The Great War of 1914-1918 – which really lasted into the 1920s in Russia and the Balkans – ended almost every ancient certainty. For the Catholic Church, it had been an excruciating experience, a war that had amply demonstrated just how powerless she had become. When war broke out, the Church was being led by the aging and ill St. Pius X. His pontificate had been marked by a distinctly hostile attitude towards Modernism and relativism, and by a strong emphasis on the Eucharist and medieval Gregorian chant.
Relations with the secular governments of Europe were frequently tense. In 1905, France had indulged once more in one of its frequent bouts of anti-clericalism, and had expelled Catholic religious orders. Czarist Russia continued to suppress Catholics in its part of Poland, the Ukraine and Lithuania. In Portugal and Spain frequent outbursts of liberal anti-Catholicism threatened the Church in the Iberian Peninsula. Relations with Britain, the pre-eminent power of the period, remained tense over Ireland, whilst the Papacy also still refused to recognize Italy since it had occupied Rome in 1871.
The only true support for the Church came from Austria-Hungary, where the ancient Habsburg monarchy, embodied by the Emperor-King, Franz-Jozef, proved a stalwart friend of the Church. In Germany, the confrontation between Church and state, the so-called Kulturkampf, had been consigned to the past and relations were amicable. However, there were other undercurrents that worried St. Pius X. Radical socialism and Marxism were gaining ground all over the Continent, and anarchists had caused trouble on various occasions. The organization of Catholic workers had had a slow start, and St. Pius X was wary of any movement that included a non-Catholic element.
Underneath the placid surface of what in Britain is known as the Edwardian Age, then, there were plenty of worrying eddies for the head of the Catholic Church. A pronounced pacifist, St. Pius X went into a state of deep anxiety and depression when the war broke out. Like the Emperor, Franz-Josef, he seems to have had an instinctive awareness of what was about to follow. His successor, Pope Benedict XV, was no less clear: the war, he wrote, was “the suicide of civilized Europe”.
Determined to prevent the chalice being emptied altogether, he twice initiated peace efforts, the first time in 1916, and once more in 1917. Interestingly, on the Allied side Britain proved most favorable, whilst the Austro-Hungarians proved most receptive amongst the Central Powers. France saw any attempt at peace as anti-French, a sentiment shared in Italy, whilst in Germany it was the Protestant part of the country that rejected a “Popish Peace”. One cannot but help to reflect that all the protagonists regretted their intransigence at one point or another.
They ought to have regretted not inviting the Pope to the Versailles Conference, too. Pope Benedict XV warned from 1919 about the dangers of imposing impossibly large restitution payments on Germany, about the weakness of the successor states to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and about the totally secular ideals that underlay the League of Nations. From 1920, the Pope began to argue for a united Europe, and for a Continent-wide reconciliation. Few historians, blessed with the benefit of hindsight, would fail to realize the wisdom of Pope Benedict XV’s recipe for a peaceful Europe, just as all now recognize the folly of the Versailles Treaty, which, in effect, proved to be the starting shot for World War Two.
Perhaps the most worrying outcome from the war years from the perspective of the Church was the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Here, a regime had come to power whose hostility towards religion was dogmatic and total. The suffering of the Church in the new state was total, the persecution, heartless. To the deeply Marian Pope Benedict XV, the message from Fatima, which also emerged during the war years, must have resounded deeply. That the Soviets were to be feared was proven in 1920, when they launched an invasion of newly-independent Poland. Few believed the Poles able to beat their attackers, but, as if by a miracle, the Soviet army was halted outside Warsaw and decisively defeated.
The Church played an important role, for the victory took place on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and her priests and bishops had strengthened Polish resolve. However, as the later Pope, Pius XI, who was Nuncio in Warsaw at the time, witnessed, the Soviet army had targeted Catholic priests, churches, religious and the devout, all of whom were singled out for torture, murder and destruction.
There is a statue of Pope Benedict XV in the Vatican, which depicts the Pontiff, kneeling beside the tomb of an unknown soldier, praying for solace after what he called the “useless massacre”. The Pope knew that the forces that had unleashed the war were far from gone, and that others had joined them. Each papacy has a cross to bear, but few can have been as heavy as that of Pope Benedict XV. He clearly saw that the door of hell had been opened in 1914, and found himself powerless to close it again. Violent nationalism caused conflicts between Catholic Poland and Lithuania; overt secularism and communism were inflicting damage elsewhere.
In Italy, and increasingly in Germany, France, Spain and Portugal, too, extreme right-wing nationalism began to rear its head. In the Ottoman Empire, the Pope had had a taste of what that type of nationalism could achieve, armed with industrial military material: between 1915 and 1922, several million Armenians and other Christians, including thousands of Catholics, had been systematically massacred by ultra-nationalistic Turks. It was a harbinger of things to come.
One cannot but approach the history of the Catholic Church during the Second World War from this starting point, from the moment that Pope Benedict XV realized that his dreams for a peaceful Europe and for freedom for the Church were just that: dreams. He responded with a frankness that is almost painful to read. His encyclical Humani Generis Redemptionem, written at the depth of the crisis in 1917, sharply observes the re-emergence of paganism and of the primitive human urges of vengeance and violence, but blames this not on the times, but on the ineffectiveness of the Church to preach its message of love and redemption. It was a clarion call to the clergy to remember to concentrate on what truly mattered, but also to stay true to God’s word as contained within Scripture. It was a wise lesson for his two successors, Pius XI and Pius XII, which they would strive to implement.
Both Popes had to steer the Church through the tempest that was the Interbellum and the war years, responding to some of the most brutal men the world has ever seen in positions of absolute power. They would keep Pope Benedict XV’s words in mind, and try to steer on a compass set by the Gospels and Scripture. They would also recall another warning from Humani Generis Redemptionem, namely that the Church should not get involved in a popularity contest: if the Word was unwelcome, the Church should still preach it. Both men stayed true to this, too.
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.