World War I, Papal Reaction to

Frank J Coppa. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 1, Gale, 2010.

In the conclave of 1903, Cardinal Melchiore Sarto was elected pope and took the name Pius X. Like Pius IX, he was more of a pastoral than a diplomatic pope, and he had never held a diplomatic post. Not surprisingly, during his pontificate (1903-1914) he dealt primarily with matters of faith, focusing on doctrinal, ecclesiastical, liturgical, and institutional issues rather than diplomatic ones. Nonetheless, Pius X recognized the dangers posed by the destabilization of international relations during the prewar decade, and toward the close of his pontificate he had a premonition that Europe and the world were threatened by an impending conflict of immense proportions and unfortunate consequences for Church and society. His prophecy materialized at the end of July 1914, when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia following the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. This sparked the intervention of Germany, France, and Russia and a series of other continental powers, as well as a number of extra-European ones, including the United States and Japan. When Pius X’s offer of mediation was rejected, his solution was to pray for peace and to urge Catholics to do likewise. These prayers were not answered, and Pius X died soon after on August 20, 1914. Subsequently, some historians have launched the dubious charge that the Vatican’s conclusion of a concordat with Serbia in 1914 precipitated Austria’s attack on that Slav state, sparking the world war.

The Conclave of August 1914, which opened as a destructive war raged in Europe, sought a pope who could respond to the threats confronting the peoples of the continent and the Church, while both belligerent camps desired a successor to Pius X who would be sympathetic to their cause. Some hoped, while others feared, that the Vatican might influence the course of events. A dynamic papal role was rendered difficult during the summer of 1914 because of the restricted diplomatic reach of the holy see. At this juncture, it did not have a representative in London or Paris, and while it had an apostolic delegate in Washington, he was often ignored. Nonetheless, the Vatican still wielded considerable moral influence that could not be ignored by the powers. On September 3, 1914, the three-day conclave selected the sixty-year-old Giacomo Giambattista della Chiesa, who assumed the name Benedict XV. His election followed that of Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), professor of political science at Princeton University, as president of the United States (1913-1921). The paths of these two figures would cross in the following decade as they both searched for peace.

Vatican Impartiality

Della Chiesa, who trained as a papal diplomat in the College for Noble Ecclesiastics, was fluent in French, German, and Spanish, as well as his native Italian, and served as undersecretary of state after 1901. From the start of his pontificate he sought to restore peace by scrupulously preserving Vatican impartiality. In his first message to the Church on September 8, 1914, the pope pledged to do all within his means to hasten the end of the calamity and proved true to his promise. The following month, on the feast of All Saints’ Day, Benedict issued an appeal for peace within Europe. In the first of his twelve encyclicals, he revealed his deep distress at the carnage and ruin of the calamitous war. Similar sentiments were expressed in a series of exhortations to the powers—including those of September 8 and December 6, 1914; May 25, July 28, and December 6, 1915; March 4 and July 30, 1916; and January 10 and May 5, 1917—in which he invoked the negotiation of a just peace. He was assisted in his efforts to restore peace by his secretary of state, Pietro Gasparri, and undersecretary Eugenio Pacelli (who became Pope Pius XII).

Secretary of State Gasparri was the chief architect of the policy of “impartiality” to which the papacy adhered during the course of the conflict, and which he and the pope differentiated from neutrality. This distinction, although understood by few, served an important function. It assured the Christian world that the pope not only could but indeed would have to make moral judgments between conflicting principles and issue general pronouncements. As Vicar of Christ, he was not, and could not, remain neutral in moral matters. However, he would not necessarily act upon these moral judgments by making concrete political decisions or issuing specific public pronouncements. In the conflict between states, the pope, the Father of all, had perforce to be impartial, because members of the faith were found in both camps, and the Holy See could not support one part of its flock against the other. The pope also proved unwilling to apply the just-war theory, unconvinced that either side fought from a position of justice.

Thus, although he censured the violators of international law in general, Benedict’s refusal to cite specific abuses and his silence regarding responsibility earned him the enmity of most of the belligerents. His general denunciations did not satisfy the Allied countries, which believed Benedict should have condemned the invasion of Belgium, with both sides critical of his impartiality and his failure to name those responsible for the calamity. In 1916 a pamphlet titled The Silence of Benedict XV charged that papal silence compromised the Church and hindered its moral mission. Despite this criticism, Benedict steadfastly refused to assume a partisan stance, and, preserving his impartiality, he sought to mediate a peace. This approach was not appreciated in Berlin and Vienna or Paris and London, each side resenting outside interference while nourishing hopes of winning the war. Some even criticized Benedict’s efforts to alleviate the suffering.

Paradoxically, both belligerent camps charged that the Vatican supported the other. In 1915 the correspondent Louis Latopié of the French newspaper Liberté wrote that during an interview, the pope blamed England for the war while exonerating Germany—a contention Benedict quickly and publicly denied. Nonetheless, this and other rumors continued to circulate, including the Italian suspicion that the Vatican’s peace efforts were really inspired by its desire to gain international support to regain Rome for the papacy. This fear inspired the government of Prime Minster Antonio Salandra (1853-1931) to insist on article 15 of the secret Treaty of London of April 1915, which brought Italy into the war. This article promised that the Vatican would be excluded from any peace conference. To make matters worse for the Vatican, Italy’s intervention in the conflict in May 1915 exposed the Vatican’s precarious position inside one of the belligerent countries, which some believed compromised the impartiality and even the security of the Holy See.

