A century ago today, the papacy made one of its periodic efforts to change the course of history, when Pope Benedict XV sent a letter to the heads of all belligerent states appealing for peace and outlining the principles upon which it should be based. In truth this was a token gesture because nobody, including the Vatican, expected it to have any effect at all. It was duly ignored, subsequent efforts would meet the same fate, and it’s fair to say the papacy has been a powerless footnote in the face of warfare ever since.
So why bother mentioning the letter of 30 July 1915? Well, unaccustomed as I am to being nice about organised religion, it seems to me the papacy has been given a bit of a bad press by heritage commentators – or rather no press at all, so that its reputation around modern warfare rests on the much-deplored performance of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. Without for one moment suggesting that the Vatican was much use to a world engulfed by the ego-driven madness of secular states, its First World War incarnation does merit some sympathy and a pat on the back for trying.
The War had started badly for the papacy. The incumbent pontiff, Pius X, died on 20 August 1914, throwing the Vatican into the turmoil of a hasty selection process that saw Giacomo della Chiesa elected as Benedict XV on 3 September. A cardinal for only four months but regarded as an able diplomat, Benedict’s first attempt to act as a conduit for peace was a proposal for a general truce at Christmas 1914. Delivered at a moment when a direct appeal from God would probably have fallen on deaf ears, it met with predictable silence from all sides, and from early the following year the Vatican’s international influence was drastically undermined by its unavoidable attachment to Italy.
As pro-War factions took the ascendancy, papal peace mongering was viewed with increasing suspicion by the political class in Italy, and attitudes were hardened by Benedict’s role in promoting talks between Rome and Vienna aimed at avoiding war. When signing up to enter the War on the side of the Entente powers, the Italian government persuaded its new allies to agree, by a clause in the secret Treaty of London, to ignore any future peace proposals from the Vatican. Meanwhile in Germany, and above all in Protestant Prussia, the Pope was being denounced as a pawn of the Entente, his diplomatic approaches to Vienna dismissed as a cunning plan to weaken Germany’s alliance structure.
While repeatedly announcing its strict neutrality in the face of accusations from both sides, the Vatican could only perform minor charitable works for victims of the War, and make a show of fulfilling its global obligations to the faithful in the face of utter disdain from the Christian states at war. The letter of July 1915 functioned primarily as a reminder to neutral audiences that the Pope still wanted peace, and that the Vatican still refused to fall into either warring camp.
Two years down the line, with war-weariness on his side, Benedict would make a second, more concerted attempt to broker peace, but his proposals would again be brushed aside by European powers, and dismissed by US President Wilson as an endorsement of the pre-War status quo. Despite the Vatican’s claim to a major role in the post-War peace process the Pope would not receive an invitation to the Paris Conference of 1919, and Benedict would go on to issue several denunciations of the punitive Versailles Treaty in the years before his death in 1922.
So the big story about the Papacy during the First World War is that it never managed to become a big story, and the sub-plot tells us that, for once, failure to exert any significant influence over the dogs of war wasn’t the Vatican’s fault. Like so much else we dismiss as evidence of human and institutional culpability during the First World War, the papacy was trapped into impotence by the circumstances of the times.