The Significance of Pope Benedict XV

News Abroad

Mr. Fleming is the author of The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I. His latest book, from which this article was drawn, is Mysteries of My Father. He is a member of the corporate board of HNN.

Direct Textbooks Textbook resource center

I'm puzzled that so little is being said in the media about the historical significance of Cardinal Ratzinger's choice of Benedict XVI as his papal name. As a German, I think we can be fairly sure he is trying to remind the world of the tragic story of his predecessor, and how close he came to bringing World War I to an early conclusion. The story has specical significance for Americans.

In the spring of 1917, Pope Benedict XV called on the warring governments to make a peace of mutual forgiveness and forbearance. As a starting point, the Pontiff proposed the restoration of Belgium, disarmament, arbitration machinery to prevent future wars, and freedom of the seas for all nations.

To the Americans, the timing of the Pope's message seemed almost devilishly unpropitious. In Stockholm, international socialists had convened a peace conference to appeal over the heads of the warring rulers to the workers of the world. In Petrograd, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian revolution had already called for peace on the basis of no annexations and self determination for all peoples, and bullied the so called Provisional Government of Russia into going along with them.

The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians promptly accepted the Pope's proposal, although Berlin avoided specific commitments. The provisional Russian government also welcomed the papal mediation. The leaders of France and Italy, with largely Catholic, extremely war weary populations, were transfixed with alarm. They wanted a fight to the finish but they hesitated to take issue with the Pope. The English, even more determined to go for what Prime Minister Lloyd George called "a knockout blow," decided to let Wilson answer for all of them.

At first the president was inclined to say nothing. He seemed angry at the Pope's intrusion into the war. However, as the impact of the pontiff's appeal grew larger, Wilson decided he had to reply. The Pope was saying many of the same things Wilson had said before he opted for war. Now, as British ambassador Cecil Spring-Rice wryly pointed out, the president was doing "his utmost to kindle a warlike spirit throughout [the] states and to combat pacifists." No wonder the pope's appeal gave him indigestion.1

Colonel House strongly seconded this presidential decision -- and warned Wilson not to dismiss the Pope's proposals out of hand in his reply. The new Russian ambassador in Washington had informed House that alarming splits were appearing in the revolutionary government, with the call for immediate peace one of the chief issues. A dismissal could lead to the overthrow of Russia's moderate leader, Alexander Kerensky.

House also revealed that the Pope's proposal had evoked a sympathetic response in him. The colonel wondered if it would be a good thing in the long run if "Germany was beaten to her knees." That might leave a vacuum in central Europe which the Russians would be eager to fill. Before the declaration of war, Wilson had agreed with this balance of power viewpoint. It was the idea behind his appeal for a peace without victory.2

Secretary of State Lansing sent Wilson an acrid memorandum, in which he opined that the Pope was working with the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians to create a push for peace while the Allies were winning the war on land and the submarine campaign "appears successful." His Germanophobia becoming more visible with every line, Lansing argued that the Pope's proposals would depend on "the good faith of the powers" who signed such a peace treaty. But there could not be "two opinions" of the good faith of the German government. "The German rulers cannot be trusted." 3

The Secretary of State reminded Wilson of the invasion of Belgium, the mistreatment of the civilian population, the way the Germans "broke their word" about submarine warfare. Lansing even saw the Russian call for peace as the product of German intrigue. The Vatican's -- and Berlin's -- goal, Lansing concluded, was to "break up the alliance and avoid paying the penalty for the evil they have wrought."4

Wilson toiled long and hard on his reply, conferring repeatedly with Colonel House, at one point sending him a proposed draft. Issued on August 27, the president's statement began on an affirmative note: "Every heart that has not been blinded and hardened by this terrible war must be touched by this moving appeal of His Holiness the Pope." But how could any of the pontiff's noble goals be reached by agreement with the present German government? Wilson now condensed Lansing's Germanophobia into one long raging sentence. "The object of this war," he wrote "is to deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government, which, having secretly planned to dominate the world, proceeded to carry the plan out without regard either to the sacred obligation of treaty or the long established practices and long cherished principles of international action and honor, which chose its own time for the war, delivered its blow fiercely and suddenly, stopped at no barrier either of law or mercy, swept a whole continent within the tide of blood, not the blood of soldiers only, but the blood of innocent women and children and also of the helpless poor, and now stands balked but not defeated, the enemy of four fifths of the world."

Wilson next shifted to House's favorite tactic -- denying that the German people were responsible for their government. "This power is not the German people. It is the ruthless master of the German people." Then he was back to his new iron-leader mode. "It is no business of ours how that great people came under its control or submitted with temporary zest to the domination of its purpose; but it is our business to see to it that the history of the rest of the world is no longer left to its handling."

