it at elections. They are not all convinced Marxists or convinced Communists. They support it because it has control of many trade unions, and consequently of employment; and because it has great economic power and can dispense much business and patronage. Hence many join for material advantages, without giving up their Catholic faith. The Communist Party, however, is making strong efforts to insist that all members should break openly with religious practice and membership.
This campaign was being carried on with rigour and success when Dr. Fiordelli became Bishop of Prato three years ago: he pointed out the dangers and consequences of it in his pastoral letter of Lent 1955. Notwithstanding, Mauro Bellandi insisted that his fiancée Loriana Nunziati, both of Prato, should give up the idea of a Church wedding, though she was a baptised and practising Catholic, and he compelled her parents to agree. They choose a Sunday to go through a formality at the town hall, and then proceeded to hold their wedding reception in the piazza in front of the Cathedral. It was a public and deliberate flaunting of the Church.
The Bishop issued a statement which was read by the Parish Priest declaring that the parties were public sinners and guilty of ‘scandalous concubinage.’ Bellandi sued the Bishop for defamation and injury to his business in the civil court and the case was tried and sentence given on March 1st.
To understand the legal position we must recall that every system of law requires certain formalities for a valid marriage without which the parties are not regarded as really married and their children are not legitimate. In England at present a marriage of Catholics, even in the Catholic Church before a priest, is not valid in civil law unless the civil register is present. If he were absent, an English judge would hold that the parties were not husband and wife in lawful wedlock, but were living in concubinage, which is the state of man and woman living together though not lawfully married.
This is the law of England because England since the time of Henry VIII does not recognise marriage as a sacrament but only as a civil contract, subject only to civil law.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches as an essential doctrine that marriage of baptised persons was made a Sacrament by Our Divine Lord and that it belongs to the Church to determine the conditions of a valid marriage of baptised Catholics.
Now, Italy is a Catholic country, which is strongly convinced of the sanctity of marriage and the family. In 1929, the Italian State made a Solemn Treaty and Concordat with the Holy See in which it recognised (Art. 34 of Concordat) the Sacrament of Matrimony as defined in Canon Law, and recognised that cases concerning the nullity of marriage belonged solely to the ecclesiastical courts. The Concordat furthermore, in Art. 1, recognised to the Church the free and public exercise of its jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. In Art. 2 it recognized the right of Bishops to publish letters or orders dealing with the spiritual government of the faithful “which they believe to be within the sphere of their competence.”
This Concordat was upheld when Italy became a Republic after the War, and the new Constitution declared that “the State and the Catholic Church are, each in its own order, independent and sovereign.” This does not mean that in Italy ecclesiastics are not subject to civil law and civil taxes. The Concordat provides that they are liable to trial and punishment by the State if they violate civil law in a secular matter, subject to the competence of the State.
The independence of the Church means that in spiritual matters belonging to Her competence, She is the judge. Thus, if a public sinner or criminal were to come up to Communion and the priest were to refuse him, has he the right to sue the priest for public defamation? If he has, the Church is neither free nor independent. Under penal laws and hostile governments the Church was not free or independent. But the Italian State guarantees that the Church is free and independent in her own sphere. What do these words, then, mean? English law with protect the priest in the lawful discharge of his spiritual duties.
So when the Bellandi case came before the Italian Court in February last, the Bishop did not appear and did not recognise the competence of the Court. The Court found that the Bishop was within his rights in issuing his letter and in calling the complainants public sinners, but that he was not within his rights in referring to their union as scandalous concubinage. It is a strange decision. The term scandalous means, in Latin and Italian, drawing others into sin, and there cannot be any doubt that the whole purpose of Bellandi was to force his fiancée and her parents to do wrong. As to the use of the word concubinage, that is the correct technical and traditional name of the sin in Catholic eyes. If it is not that, it is not a sin. If a man robs or kills, must a priest say only that he is a sinner (which we all are) and may he not say that he is a robber or a murderer?
The fact of the matter is that there are many lawyers in Italy who are still dominated by the old anti-religious theories that the Church is entirely, and in all matters, subject to the State. One of them even quoted in the Court, with approval, the saying of Mussolini: “The Church is not sovereign, and it is not even free, because its men are subject to the laws of the State.”
The sentence of the Court has been hailed by the Communists as a great victory in their campaign to abolish the Concordat. It is certainly a blow to the Concordat. That is why the Holy Father regards it so seriously, as a matter of protest. For the solemn Treaty and Concordat is not merely the guarantee of the freedom of the Catholic Church in Italy, of which he is Primate; it is also the legal guarantee of the freedom of the Holy See itself, of its sovereign rights to govern the Church and to communicate with all parts of the Church.
That is why the case concerns Catholics everywhere. It is also an example of the relentless hostility of Communists everywhere to religion, and of their sheer hypocrisy in posing as the champions of liberty. What liberty of conscience do they give to the people of Hungary, China and every country where they get control? Yet they find now in England and America allies who hail and support their campaign to make Italy a Communist country by destroying the influence of the Catholic Church, and the hold of Catholic faith in Italian hearts. If they succeed, the English and Americans will not be so happy.