Lusitania Tragedy Remembered: How Did the Vatican Respond to the Ocean Liner’s Sinking?
The vessel’s sinking nearly 100 years shifted public opinion in the United States and propelled it toward joining England in World War I.
VATICAN CITY — The 1915 torpedoing of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania, which galvanized anti-German sentiment in the U.S. during World War I, was much discussed at the top of the Vatican’s ranks, revealing the Holy See’s approach to current events and its place in international diplomacy.
The Vatican discussion over the controversy was discussed Sunday by the prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, Bishop Sergio Pagano, who spoke March 8 in Aquino, in Italy’s Lazio region.
The Lusitania departed New York on May 1, 1915, sailing to England. Germany had declared the seas around the U.K. a war zone, and the German embassy to the United States warned people not to travel on the ship.
It was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, between Ireland and England. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 died.
While it was a passenger ship, the Lusitania was also carrying munitions to England and had been listed as an armed merchant cruiser. In any case, among the dead were 128 Americans, and the Lusitania’s sinking was important in shifting public opinion in the United States against Germany, opening the way for America’s 1917 entrance into World War I.
Much as the Lusitania’s sinking shocked Americans and the Allies, it was also the subject of discussion in the Vatican — Bishop Pagano explained that he had “bumped into” the discussion while examining archives for the 100th anniversary of World War I and that the case “may well represent how the Catholic Church balances its decisions.”
The story is based on a series of letters exchanged among Pope Benedict XV, his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, and Cardinal Francis Aiden Gasquet, who worked in the Vatican Library.
Bishop Pagano recounted that “the news scandalized all the newspapers in Europe, while L’Osservatore Romano, the Holy See’s newspaper, published only a short article on the sinking.”
He explained that Cardinal Gasquet, who was a Benedictine born in London, “was very upset that the newspaper of the Holy See was not expressing its concern in louder terms, since he sought the good and wanted the Church always to speak the language of truth, without compromise.”
So Cardinal Gusquet wrote to the Pope, claiming that “in all history such an example of a collective murder so coldly planned as that of those aboard the Lusitania will be barely found.”
He also wrote, Bishop Pagano said, that while the torpedoing had raised “a right distain,” the “short article in the Vatican’s official media barely mentioned any condemnation.”
“There are times when the silence of authority is equal to a silent consent to the breaking of law,” the cardinal concluded in his letter to Benedict XV.
According to Bishop Pagano, “the pope asked Cardinal Pietro Gasparri to study the issue, and Cardinal Gasparri wrote his opinion, pretending to be an anonymous adviser.”
Benedict XV then forwarded the opinion to Cardinal Gasquet.
“Cardinal Gasparri’s opinion, though expressed behind anonymity, was a bit surprising,” Bishop Pagano recounted.
The secretary of state had responded that it had to be known whether the ship was armed or not. If it was not armed, he said that it had to be known if it was at least carrying arms or ammunition for England. And, finally, if none of these circumstances were the case, he said the sinking was "very grave," but that the submarine war was waged by Germany in response to the Anglo-French blockade. He thus concluded that “it was not opportune for the Holy See to publicly protest.”
Cardinal Gasquet responded harshly; according to Bishop Pagano, “he was not surprised the German administration had organized this large-scale murder, ‘inspired as it is by anti-Christian and Nietzschean principles.’”
Cardinal Gasquet added that “he never considered it would be possible to find someone defending these principles” from within the Secretariat of State.
The entire discussion was reconstructed by Bishop Pagano from letters in the Vatican Archives, and he considered that “a wider question should be raised: What was the Holy See to do during a war that was causing so many deaths?”
“According to Cardinal Gasquet, the Church had to speak out loudly. According to Cardinal Gasparri, the Church had to bring together all positions. According to Benedict XV, the Church had to speak out, though in a prudent way,” Bishop Pagano explained.
Benedict’s concern for prudence was meant to ensure the Church would have the freedom to help those affected by the war, the bishop added.
In any case, the discussion demonstrates the Holy See’s importance on the international arena and how it must ponder any decision in the light of the love for truth, as well as focusing its attention on the common good.
- andrea gagliarducci
- catholic church
- pope benedict xv
- rms lusitania
- united states
- vatican diplomacy
- world war i