Honouring the Pope of Peace: Benedict XV

Last month marked the centenary of the election of Pope Benedict XV, on September 3rd 1914. John Pollard, his English biographer, called Benedict “The Unknown Pope.” Benedict deserves to be better known. He was the Pope who tried to stop the catastrophic Great War that Britain launched only a month before his papacy began. He failed with his peace initiatives. But his attempts exposed the nature of Britain’s Great War and why it proved so catastrophic. In honour of the Pope of Peace here is the first of four articles I wrote for the Irish Political Review in August to December 2005.

The Great War of 1914-19 was only was a Great War because of Britain’s participation in it. If England had stayed out it would have been a much more geographically limited and short continental war that Germany, Austria, France or Russia would have called off when interest dictated. None of these countries saw in it good or evil and they would have got out of it given a favourable opportunity.

But the British participation turned the continental war into a Great War with a strong moral dimension that had to be satisfied by total victory and a division of the spoils of the evil amongst the good.

It was being waged by a Liberal government who needed to dress it up as something more than it was – a war of conquest to see off a commercial rival that Britain had put in its sights from a decade and a half earlier. And so the first war of England waged the first war of Puritan character since the Seventeenth Century, although by that time, the decline in religious impulse in England gave it the appearance of a secular crusade.

The Liberal Government that orchestrated the Great War, as M.J.F. McCarthy, the Irish Nonconformist, remarked, was the most Puritan since Cromwell’s. A lot of the Puritan Liberals, including Lloyd George, had been against the war as a wasteful exercise in needless aggression when their Liberal Imperialist leaders declared it in August 1914. But they morally collapsed in the face of Edward Grey’s fait accompli of secret alliances and then they had to justify their collapse and convince themselves that it was not a war for commercial gain, but a war for civilisation and morality they had joined.

The Liberal conscience thereafter depicted the war as a kind of secular crusade against a great evil and portrayed it like that to the world. It was necessary to do so to galvanise a divided party, which had a strong anti-war element, behind the Liberal Imperialist leadership and also to get the cannon fodder to volunteer for war since conscription was against the Liberal doctrine. When the Tories took over during 1915/16 they kept up the pretence, with Lloyd George at the helm for them.

The Great War proved to be such a catastrophically costly war because the English Puritan Liberal conscience justified it to the English masses as a war against evil. Investing war with a strong moral dimension made it unlimited and meant it had to be fought with any means necessary – for wars against evil cannot be called off when the going gets tough, since evil cannot be compromised with.

And so England refused to stop the Great War even when it was apparent that it was stalemate on the western front and millions would die, and empires fall, before a decision would be reached. They instead escalated it across Europe and the globe. They drew in the Balkans and the Middle East – not caring what disasters they bred – all to see off the great evil.

Benedict XV was the great fly in the English Liberal ointment in September 1914.

Giancoma Della Chiesa of Genoa had become Pope Benedict XV only in September 1914. Giancoma Della Chiesa was born premature in 1854. He was small and had a limp – this led him to be called ‘il piccoletto’ the little one. Some have said that his lack of stature impeded his career.

Chiesa was taken under the wing of an aristocratic and pious Sicilian, Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro. He went with Rampolla to Madrid and Rome doing diplomatic work. In 1889 he went to Vienna to help sort out the affairs of Karl Leuger’s Christian Socialist Party.

When Leo XIII died at the age of ninety-three after a reign that lasted a quarter of a century, he did not leave an untroubled inheritance. Many cardinals wanted a shift towards the “pastoral”, a pope who was neither a “politician” nor a “diplomat”. The high-profile candidate was instead a man who embodied the other line, that of direct continuity with Leo XIII. Rampolla , then Secretary of State was favorite. His election was backed by most of the French cardinals, but he was opposed by Austria because of his policy in support of the aspirations of the Slavs who were causing unrest in the Balkans. Also Rampolla wanted to cultivate friendship with France to protect the Vatican from the Italian State. The Austrian emperor decided to make use of an ancient right of veto, granted to the great Catholic monarchies, to block the election of Rampolla.

Pius X was elected Rampolla was retired soon after and Chiesa was banished to Bologna. Pius relaxed the non expedit decree which forbade Catholics from voting and being candidates in Italian elections.

Chiesa was held back by his association with Rampolla and not made a Cardinal (Bologna’s bishop was usually a Cardinal). So when Pius died in 1914 Chiesa had only just become a cardinal.

Election was favoured because choice was narrowed. No cardinal of a belligerent nation stood a chance. Only an Italian or a Spaniard – neutrals – had a hope. Italians who had served in belligerent capitals were also rule out. Austrians would have vetoed Chiesa if Pius X had not abolished the veto in 1904 – they saw him as pro-French like his mentor, Rampolla.

It was said that died of a broken heart at the outbreak of war a few weeks earlier.

When the new Pope called on the belligerents to cease hostilities in September 1914: “What was the reception of the new Pope’s first suggestions of peace. In England and France not many were ready to listen. In their present mood it seemed to very many like the calling off of a crusade.” (Benedict XV – The Pope of Peace, Rev. Henry Rope, p.68)

I said earlier that in 1914-19 the Papacy “spoke and saved its soul.” It is important to note that this was not something that could always have been expected of the Papacy, as the moral guardian of Europe.

An interesting point is made by Francesco Nitti in his 1911 book, Catholic Socialism: “… no one can refuse to admit that the power of the Papacy is now much greater than it has been in the last few centuries. The fall of the temporal power and the introduction of the representative parliamentary system and of universal suffrage in almost all civilised states, have given the sovereign Pontiff most extraordinary power and an undeniable influence over the politics of the whole world.” (p.385)

Nitti reasoned that: “So long as the Pope was but the puny sovereign of a small territory, he was obliged to maintain the same attitude as all other temporal sovereigns, or, in other words modify his spiritual action according to the interests of the small Pontifical States. The history of the Papacy from Charlemagne down to our days clearly proves that all the errors, faults and weaknesses came from the desire to preserve and extend the temporal dominion. And even Pius IX, in view of the wants of his states, abandoned the unfortunate Catholics of Poland to Russian tyranny, and refrained from raising his voice in defence of the Irish Catholics… At the present day the Papacy is more independent than it has ever been. When the Pope was Sovereign of Rome – that is to say, of a small state, – he was subject to the pressure, and very frequently to the violence of all the larger states. If he refused the aims of France or of Austria, a French or Austrian army was sent to occupy the Roman States… Subject as it was to the dictates, violence and tyranny of other more powerful states, the Papal policy was always weak and uncertain. But the Pontiff is now more free than ever he has been, and is no longer obliged to limit or adapt his action to necessities of state. Whereas formerly, a small army or squadron sufficed to oblige him to bow his lofty head and to make the most painful concessions, he is now forced to yield to no one and can employ a thoroughly free and energetic policy of his own. (pp.385-6)

So by the eve of the Great War the Pope was free for the first time to pursue a principled policy in line with Catholic moral doctrine and was far more influential in Europe, where the Catholic masses were becoming more powerful as democracy developed.

The allies expected the Pope to become an ardent partisan and join in their crusade. But when the Pope declined to join the crusade the Allies therefore had a tricky problem.

They were waging a secular crusade for good against evil that depended much on their propaganda being believed by the neutral nations. But if the Pope, the supreme arbiter in the world over issues of good and evil, at least as far as the Catholic democracies were concerned, did not give his imprimatur to this crusade of good over evil and characterised the war as one, instead, of evil versus evil, where did that leave the moral standing of the crusade. And the moral standing was everything to a crusade that sought to enlist a sceptical world in its ranks. (Continued in Part II)