During the course of that same year, the pope and Gasparri, seeking to limit the conflict, dispatched Eugenio Pacelli, who was known to be sympathetic to German culture and spoke German and six other languages, as the Vatican’s special envoy to the multinational Habsburg Empire. In the Vatican note to Emperor Franz Josef (1830-1916) introducing their emissary, Gasparri indicated they were sending a representative who had their complete confidence. This did not matter much to the old emperor, who was more concerned with the message than the messenger. During the meeting, Pacelli concluded that the Austrian emperor was not prepared to make any a priori territorial concessions, adding that diplomatic and military decisions were not made in Vienna but Berlin.

Vatican Efforts to Secure Peace

At the end of 1916, when the Central Powers sent a note to the Entente Powers and the pope suggesting the opening of peace negotiations, the Holy See reacted cautiously, largely because of the skepticism of the secretary of state, Gasparri. The Vatican did not respond to the German initiative because it feared that its support might be seen as favoring the Central Powers. This accusation was deemed plausible in light of the fact that Joseph Caillaux (1863-1944), a former French premier who was pro-German and a political opportunist, planned to venture to Rome to obtain Vatican support for the German plan. Unwilling to jeopardize his absolute impartiality, Benedict did not meet with him. Furthermore, the pope was on the verge of launching his own peace initiative. The papal proposal called for the replacement of military force by moral right, and national self-interest by international cooperation. The proposal reflected the internationalism of the prewar pacifist peace movement, which sought a compromise solution without conquerors or conquered, invoking the restitution of occupied territory and the status quo antebellum.

Meanwhile, the pope urged the Americans, who were still neutral, to launch a peace effort, but at this juncture President Woodrow Wilson would only act if all the warring parties welcomed his intervention. As the war dragged on, Benedict continued his efforts to help the victims of the conflict in both camps, Jews as well as Christians. Both the pope and his secretary of state, Gasparri, made it clear that the pope considered all men brothers and that the papal “crusade of charity” included relief for Jews. Although Benedict did not object to Jewish emigration to Palestine, like his predecessor he had reservations about granting the Jews, or any other religious group, control over the Holy Land and its religious shrines. Benedict, who sympathized with all the victims of the conflict, determined to make a major effort on behalf of peace. In April 1917, the pope and Gasparri decided to have Eugenio Pacelli, a member of a family devoted to the papacy, present the outline of the papal peace proposal to the Germans. To assure he would get a proper hearing, the pope appointed Pacelli apostolic nuncio to Bavaria, whose residence was Munich, but at the same time also accredited him to the Imperial Court at Berlin.

On May 25, Pacelli reached Munich, where he received a quasi-royal reception, presenting his credentials to King Ludwig III (1845-1921) of Bavaria a few days later. Toward the end of June, Pacelli commenced his peacemaking mission when, accompanied by Cardinal Felix von Hartmann (1851-1919), he arrived in Berlin and settled in the nunciature in Briennerstrasse, opposite the building that Adolf Hitler later converted into his Brown House. Soon thereafter, Pacelli met with the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921), and discussed the necessary preconditions for a negotiated settlement as outlined by Pope Benedict.

Pope Benedict’s seven-point peace proposal called for: (1) a simultaneous and reciprocal decrease in armaments; (2) recourse to arbitration and an international court to resolve disputes rather than reliance on armies; (3) free exchange and liberty of the seas; (4) the reciprocal renunciation of war indemnities; (5) evacuation and restoration of all occupied territories; (6) the resolution of political and territorial claims between Italy and Austria and France and Germany to be determined in a spirit of equity and justice; and finally (7) a similar spirit of equity and justice to determine other territorial and political disputes and particularly those concerning Armenia, the Balkan states, and Poland.

Following the specific instructions Gasparri had dispatched to him on June 13, Pacelli planned to meet with the German emperor to assess whether he was willing to recognize the independence of Belgium and return Alsace-Lorraine to France. On June 29, Pacelli ventured to the kaiser’s military headquarters at Kreuzach with Lorenzo Schioppa (1871-1935), the chief political advisor at the Munich nunciature, to present the pope’s letter outlining the papal peace plan. The kaiser frowned as he read the papal proposal, and his remarks did little to reassure the nuncio. Wilhelm further disturbed Pacelli, who favored papal impartiality, by complaining that Benedict had failed to use his infallibility to condemn the “atrocities of the Allies.” On key issues, the kaiser proved evasive and questioned crucial aspects of the plan, including the future of Belgium as well as French claims on Alsace-Lorraine, jumping from one point to another in rapid succession. Finally, he shocked the sensitive nuncio by suggesting the positive consequences of Benedict dying a martyr’s death in the cause of peace. Later, the kaiser boasted that he had provided the inspiration for the papal peace note—an assertion that Pacelli felt constrained to contradict. Nonetheless, a good part of the political class in the Allied camp found it convenient to believe the kaiser’s contention—thereby providing another pretext for their rejection of the papal peace proposal.