In a gesture to the Russians, Wilson argued that if the Allies accepted peace now, there would be a need for a perpetual military alliance to protect Russia from the "manifold subtle interruptions, and the certain counter-revolution which would be attempted by the malign influence to which the German Government has of late accustomed the world."5

When it came to demonizing Germany, Wilson the war leader needed no lessons from Wellington House. Ignoring the indubitable fact that the president seemed determined not merely to beat Germany to its knees but to knock it flat, Colonel House told Wilson his artful mixture of hate and idealism was a "charter of democratic liberty." George Foster Peabody, an aide to Secretary of War Baker, said the reply convinced him that God had sent America "the Master Mind of the World in this crisis."6

While Wilson was solemnly assuring everyone that he was determined to protect Russian democracy from German autocracy, America's chief ally, Great Britain, was telling the new commander of the Russian Army, General Lavr Kornilov, something else. Kornilov despised Alexander Kerensky only slightly less than he detested the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilych Lenin. London urged the general to march on Petrograd and restored order at the point of a gun. When Kornilov and his men headed for the Russian capital, the British cabinet hailed his move by declaring the would-be dictator "represented all that was sound and hopeful in Russia."7

1 . Gardner, Safe For Democracy, 143

2 . Ibid, 144

3 . Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol 44, 20. Gardner, Safe For Democracy, 143,

4 . Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 44, 21-22

5 . Ibid, 57-58

6 . Ibid, 83

7 . Gardner, Safe For Democracy, 146

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Greg Jaxon - 4/28/2005

In terms of auguring the future, both referents are
ominous: A pope unable to halt mass slaughter, and
a saint who found a route for the church to survive
the fall of the Roman Empire.

Sensum Fidelium - 4/28/2005

People of all persuasions are welcomed and encouraged to sign.

Robert H. Holden - 4/28/2005

Thanks Tom; I should have known better than to try to explain what I think he was thinking.

Anyway, he did go on to say, in the very next paragraph of his talk:

"The name Benedict evokes, moreover, the extraordinary figure of the great "patriarch of Western monasticism," St. Benedict of Nursia, co-patron of Europe together with Saints Cyril and Methodius. The gradual expansion of the Benedictine Order founded by him has had an enormous influence on the spread of Christianity on the whole Continent. Because of this, St. Benedict is much venerated in Germany and, in particular, in Bavaria, my native land. He constitutes a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a strong reminder of the inalienable Christian roots of its culture and its civilization."

But it does surprise me that he says he chose the name primarily because of Benedict XV and not primarily because of St. Benedict. He evidently wants to emphasize an aspect of the Petrine ministry that few would have predicted: that of reconciler and peacemaker. Not that I would have expected him to urge belligerence; Ratzinger-as-reconciler just hasn't seemed to match his much more prominent emphasis in recent years on European re-evangelization.

Tom Woods - 4/28/2005

As the Pope said in his recent homily, "I chose to call myself Benedict XVI ideally as a link to the venerated Pontiff, Benedict XV, who guided the Church through the turbulent times of the First World War. He was a true and courageous prophet of peace who struggled strenuously and bravely, first to avoid the drama of war and then to limit its terrible consequences. In his footsteps I place my ministry, in the service of reconciliation and harmony between peoples, profoundly convinced that the great good of peace is above all a gift of God, a fragile and precious gift to be invoked, safeguarded and constructed, day after day and with everyone's contribution."

Judy A Comer-Schultz - 4/27/2005

My undergraduate American history survey students at Arizona State University were interested in the name choice and were fascinated to the possible tie-in to WW1 and the Pope who first proposed the Christmas Truce. Regardless of their own religious beliefs or lack thereof, they also found it intriguing that Benedict XV, like John Paul II and the new Pope, had special interest in Mary & just days after offering prayers to her, the appearance at Fatima occurred. Coincidence, Divine inspiration or just irrelevant...well, I had to let my students make those decisions in their own personal ways. But their curiosity about a name you don't hear too often anymore was at least satisfied.

We had this little foray into the Papal name choice the day after the Cardinals revealed their choice, so while media may be slow or not interested, my Freshmen certainly were and it allowed a review of WWI and early 20th Century foreign policy and politics just in time for Finals next week.

Theo Schulte - 4/25/2005

Interested parties should read the biography by
Dr John Pollard of Trinity Hall, Cambridge

The Unknown Pope: Benedict XV and the Pursuit of Peace
(Published by Geoffrey Chapman, 1999)

If you are in Cambridge (England) on Tuesday 26th April,
Dr Pollard is giving a paper entitled:
'Benedict XVI: what's in a name'

hosted by the Political Studies Department
East Road

17.00 onwards Room Helmore 302

20th Century European History & Politics

Robert H. Holden - 4/25/2005

Unlike Mr. Fleming, I think far too much is being made of a possible link to Benedict XV. It seems obvious, given Joseph Ratzinger's constant appeals to Europeans to recall and honor their Christian roots, that he calling to mind St. Benedict (480-547), the founder of Western monasticism who launched the evangelization of Europe -- just as Ratzinger himself and his predecessor John Paul II have repeatedly called for a "New Evangelization." There is more at