Thu 20th Nov 2014 | Last updated: Thu 20th Nov 2014 at 22:52pm

Facebook Logo Twitter Logo RSS Logo

Comment & Blogs

A peacemaker betrayed

When Pope Benedict XV tried to end the First World War British Catholics shunned him, says Fr Ashley Beck

By on Thursday, 27 February 2014

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

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)

  • Tim Robertson

    How many are aware of the remarkable connection between World War I, Pope Benedict XV, and the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima ? Having failed to negotiate peace, the Pope sent out a pastoral letter to the whole Catholic world, dated 5th May 1917, in which he urged all to pray fervently to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for peace, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Mother of mercy and omnipotent by grace”. At the same time, he directed that the invocation “Queen of peace, pray for us ” should be added to the Litany of Loreto.

    Eight days later, Our Lady appeared to the three shepherd children on 13th May in the Cova da Iria (the words mean “hollow pf peace”) in the parish of Fatima, and at the end of the apparition she said: “Pray the Rosary every day, in order to obtain peace for the world and the end of the war”.

    At precisely the same moment the future Pope Pius XII, who became known as the pope of Fatima because of his response to Our Lady’s requests, was being ordained bishop in the Sistine chapel.

  • Brian O’Leary

    A really excellent article.

    However, I don’t see how European unity ties into it at all. The Catholics Bishops of 1914-1918 took a political response when they should have followed the Holy Father’s religious response. Why then should we take a new political response today? (Especially from a political source as anti-religion as the European institutions).

    Many of the individual EU member states have been waging wars over the last few decades, and the recent developments have only led to closer cooperation between EU member states in waging these wars against non-EU enemies. The only thing that closer European cooperation does is to shift the enemy in future wars further away from home.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Benedict XV is honoured by Armenians with a plaque at their genocide memorial among those who helped them after the Turkish massacre.

    We should certainly talk about his teaching on the war and his practical steps to alleviate its suffering this year.

  • $74497298

    “…it is not easy to oppose anti-European attitudes among politicians and in the press.”

    There is no “anti-European” attitude in the UK.

    You seem to be deliberately distorting a widespread opinion here that the European Union (deeply undemocratic) is a misguided project that harms most of the citizens of most European nations through some of its policies.
    These policies, which include expensive energy and a single currency shared inappropriately by the most unlikely of countries, have caused economic chaos and widespread poverty, misery, social unrest and unemployment.

    What would be interesting to see are answers to some questions that are ignored: Why did the UK not accept Germany’s offer to cease hostilities in 1916?
    Why instead did the US enter the war?

  • James M

    I read that some of President Wilson’s fourteen “peace points” were cribbed from the Pope.

    “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.”

    ## No. Wrong approach. The EUSSR is a conspiracy against nation states to deprive them of their political sovereignty. The sooner it is destroyed, the better. The European bishops are completely wrong to support it. Maybe they should get back to doing the work for which they were ordained. If they wish to play at politics, they should not be bishops or priests.

    “…Robert Schuman…” :thumbsdown: [Monnet ditto]

  • Dorset Rambler

    What an unpleasant, unnecessary comment.

  • mikethelionheart

    Unfortunately, it is totally necessary.
    And no more unpleasant than many of the things found in the NT.
    If that’s the sort of thing you find unpleasant then you really haven’t lived much.
    Stop being so dull and middle-class.
    Christianity is not a safe, middle class religion.
    Never has been. Never will be.

  • Neil Ashley

    No: Turkish genocide.

  • Richeldis_de_Faverches

    Fascinating, and amazing.

  • ostrava

    That many who accept evolution are without religious belief does not make evolution wrong as a matter of fact and history. Most people without religious belief also accept that the Sun is at the centre of the Solar System, but that does not mean that the geocentric theory is right. Including evolution in any list of false idols is mere ignorance.

  • Connie

    Shocking to read about the failing Bishops during WWI.

  • Avril Bonkers

    It’s sad, it’s shocking, it makes one shudder, it makes one think.
    Poor Pope Benedict XV!

  • A. Redding

    As the depraved, genocidal careers of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I demonstrate, Idolatry of the nation-state is as wicked as any other idolatry. Robert Schuman was a passionate admirer of Pope Pius XII. In turn, he was passionately admired by real anti-communists such as Australia’s B.A. (“Bob”) Santamaria, who could forget more about statesmanship than Whig bellyachers like “James M” will ever learn.