A peacemaker betrayed

A celebrated photograph taken by Ernest Brooks during the Battle of Broodseinde on October 4 1917

January 22 was the anniversary of the death of Pope Benedict XV in 1922. His was the second shortest papacy of the last century but it encompassed one of the century’s most phenomenal events: the First World War, which broke out 100 years ago this year.

From his election on September 3, when the war was only a few weeks old, Pope Benedict called repeatedly for the war to come to an end. He was not interested in the arguments which the Allied and Central powers both used to justify the war. For him the conflict was simply unjustifiable because of the horrific extent of the killing from the very beginning. He constantly called for a negotiated settlement and saw the leaders of the nations as accountable for what was happening.

A year into the war he wrote this message to them: “In the holy name of God, in the name of our heavenly Father and Lord, by the precious Blood of Jesus, the price of man’s redemption, we adjure you, whom Divine Providence has placed in authority over the nations now at war, to put a final end to this horrible butchery which has been disgracing Europe for a whole year. It is the blood of brothers that is being poured out on land and sea. The most beautiful regions of Europe, the garden of the world, are strewn with corpses and with ruins. Where but a short time ago there flourished the industry of manufacturers and the fruitful labours of the fields, the guns now thunder fearfully and in their destructive fury they spare neither village or city, but spread havoc and death everywhere.

“You bear the dread responsibility of peace and war in the sight of God and man; listen to the voice of a father, who is the Vicar of the Eternal and Supreme Judge, to whom you will have to give an account of your public undertakings as well as your private action.”

They did not listen to the father’s voice then. Nor did they in 1917 when the pope issued his Peace Note to try and set up negotiations. Historians can find many reasons why they took no notice of the pope. In Britain the political establishment was very anti-Catholic, even more than it is now. At Italy’s insistence the Holy See was excluded from the Versailles conference after the war, which Benedict rightly saw as a diplomatic failure which would create a future conflict.

None of this surprises us, but what is very disturbing is the extent to which the pope was undermined by the bishops of the Catholic Church, particularly in France and Britain. Our bishops, like other Christian leaders, were determined to be seen as patriotic and completely behind the war effort: men like Cardinal Bourne (Westminster), and Bishops Amigo (Southwark), Casartelli (Salford), Keating (Northampton) and Burton (Clifton) were frankly embarrassed by the pope’s actions, as was the Catholic press. They wanted all-out victory, not negotiations. In 1916 a group of Catholic lay people set up the Guild of the Pope’s Peace, to disseminate the pope’s teachings and prayers for peace. It was openly attacked by the bishops.

Very few resisted the war: one Quaker peace activist was arrested for possessing a copy of the pope’s prayers and messages for peace.
The disloyalty to the Vicar of Christ on the part of the bishops is shocking.

Benedict XV is, of course, important for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who took the name Benedict because of him and called him a “courageous prophet of peace”. Benedict XV rooted his calls for peace in the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church. For example, he allowed priests to say three Masses on All Souls’ Day partly for the souls of the war’s victims.

He did a great deal to help prisoners of war and after the war helped to set up the charity Save the Children. A century on, what lessons can Catholics learn from Benedict XV? The first is to enter the year with penitence. I would like to suggest respectfully that our bishops could, in acts of worship or in statements, ask forgiveness of God for the lack of loyalty and true leadership shown by Cardinal Bourne and his colleagues. We cannot really preach to the rest of our society about peace unless we recognise the faults in our own community. Not only was the pope betrayed, but so were those killed in the war, including many Catholics from Britain and Ireland.

The second lesson should be to acknowledge that the war began a big shift in Catholic teaching about conflict, culminating in the 1963 encyclical of Blessed John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, followed by strong opposition to war from his successors in the Chair of Peter. We should be more forthright in our opposition to modern-day wars waged by this country, and to the possession of nuclear weapons. It is more than likely that politicians will use the centenary to stifle criticism of contemporary military actions. Christian leaders must resist this. Britain is in many ways still a country in which war is glorified. We should be clearer too in our support for Pax Christi and other Christian peace groups.

Thirdly, we should recognise that Benedict XV was simply right about the war. There is a fascinating debate among historians about how far the war was justified and who was to blame for its outbreak and continuation for over four years. Our task is to evaluate it morally in the light of Christian teaching. The basis for the pope’s condemnation was the notion of “proportionality” in the Just War doctrine.

So redressing the assassinations in Sarajevo and the invasion of Belgium by fighting such a war for so long was simply out of proportion.

The insights of the pope should be emphasised in the way we teach children and young people in Catholic schools and colleges about the First World War, especially as his efforts to end the war are often ignored in books about the conflict.

In the message I quoted above Benedict XV wrote of “the blood of brothers” that was being shed, so the fourth lesson should be a renewed commitment by Catholics to European unity. The founding fathers of common European institutions in the 1950s, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer, had experienced both World Wars and wanted to ensure that “the blood of brothers” would not be shed again. There is so much ignorance about European unity in this country, even among Catholics, and it is not easy to oppose anti-European attitudes among politicians and in the press. One way to do so is to show that the search for European unity, so strongly supported by Blessed John Paul II, is grounded in revulsion against both World Wars. Again, this needs to be stressed in Catholic schools and colleges.

Taking seriously the legacy and teachings of Benedict XV will be costly. As a Church, we will be accused of dishonouring those who died and of being unpatriotic. But if we learn where our true loyalties lie we will deepen our Christian discipleship and witness more effectively to the Gospel of the Prince of Peace.

Fr Ashley Beck is assistant priest of Beckenham in the Archdiocese of Southwark, dean of studies of the diaconate formation programme for most dioceses in southern England and Wales and lecturer in pastoral ministry at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham. He is the author of Benedict XV and World War I: Courageous Prophet of Peace, published by the Catholic Truth Society this month (available for £2.50 from

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald (10/1/14)