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Chapter 40

Benedict XV
3 September 1914 — 22 January 1922


Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa, the Genoan aristocrat, had a somewhat checkered career in the church. His rise to prominence during the pontificate of Leo XIII was rapid. Had it not been for the Austrian veto against Leo’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Rampolla, there is little doubt that had Rampolla become pope, Benedict’s rise would have continued. He was Undersecretary of State to Cardinal Merry del Val. But the atmosphere of suspicion and internal spying which characterized the Papacy during Pius X’s era touched della Chiesa.

His vocal comparisons of the leadership of Leo XIII and Pius X, in which the latter was cast in an inferior mold, disquieted Pius X who, in 1907, evicted him from the Roman Curia and demoted him, assigning him as Archbishop of Bologna. That see, however, was of such a stature that its Archbishop could expect a rapid rise to the conferment of a cardinal’s hat. But Archbishop della Chiesa waited seven years and only received it in the same year he was elected pope. Born November 21, 1854, he was fifty-nine at the date of his election as pope.

Whether or not motivated by spite, emanating from his transfer out of the Curia to a diocese as an Archbishop, he dismissed Cardinal Merry del Val as Secretary of State and appointed Cardinal Pietro Gasparri who fifteen years later was to have the honor of signing the Lateran Treaty which restored sovereignty to the Vatican on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.

One matter which served the Church well was his dismantling of the Sodalitium Pianum (Solidarity of Pius), the spy network which Pius X had established and fostered. It breathed fresh air into the Papacy. Pius X had placed Umberto Benigni as his spy chief. He worked in the mornings in the Department of Extraordinary Affairs, while in the afternoon and at weekends he led the espionage work from his private apartment. His agents avidly reported on the activities of modernists and Benigni used this intelligence-gathering to destroy the careers of those thought to be holding views contrary to those of Pius. Having a media background he harnessed the press to promote his anti-modernist campaign.

Benedict XV promptly dismissed Benigni upon his acceptance of the Bishopric of the See of Rome. Benigni must have been a man of unusual skills in the art of espionage, for the future Fascist Dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini, was only too happy to acquire his services in this area of expertise. He was no doubt suited to the task, for he had publicly denounced cardinals, including the archbishops of Paris and Vienna, and he was particularly harsh in his denunciations of theologians and Roman Catholic academics whose views were deemed to be of the modernist variety.

While Benedict had scope for a far greater revolution in Vatican affairs, he declined to pursue other needed change. In fact he continued the requirement of the Anti-Modernist Oath for the priests. There was no relaxation of the right of the Papacy to censor the writings of the clerics, if judged appropriate, and he supported the completion of the reorganized canon law which greatly enhanced his own position as the final arbiter of faith and morals.

As had become a tradition of Papal policy, Benedict attempted to take a noncommittal stand during the First World War. Once more it was an unpopular "neutrality." The Axis powers accused him of being pro-Allies. The Allies, on the other hand, viewed him as partial to the Axis cause.

Benedict XV failed utterly as a peacemaker in the Great War, largely due to the fact that neither set of belligerents trusted him and that, in any case, the thirst for victory was so great that the nations in conflict were prepared to waste the lives of the young manhood of the nation in order to pursue their lust for victory. Russell once met the niece of the British Commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, whose statue astride a horse was erected in Whitehall. He had been created an Earl of the realm for the ultimate success of the Allied cause. His niece was, quite understandably, enormously proud of her uncle. Yet like other war-time leaders he appeared to take little care in minimizing casualties. Benedict’s peacemaking was delayed to 1917 and it came too late. He was excluded from the deliberations of the Treaty of Versailles and his efforts to encourage American President Woodrow Wilson to set reasonable terms for Germany utterly failed.

De Rosa (Vicars of Christ, p. 376) described Benedict as an intellectual lightweight who "did little to help the church face up to the modern world." What he did do was to prove more satisfying to the modernists amongst the Catholic intellectuals. When the Roman Catholic Abbé Bremond was inducted into the Académie Française in 1924 he stated that he had lived under four pointiffs—Pius IX, Leo XIII, Benedict XV and Pius XI. His omission of Pius X from his list was undoubtedly an intended slight to the deceased pope. By this omission he intended to silently register his distaste for Pius X’s Sodalitium Pianum which condemned and effectively punished the propagation of a new theology in the Roman Catholic Church. Bremond’s inclusion of Benedict XV in his list indicated a level of appreciation of his greater range of tolerance.

In his relatively brief pontificate, more than half of which coincided with the Great War, Benedict was ever fearful of Russia with its hordes of Eastern Orthodox adherents. He decided to do nothing which would extend Russian influence. Since Russia, until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was an ally of Britain and France, Benedict was wary of promoting the Allied cause. However, he was not devoid of ecumenical ambitions. In 1919 he warmly welcomed Eastern Rite Catholics, loyal to the Pope, in the hope that this would encourage Eastern Orthodox followers to return to communion with Rome. With this aim in mind he supported Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki, Metropolitan of Galicia, a Pole of the Eastern Rite Roman Catholic Church, who was opposed by Latin Rite Catholics in Poland. Similarly motivated he founded the Pontifical Institute for Oriental Studies in 1917.

Perhaps it was this limited venture into ecumenism, which was later to have success beyond his immediate ambitions, that contributed just a little to the healing of the deadly wound. In fact, unlike his seven predecessors since the infliction of the deadly wound, Benedict contributed little to the return of the Papacy to its prophesied role. Perhaps the least that can be stated is that he did not, as had some, foster circumstances which seriously set back the healing process.

Benedict XV’s untimely death at sixty-seven years of age was the result of infection by the influenza virus which caused twenty million deaths worldwide.


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