«In 19th century Turin, social saints and Freemasons were worlds apart. Although in the book Heart…»

Professor Oliva, Pope Francis on 17 March questioned himself on the presence of so many social saints in Turin, which in the 19th century «was the center of Freemasonry and priests». How do you explain this apparent contrast?
«The two figures indicated by the pontiff, the priests active in the social sector and the Freemasons, were worlds very distant from each other. The former dealt with the ‘proletariat’; the latter formed the ruling class which, of course, conflicted with the Church but in its highest spheres. Therefore, in short, the influence of the so-called priest-eaters did not invalidate the work of Don Bosco in Borgo Dora or of the almost contemporary Leonardo Murialdo mentioned by Bergoglio, and even before that of Cottolengo. The bourgeois were opposed to the Curia, to the institution».

Was the presence of Freemasonry a thorn in the side for the Church?
«The lodges spread almost everywhere, not only in Piedmont. Rather it was the city’s secular society, strengthened by a new awareness, that created quite a few problems for the pope since the mid-1800s».


«The dispute arose before the unification of Italy, with the Siccardi laws of 1850, therefore in the Kingdom of Sardinia. The legislation abolished numerous privileges of the clergy especially with respect to the ecclesiastical mortmain on assets transmissible by succession (the Curia was the recipient of huge public and private donations, ed). Not only that: in 1859 the Casati law effectively established the public school, a provision disliked by Pius IX, who sent a piqued letter to Vittorio Emanuele II in which he complained about the subtraction of arms to work, precisely because of the compulsory schooling. In this regard, in Heart by de Amicis, centered on a class from the years 1881/82, we note an interesting detail».

The book Heart?
«Yes, because in no passage is Christmas or the patron saint mentioned: we move in a completely secular environment and yet the protagonists propose themselves as models of absolutely Christian behavior. Only at the beginning of the 1900s did the workers distance themselves from the Church in a more evident way, following Marxist requests. The real anti-clericalism, ‘the teasing of black petticoats’, will perhaps coincide with the end of the season of saints».

Why does Turin have so many social saints?
«For the development of the first manufacturing industry, which attracted large masses to the city with the consequent load of problems. Furthermore, when Turin was the capital, the attraction increased, also because the administrative apparatus brought work not only in the office. After 1861 it reached two hundred thousand inhabitants. It seemed natural to the more attentive priests to try to mitigate the conditions of degradation of the neediest classes. At most, the link with secular institutions existed in the fact that priests could serve, from below, for social control. On the other hand, the attack on temporal power, which was played out on other tables, was a different matter».

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