VATICAN CITY — As the world commemorates the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, how does history view the efforts of Pope Benedict XV to end what later became known as “the war to end all wars”?
Despite Benedict’s suggestion of a Christmas truce in 1914 and his seven-point peace plan in 1917, the Great Powers never listened to him. Even after the war ended in 1918, the Holy See failed to get a seat at the Paris Peace Conference or have representation at the League of Nations — an entity that Benedict supported.
In this July 30 interview with the Register, Jesuit Father Norman Tanner, a professor of Church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University, explains why the Pope failed in these areas, but also why he can be credited for doing much more than was required of him.
Father Tanner’s latest book is New Short History of the Catholic Church.
Is it fair to say that, in the light of history, Pope Benedict XV’s diplomatic efforts during the First World War were a failure?
Yes, he wasn’t accepted. To say two things as background, one very much as background: The papacy has always been in favor of peace, at least from the third century onwards, from Constantine onwards. The Church had always recognized the right to a just war and legitimate defense.
The second point is very particular, which is the loss of the Papal States. They had not been sorted out by then: Rome and the Papal States had been lost in 1870 and in fact were only sorted out officially in 1929, with the Lateran Treaty, after Benedict’s death.
So one reason why some of the allies, especially Italy, but also France, England, were uneasy with the papal initiative was the feeling that when you read those seven points carefully, there’s talk of restitution of property and so on, implying that the Papal States, or at least Rome, would be restored to the papacy. So this was a major difficulty for Italy.
Could it therefore be argued that the extent of the Holy See’s temporal interests compromised its ability to mediate, whereas today, now free of those temporal ties, it has better possibilities in comparison?
It’s one factor, but I wouldn’t exaggerate the fact, as the Papal States had been gone for 40 years by then.
Benedict was elected pope within a matter of weeks after the start of the war, when Pius X died, in a way because of his diplomatic experience. It was one of the reasons why he was elected pope — it was hoped he would be suitable in this terrible situation as it unfolded.
During the first few years of the war, he did much in a humanitarian way and encouraged cessation, but the key thing was the seven-point plan, which he inaugurated on Aug. 1, 1917. It was at least noted by the principal powers in the war, but it came at a very delicate time.
Earlier that year, in April, the United States entered the war. Germany and Austria were quite favorable to it. It’s even suggested they might have been happy for Rome to be restored to the papacy.
So, on the one hand, Britain, France and Italy were cool right from the beginning. They felt it was too generous towards the Germans and Austrians, and then, as mentioned, Italy had these additional objections that it might mean the restoration of the Papal States or at least the capital of Rome. So although in Germany, Russia and Austria there was some enthusiasm in the beginning, it was rejected.
The crucial thing to remember, though, was that the Russian Revolution took place in March, and that meant that Germany had a real hope of victory in the war because, up until then, there was sort of a stalemate.
Could it be said the seven-point plan came too late?
That’s a good point. In a way, it came at a crux in the war. Obviously, they didn’t realize how the war was turning out; and at that particular point [when the plan was issued], this horrific war had been going on for three years with colossal loss of life. So many ordinary people very much wanted the war to end, which had reached a stalemate compared to the early stages of German advances and so on.
So, in that sense, it was a suitable time.
Why, at the 1915 Treaty of London, was a secret agreement made between the Allied powers to ignore any papal peace initiatives?
I think the points I’ve already mentioned — the three main powers not wanting the restoration of the Papal States — although I don’t want to exaggerate that too much.
There was a sense the papacy was being too favorable to Austria and Germany; more Catholic countries, you might say. Catholics were equally divided on both sides during the war, so you might say that was another reason why the papacy had a right to intervene. You might say it was a scandal that, in this colossal war, Catholics should be so involved in the fighting.
Was it the case, then, that the papacy was never seen as being truly neutral? It was always perceived by each side as supporting the enemy?
There are two points. One is exactly what you say, that it was felt from the English, French and Italian side that the papacy was intervening too favorably towards Germany and Austria, except for the times when the English and French were gaining the upper hand.
Secondly, there’s the question of whether the papacy really had a right to intervene anyway. This was especially true in England and also in France, where there was an anti-clerical element in the French government. They felt this wasn’t an area they wanted the Pope to be involved in at all and that the papacy was really going beyond its orbit.
After the war, the Holy See was denied a presence at the Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations. Was this for the same reasons as why Benedict XV’s mediation didn’t work?
Yes, exactly the same two reasons, I’d say.
Aside from diplomacy, on the humanitarian side, Benedict XV was quite active arranging the exchange of disabled prisoners through neutral countries and having the sick and wounded sent to neutral countries for treatment and recuperation. He is also credited for interceding to help allow deported Belgians to return home and for his donations to relieve those suffering the effects of the war throughout Europe. Should that be seen as his greatest achievement during the war, in the light of history?
Yes, it was appreciated that the papacy, Pope Benedict, did as much and more than he could, and more than was expected, both at the diplomatic level, which was reasonable for him to attempt, but also in terms of humanitarian effort in which he was more capable of achieving things. So, yes, certainly.
Would you say the general assessment of Benedict’s record in the war is, therefore, that he did the best he could but was impeded by various factors which were beyond his control?
I think that’s a very good judgment and summary, yes.
As Benedict XV was elected just a month after the outbreak of the First World War, does a certain amount of responsibility perhaps therefore lie more with his predecessor, Pius X, and his not having done enough to prevent it?
Well, of course, the assassination of the Archduke [Franz Ferdinand of Austria] came quite unexpectedly, but you’re right: There had been this building up of hostilities. But I think Pius X was very much in the line of advocating peace if at all possible, even if he was not so active as Benedict. But Benedict is obviously in a new situation, where you’ve actually got a war that’s started.
Of course, Pius X was only pope for a matter of weeks while the war was going on, and it wasn’t clear it would develop into the colossal conflagration that it did. But you’re quite right: Especially from the beginning of the 1900s, there was this great increase in armaments, especially from France, Germany and England, and in some ways, it was seen as legitimate.
Maybe you’re right that the Church, which was concentrating on modernism and internal difficulties in the Church, could have said more against the arms race, but I speak with diffidence there.
In contrast, Benedict XV clearly condemned the arms race in his addresses.
Yes, and, of course, he had been close to papal diplomacy for a long time before he became pope. He had been archbishop of Bologna too, before that. He’d been very close to some of his predecessors as a member of the diplomatic corps, including Pius X.
Benedict XV also had a great devotion to the Blessed Mother and was a Mariologist. Is that significant at all in his whole approach and perhaps his dogged determination to seek peace?
The papal declarations towards Mary had been emphasized by Pius IX, and Lourdes was already a well-known shrine by that time. But it’s interesting that the Fatima revelations occurred in May 1917, so just on the eve of the seven-point plan in August 1917.
But, initially, there was a relatively small-scale knowledge, so it’s not as if it was a huge event in the media at the time that might have influenced him directly. But Marian devotion was obviously very important for Pope Benedict and may have had more impact on his spirituality during the war than we know. I don’t know, on that point.
Edward Pentin is the Register's Rome correspondent.