Neither the Allies nor the Central Powers responded positively to the Vatican peace proposal, with both rejecting the notion of returning to the status quo antebellum. The Germans, who had defeated the Russians, were not prepared to sanction the peace without victory that the pope envisioned. Benedict was saddened to see the destructive conflict continue, and he was distressed by the issuance in November 1917 of the Balfour Declaration, which promised to create a Jewish state in Palestine, which he believed to be to the detriment of Catholic interests there.

Papal Reaction to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points

One positive development from the papal perspective was President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace proposal of January 1918, delivered after the United States had entered the war as a cobelligerent. Wilson’s program mirrored and appeared to elaborate upon Benedict’s earlier peace plan. It called for: (1) renunciation of secret diplomacy; (2) freedom of the seas; (3) removal of economic barriers between nations; (4) reduction of armaments; (5) impartial adjustment of colonial claims; (6) evacuation and restoration of Russian territory; (7) restoration of Belgian sovereignty; (8) evacuation of France and the return of Alsace-Lorraine; (9) redrawing of the Italian frontier along national lines; (10) autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary; (11) evacuation of Montenegro, Romania, and Serbia; (12) self-determination for the peoples of the Ottoman Empire and freedom of navigation through the Dardanelles; (13) establishment of an independent Poland with access to the sea; and finally (14) creation of an association of nations to govern international relations.

Benedict approved of Wilson’s Fourteen Points, seeing them as a refinement of the principles he had outlined six months earlier in his own peace plan. He was convinced that a peace without victory would work to assure the tranquility of the continent and the wellbeing of its people. Having from the beginning of his pontificate invoked a reorganization of international relations and a peaceful manner of resolving disputes, he wholeheartedly supported Wilson’s fourteenth point, which called for the creation of an association of nations to govern international relations. He also appreciated the American president’s insistence that provision for the proposed league be included in the various peace treaties: Versailles with Germany, Saint-Germain with Austria, Trianon with Hungary, and Neuilly with Bulgaria. The Vatican did have some reservations about the league’s structure, which the American president helped draft, including the division between the smaller states and the great powers, as well as the initial exclusion of the vanquished states. Despite these shortcomings, Benedict proved supportive of the projected league.

Early in January 1919, Benedict XV met with Woodrow Wilson, the first president of the United States to be received by a pontiff, and the two discussed prospects for peace and the need to construct a new basis for international relations. Like Wilson, Benedict favored a reorganization of such relations, noting the inability of the prevailing international anarchy to peacefully resolve conflicts. He had long adhered to this stance and as early as 1914 appealed to the nations of the world to find some other means of resolving differences and disputes. Deploring the violation of international law, Benedict believed this contributed to the carnage of the world war and sought a new code of conduct to assure a more tranquil future. Cardinal Gasparri, the pope’s chief advisor on foreign affairs, expressed similar sentiments, focusing on Benedict’s call for a new world order that included the suppression of compulsory military service and the constitution of a court of arbitration for the solution of international disputes, the prevention of infractions, and the establishment of boycott procedures.

Papal Reaction to the Peace Treaties

The response of the European Allies to the American peace proposal was far from positive, but they chose not to openly reject the Fourteen Points, for the Allies were increasingly dependent upon the Americans to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Instead, they subtly and gradually undermined Wilson’s program and the terms under which Germany had surrendered. As a result, Benedict had serious reservations about the treaties concluded at the Paris Peace Conference. The pope believed there would be neither peace nor stability unless there was a return to mutual charity and the banishment of enmity, and he hoped this would be reflected in the treaties. Consequently, he was disappointed by the terms imposed on the defeated Central Powers. Benedict, like the Germans, expected that the treaties would be based on Wilson’s points and was deeply disappointed when these provisions and promises were largely disregarded. Following the publication of the terms of the treaties, the Vatican had reservations about the war-guilt clause imposed on the vanquished, the reparations imposed, the exclusion of the defeated from the League of Nations, the attempt to put the kaiser on trial, and the territorial losses imposed on Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Benedict particularly decried the consequences for Catholic Austria, lamenting that this nation, which had valiantly defended Christian civilization over the centuries, had been reduced to a fragment of its former self, lacking the elements for a continued existence.

While the Vatican applauded the restoration of Catholic Poland and the creation of the League of Nations, its secretariat of state decried the fact that most of the other points upon which Germany had surrendered were violated during the peacemaking process, and found the treaty both unfair and counterproductive, observing that the Germans had real cause to complain. These sentiments were registered in the Jesuit periodical La Civiltà Cattolica, which branded the 440 “articles of peace” as “articles of war” and, like the pope, expressed pessimism about the preservation of the peace. These sentiments were shared by the Vatican’s journal, L’Osservatore Romano, which noted that the terms imposed on the defeated states, in violation of the terms of surrender, would create rancor and the call for revenge rather than provide for reconciliation and resolution. These predictions proved prophetic.