During the First World War, the influence of the Pope was significant, and as our country prepares for a Papal visit in April, it is interesting to remember papal influence during times of war, particularly in the context of the huge role played by Pope John Paul II during the cold war.

This excerpt from an excellent book, “Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War addresses papal influence during World War I, and the parallels to the current situation with Pope Benedict XVI are striking.

“The moral pronouncements of the pope [Pope Benedict XV], as the pre-eminent religious leader in Europe, were a universal currency worth having. All belligerents attempted to persuade him to abandon an institutional stance of studied impartiality…
The Central Powers had three representatives at the Vatican, from Austro-Hungary, Bavaria and Prussia, and German Catholics, then as now, were among the Vatican’s chief source of financial support, although they were already being eclipsed by America. Britain and France endeavoured to make up lost ground. Although France had broken off diplomatic relations in 1905, it quickly repositioned an unofficial envoy to the Vatican. The British returned an envoy to the Vatican in December 1914. Diplomatic relations were also repaired with the Netherlands and Switzerland, which with Spain and the US constituted a potentially important “league of neutrals”. Relations with the Tsar’s representative continued to be cool because of Russian policy in Catholic Poland. The Italian state quietly opened a back channel through one of Benedict’s closest friends.

“At various times the pope was accused of a bias towards the Central Powers, up to and including allowing an alleged German agent to operate in the Vatican, who was suspected of having helped sink two Italian battleships in their harbours, charges which had no basis in reality. All of the warring powers were incensed by the pope’s refusal to move beyond general condemnations of wartime atrocities and illegalities to the specifics of whatever outraged them. There was talk of the ‘Silence of Benedict XV’ long before graver charges were aimed at Eugenio Pacelli, his successor but one as Pius XII. In fact, Benedict did intervene to stop German deportations of Belgian civilians and to protest against the Turkish massacres of the Armenians; what he could not do, since all sides were flooding him with denunciations of their opponents, was to condemn this side or that. Evidence of atrocities built up in a series of coloured books, together with the perpetuators’ counter-accusations.” (pp. 457-458)