1890-1914 History of Italy 1918-1922

Papacy, 1914-1918

On June 28th 1914 Austria-Hungary's heir apparent, Franz-Ferdinand, had been assassinated in Sarajevo. Early in August World War I broke out in a quick escalation of events. Pope Pius X. died on August 4th, his successor, BENEDICT XV. (1914-1922, Giacomo Marchese della Chiesa, archbishop of Bologna) was elected on September 4th.
World War I differed from previous wars in many aspects. It was not merely a war fought by dynasties for territorial claims, it was a war fought by nations, the question for the war aims, be it disputes over colonies, over certain European territories, revenge or else, being less discussed than the question of responsibility for the war. War propaganda became an essential element of warfare.
Traditionally the papacy, because it being recognized by Catholics all over Europe, felt obliged to follow a course of neutrality. Benedict XV. continued in this policy.

Catholic Belgium clearly was a victim of World War I, a country which had stuck to the obligations of her neutral status, which was invaded by Germany in order to force transit to northern France. In Belgium herself, Cardinal Mercier became the spokesman for a nation which suffered military occupation. Another victim was Catholic Poland - a nation which, as a single political entity, had been eliminated by the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, 1795 and the Vienna Congress of 1815. The various Polish territories, within Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Russian Empire, became battleground. When the Russians were forced to withdraw from Russian Poland in the course of 1915, they pursued the Scorched Earth Policy, thus causing a severe food shortage among the Polish population which now came under the occupation of the Central Powers.
Entente propaganda described the Central Powers as solely responsible for the war and attempted to describe the war as a conflict between free democracies and authoritarian empires. The Entente Powers realized the political importance of the Papacy. Britain and the (neutral) Netherlands established diplomatic relations with the papacy in 1914; France, which had cut diplomatic relations in 1905, used the services of the British embassy.
Early in 1915, when it became apparent that Italy was to enter the war, Benedict XV. attempted to mediate between Italy and Austria-Hungary (both Catholic states); the nuncio charged with the talks was Eugenio Pacelli, future Pope Pius XII. (1939-1958). The talks remained without visible result; Italy declared war on May 23rd 1915. On Dec. 12th 1916, at the request of the Central Powers, Pope Benedict XV. conveyed their peace offer. In June/July 1917, Pope Benedict XV. started a peace initiative of his own, again nuncio Eugenio Pacelli being charged with diplomatic talks in Berlin and Vienna. On August 1st 1917, a papal note calling for peace was published. As the conditions for such a peace he listed withdrawal of military forces from occupied territories, the reestablishment of a Polish State, consideration of the Balkan States and the christian Armenians, controlled disarmament and, among the belligerent nations, complete mutual renunciation of war damage claims. Neither side was willing to accept these conditions.
Pope Benedict was unaware that in the secret Treaty of London of April 26th 1915, any participation of the pope in future peace negotiations had been excluded, on Italy's insistence. Pope Benedict XV. had stuck to a neutral course throughout the war; diplomatic efforts on his side had been without success; yet papal commentaries on the suffering of innocent victims of the war, especially the Belgians and Poles were taken note of by both sides of the war. The papal suggestion to exchange wounded prisoners of war or to send them for treatment into neutral countries, while the war was still going on, was accepted.

In 1917 the revised Code of Canonic Law was published.

Biography of Benedict XV., from Popes through the Ages, from Vatican
DOCUMENTS Aug. 1st 1917 : Pope Benedict's Peace Proposal, from World War I Document Archive
Encyclicals of Benedict XV., from Vatican
Treaty of London, Apr. 26th 1915, extracts, from World War I Document Archive
REFERENCE Book Reviews : Papal State, from History Book Reviews

Franz Xaver Seppelt, Georg Schwaiger, Geschichte der Päpste (History of the Popes), München : Kösel 1964, 572 pp., in German [G]
Article : Roman Catholic Church, in : New International Year Book 1916 pp.602-603, 1918 pp.552-553 [G]
Article : War of the Nations : The Diplomacy of the War, in : New International Year Book 1916 pp.780-785 [G]
Entry : Rome, See and Church of, in : Statesman's Year Book 1918 pp.1191-1196 [G]

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on September 1st 2002, last revised on September 14th 2008

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