When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took the name Benedict XVI when he was elected Pope in April 2005, influential Catholics in the United States cheered his choice of names.

The name, obviously, honored St. Benedict, the man who founded European monasticism and sparked Europe’s recovery from barbarism after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It also signaled that a new, tough Pope would be sharply critical of Europe for forgetting its Christian heritage and embracing moral relativism, in contrast to the religious and moral vigor of the United States.

But from the beginning, it was impossible to ignore another, unspoken theme: war.

Catholic “hawks” in the United States had been unhappy with Pope John Paul II’s stance against almost all wars, a position they viewed as unrealistic and a departure from their interpretation of the classic “just war” tradition that began with St. Augustine. For them, the figure of St. Benedict became a symbol, and the Pope’s name a secret code, for those who believed they saw most clearly the threat of Islamic fascism and the need to use violence in the clash of civilizations between the West and Islam.

They clearly hoped that Benedict XVI would look more favorably on the United States’ use of armed force in the fight against Islamic terrorists and rogue states.

But with the Vatican’s reaction to the recent Israeli incursion into Lebanon, the hawks discovered they were only half right about the new Pope.

While Benedict has indeed been firm in calling Europe back to its Christian roots and warning against the “dictatorship of relativism,” any speculation that he would diverge from John Paul II’s “Gospel of Peace” ended when the Holy Father came out strongly against Israel’s pre-emptive attack on Lebanon.

Why did the pro-war Catholics misread the Pope so badly on this issue? One reason is that they had overlooked, or chosen to ignore, the Holy Father’s clear and repeated references to another inspiring Benedict — Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922).

In his first general audience April 27, 2005, in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI began his explanation of why he chose the name Benedict: “Filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving, I wish to speak of why I chose the name Benedict. Firstly, I remember Pope Benedict XV, that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the Church through turbulent times of war. In his footsteps I place my ministry in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples.”

And in his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace Jan. 1, 2006, the Holy Father cited Benedict XV “who condemned the First World War as a ‘useless slaughter’ and worked for a universal acknowledgment of the lofty demands of peace.”

Why did pro-war Catholics downplay these strong references to Benedict XV and that Pope’s anti-war position? Was it a deliberate attempt to “spin” the issue in the media? Or was it a case of subconscious filtering of disagreeable information based on hopes for a more pro-war Pope?

Whatever the case, the significance of Pope Benedict XV for the new Pope is now unmistakably clear.

Who was Pope Benedict XV?

Known as the “peace Pope,” he was elected soon after the outbreak of World War I and spent the war years desperately trying to broker a peace settlement. On Aug. 1, 1917, he delivered his “plea for peace,” proposing that the warring nations cease hostilities, reduce their arms, guarantee freedom of the seas and submit to international arbitration.

Although his efforts had gained some popular support, he was viewed with suspicion by the governments of both sides, and his proposals were rejected. Historians consider him a tragic figure, especially since most view World War I as a senseless slaughter that did much to discredit Western civilization for subsequent generations of Europeans, and paved the way for even greater horrors in World War II.

A similar sense of tragedy, albeit on a smaller scale, seemed to surround Pope Benedict XVI during the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict.

The Holy Father’s increasingly urgent pleas for an immediate cease-fire, and his pronouncements about the plight of innocent civilians in Lebanon and Israel, were almost completely ignored by Israel, the United States and other Western nations, and were mostly dismissed, even ridiculed, by influential Catholics in the press and on the Internet.

On July 16, a few days after the conflict began, in his first public statement, the Pope called on both Israel and Hezbollah to end hostilities, stating that “neither the terrorist acts nor the reprisals — above all when there are tragic consequences for the civilian population — can be justified.”

On July 20, with 300 already killed and a half million displaced in Lebanon by Israel’s invasion, and 29 killed in Israel and many thousands displaced by Hezbollah rockets, the Pope and his representatives again denounced the conflict, and called for an “immediate cease-fire.”

On July 30, after an Israeli air strike on an apartment block in the biblical town of Qana killed 54, including 37 children, the Holy Father pleaded, “In the name of God, I call to all those responsible for the cycle of violence to lay down their arms — both sides — and bring a halt to the violence. … You cannot re-establish justice, establish a new order and build authentic peace when you resort to instruments of violence.”

Then, during a television interview with German media taped Aug. 5, the Pope made an unusual appeal: “Naturally, the Holy See has no desire for political power,” the Pope said. “But we wish to call Christians — and all those who feel challenged by the voice of the Holy See in one way or another — to mobilize all the powers that recognize how war is the worst solution for everyone.”

By Aug. 6, the Holy Father showed signs of frustration, when, during a public audience, he expressed his “bitter consternation that thus far, the pleas for an immediate cease-fire in this martyred region have been ignored.”

In every public appearance thereafter, Pope Benedict continued to condemn the killing of innocent civilians in both Israel and Lebanon, called urgently for the fighting to stop and instructed Catholics to pray for a lasting peace, until finally a cease-fire was negotiated that began Aug. 14.

Caught off-guard throughout the conflict by this Pope’s echoing of John Paul II’s anti-war stand, some Catholic writers and bloggers expressed varying degrees of shock and disappointment with the Pope and his Vatican representatives, especially for, in their view, treating Israel and Hezbollah as “morally equivalent,” and not giving sufficient weight to the threat of Islamic terrorism.

Next week: Hawks Circle Benedict.

Angelo Matera is editor of Godspy.com.p>