The Pope of Peace and the First World War

It has been slightly over a year since Pope Francis was named the Vicar of Christ to replace the ageing Pope Benedict XVI. From the beginning, Pope Francis has been committed to shaking things up in Rome. He was the first non-European Pope since the Syrian Pope Gregory III in 1272, the first Jesuit Pope, the first South American Pope, and the first Pope to use a name not used by a predecessor since Pope Lando in 913. His pronunciations on the role of the Catholic Church and commitment to be a more humble and personable representative of Christ have been met with positives reactions by many. Though some critics wonder if Pope Francis is only speaking of reform but not initiating it, he's at least attempting to maintain the Church's influence in a world where religious institutions seem increasingly parochial – no pun intended. Today we examine one of Pope Francis' predecessor who also struggled to keep the Catholic Church relevant in a changing world.

Pope Benedict XV was born Giacomo Giambattista Della Chiesa and replaced Pope Pius X, who died on 24 August 1914 – apocryphally from a broken heart over the outbreak of the First World War. Della Chiesa had only been a Cardinal for four months before being named the Pope on 3 September 1914. He was born in Genoa in 1854 and after studying law, he turned to the priesthood and was ordained in 1878. Della Chiesa worked his way up the Church hierarchy eventually serving as Bishop of Bologna for seven years and holding a series of diplomatic posts within the Vatican. His mentor with whom he worked closely was Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, the Secretary of State for Pope Leo XIII’s (Pope from 1878-1903). Della Chiesa performed admirably navigating international channels and was heralded as the “new Consalvi,” referring to the worldly Cardinal who after the Vienna Congress of 1815 had positioned the Papacy as a neutral power, restored the Papal States and preserved its international relevance. In May of 1914, he was named a Cardinal. Despite his commendable credentials, Della Chiesa's election to the Papacy came as a surprise for contemporary observers. Few outside of Rome had heard of him, but it was claimed that among all the Cardinals considered in the 1914 Conclave, Della Chiesa was the most papabile. He fulfilled the description of the ‘ideal’ Pope who possessed “superior intelligence, holiness of life, and Christian charity.”

As Sovereign Pontiff, Benedict XV immediately set out to help end the terrible conflict that split his flock. From Rome, the First World War seemed even more atrocious as Catholic fought Catholic. The terrible bloodshed of a grievously divided continent shaped Pope Benedict XV's papacy as he struggled to maintain absolute neutrality while working for peace by every possible means. In November 1914 Benedict XV issued an appeal for peace noting that four “disorders” had shaken the world: “the lack of mutual love among men; disregard for authority; unjust quarrels between the various classes; material prosperity become the absorbing object of human endeavor, as though there were nothing higher and better to be gained.” Like Pope Francis today, Pope Benedict XV sought to maintain religious doctrine but also fashion a positive influence on a world that could have used some guidance.

Pope Benedict XV was personally committed to his policy of neutrality. His failure to bring about a resolution to the First World War was not through lack of trying. From September 1914 onwards, the Vatican commented on and engaged with each of the belligerent powers in an attempt to bring an end to the war. Pope Benedict, in his efforts to stop or assuage the impact of the war, adopted a policy better described as “absolute impartiality,” which denoted a subtle but often misunderstood difference from neutrality. Charles R. Gallagher writes that “Absolute impartiality was more than simply a tightened concept of neutrality …absolute impartiality distinctly forbade public moral determinations by non-belligerent states.” The Holy See refused to draw moral judgements on warring states, with Benedict XV trying to position the Vatican as both politically and morally neutral in the conflict.

Although he ultimately failed, Benedict XV’s long years of diplomatic intervention earned him the title the “Pope of Peace.” Often unjustly characterized by contemporaries as having done nothing during the Great War besides meddle, recent historians have demonstrated the immense commitment he made towards ending the war and aiding its victims. John F. Pollard, in The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV (1914-1922) and the Pursuit of Peace, reviews some of Benedict XV’s accomplishments, which included 82 million lire donated to war’s victims, helping 26,000 POWs and 3,000 civilian detainees be allowed to convalesce in Switzerland, and even formally protesting the ongoing Armenian genocide in Turkey, over and above his continual efforts to broker a general European peace.

His many peace notes (the most famous being the from 1 August 1917) were not successful though. The Allies and the Central Powers were suspicious of Benedict XV, and the Treaty of London that brought Italy into the war specifically forbade any Papal presence at future peace negotiations. The Allied powers were wary of the Vatican and its neutrality, perhaps with good reason. Some members of the Roman Curia hoped for a Central Powers victory because it could resolve the “Rome Question” and perhaps restore the Papal States, which had only been annexed by Italy in 1860. At the time the Vatican was independent of Italy, despite its location in the heart of Rome, and had not yet reopened relations with the “new” Italian kingdom. The publication of the Treaty of London by the Russians after the fall of the Czar in 1917 certainly encouraged this position among the Curia.

Some within the Curia were explicitly sympathetic to the German and Austrian war effort. One such example is Rudolph Gerlach, the papal secret chamberlain, who was accused of being the lead spy in an Italian espionage ring and allegedly linked to German and Austrian intelligence. He was discovered following an investigation into the destruction of the Italian battleship, the Leonardo Da Vinci, in August 1916. Benedict was convinced of Gerlach’s innocence, and though there is little evidence of his guilt in the historical record, his behaviour after his departure from the Vatican is somewhat suspect. Gerlach was quietly sent to Switzerland but eventually had several public and embarrassing meetings with the King of Bavaria, the German and Austrian Emperors and the famous German General Paul von Hindenburg.

The end of the war saw Benedict completely excluded from the Versailles peace conference, much to the Vatican's displeasure. His peace efforts and assistance to POWs bankrupted the Vatican by the 1920s, while suspicion from both sides and ineffectiveness led many historians to remember Benedict as incompetent, meddling or even traitorous. Benedict XV could not replicate the success of Cardinal Consalvi's role in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, but understood that the Catholic Church should have a pivotal role in mediating the conflicts of modern Europe. Faced with apathy from the warring nations, Benedict XV still felt a responsibility to try to end the war that divided his Catholic flock. He died in 1922 from pneumonia, his papacy only lasting eight years – four of which were immersed in the Great War and the struggle for peace.

Today, as the media reports on Francis continually cast him in a positive light, his reputation is already faring better than that of Benedict XV. Like Francis, Benedict XV led the Catholic Church in a turbulent time as growing apathy to the institution seemed to question its relevance. His devotion to peace was unfortunately remembered in an unfavourable light. Most remember the First World War as a senseless slaughter driven by militarism, imperialism and nationalism. Pope Benedict XV's effort to stop the conflict deserves recognition as a compassionate and generous wielding of papal power.  His example is one that inspired the recently resigned Pope Benedict XVI, and aligns with Pope Francis' own humble approach to papal power.