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Why Catholicism’s credibility survived the Great War

The rather gloomy outlook of the Church meant that it was better equipped than most faiths to cope with the horrors of the First World War

By on Tuesday, 29 July 2014

August 4 marks the centenary of the entry of Great Britain and her Empire into the First World War, and the Bishops of England and Wales have asked all their clergy to mark this and other anniversaries as they fall over the next four years. This effectively means that Mass will be offered for those who died on the nearest Sunday, and that there may well be a mention of the anniversary in the bidding prayers. This is being done so that the Church is shown to be playing its full part in the national celebrations of the centenary, if indeed celebrations is quite the word.

The centenary is by no means a single event, but rather a series of events spread over four years, culminating with the hundredth anniversary of the November 11 Armistice which falls in 2018. Along the way, we shall be commemorating, in particular, Gallipoli, the Somme, Jutland and Passchendaele, thus marking battles on land and sea, including one notable for the involvement of non-British Imperial troops.

It has been often observed that there has been a growth in interest in the First World War, even as it recedes in time and those who survived it pass from the scene. The Tommies are now all gone, but the fascination increases, and I am not quite sure why. Perhaps it is something to do with our understanding of the way we are now, and the way that the unmitigated disaster that was the First World War led to our present situation.

In the vast discussion of the War’s significance, two things I have heard stand out for me. The first is this. Germany knew it faced industrial competition from Russia, and there was talk that by 1916 Russia would have overtaken Germany in industrial output, and thus the year 1914 was the year for war if Germany wanted to ensure its dominance, before it was overtaken. That is the usual narrative. But the Kaiser and his government were also told in no uncertain terms that Germany was destined to dominate Europe without war as well. In other words, the entire War was counter-productive; the Germans started it to dominate Europe, to grasp a prize that was already theirs. They lost the War, and thus ensured the prize was, at least for some time, snatched from their grasp. The moral of this is that war really is never worth it; you can get what you want by keeping the peace.

The second matter is the impact of the War on faith. An Anglican clergyman once told me that the War destroyed the credibility of the Church of England, because the experience of the trenches raised questions that the Tommies’ chaplains were simply not able to answer. By contrast, the Catholic clergy were able to provide better answers – or maybe Catholic devotional practices were: thus Catholicism survived the War in better condition than Anglicanism. I am convinced by this thesis, which strikes me as analogous to the ‘rampant omnibus’ theory of Dr Trevor Wilson in his 1966 discussion of the cause of the decline of the Liberal party; though there is no space here to discuss this in depth. But it makes sense. The rampant omnibus of the First World War destroyed all forms of optimism; a rather gloomier Catholicism, with its focus on the undeserved sufferings of Christ, was better equipped than most to survive.

While on the topic of the religious impact of the War (which is surely still with us), the special permission given to priests to celebrate three Masses on this day dates from August 10 1915; this privilege was given to the whole world by Pope Benedict XV in his Apostolic Constitution Incruentum Altaris (it had previously been restricted to Spain and Portugal) because of the high casualties in the War. In the Bull the Pope speaks of those who are cut down in the flower of their youth thanks to the terrible war now raging in Europe. Thus every All Souls Day, in a sense, we mark the First World War still.

Another enduring impact of the War is devotion to the Little Flower, Saint Therese of Lisieux. Her cause was introduced in 1914 before the War began, but there is compelling evidence that the experience of the trenches, and the huge amount of holy pictures and medals given by French women to their combatant men, were instrumental in making this hitherto obscure nun such a hugely popular saint. It was to her that the soldiers turned in their hour of need. And they were right to do so, one feels!

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