With his limitations, forgotten Benedict was a good pope
By GARY MacEOIN
We have had nine popes in this century, and every one except Giacomo Della Chiesa (Benedict XV) -- even John Paul I whose pontificate lasted only 33 days -- is well represented in books in print. Before the present work there were only two short-lived biographies of Benedict XV in English, one in 1940, the other in 1959. Benedict deserved better, if only for his reversal of the crusade against Modernism conducted by his predecessor.
Born into an old Italian family, the future pope studied in prestigious Roman universities, including the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics. In 1881 he graduated to the Roman curia where Cardinal Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, who in 1887 became Leo XIIIs secretary of state, took him under his wing. At the conclave following Leos death in 1903, Rampolla was the strongest candidate until the Austro-Hungarian emperor interposed his veto, ensuring the election of Giuseppe Sarto as Pius X. This affected Della Chiesas future negatively in the short run but in the end worked to his benefit.
Church historian and longtime NCR Vatican correspondent Peter Hebblethwaite, in his biography of Pope John XXIII, identified Della Chiesa as one of the first victims of the crusade against Modernism, this synthesis of all heresies, as Pius X called his never clearly defined enemy. All the efforts of theologians, biblical scholars and church historians to use modern scientific methods in their work were anathema to him. In his zeal he purged seminaries, theological faculties and the priesthood, imposing an anti-Modernist oath on all clergy.
Della Chiesa was no Modernist. But he had become an outsider in the curia when Cardinal Merry Del Val replaced Rampolla as secretary of state. Della Chiesa was removed from the center of power by being named archbishop of Bologna in 1907.
Ironically, Bologna gave him the pastoral experience that made him a candidate for the papacy when Pius died in 1914. The curial cardinals wanted a pope who would continue the inquisitorial policies of Pius. Residential cardinals had seen for themselves the harm this policy had done in their dioceses. It was a bitter fight, taking 17 ballots for Della Chiesa to reach the necessary two-thirds. Even then the curialists did not yield gracefully. They insisted on having Della Chiesas ballot examined to ensure that he had not voted for himself.
In Bologna Della Chiesa had made clear his dislike of the anti-Modernist witch hunt, and as pope, he did not disappoint his electors. He quickly removed the anti-Modernist leaders from their positions of influence. In his first encyclical -- Ad Beatissimi -- he laid down a set of guidelines that were very different from those Pius had used to judge orthodoxy. In matters about which the Holy See has not given a decision, and in which, without injury to the faith and ecclesiastical discipline, there may be differences of opinion, each may lawfully defend his own. In such disputes there must be no offensive language, for this may lead to grave breaches of charity.
Benedicts eight-year reign was marked by the cataclysm of World War I, the establishment of communism in Russia, and the Versailles Peace Treaty, which contained the seeds of yet another world conflagration. All of these were issues of extreme importance to the Catholic church. And Benedict spared no effort to influence them in the direction he believed best served the churchs needs.
His success was limited. His appeals to prevent the outbreak of war went unheard, and his various efforts to end it were ignored by the belligerents. His greatest success was in helping prisoners of war, arranging exchanges of prisoners, creating lines of communication between prisoners and their families. A bureau in the Vatican created in 1915 dealt with 600,000 items of correspondence, including 170,000 inquiries about missing persons, 40,000 appeals for help to repatriate sick prisoners of war, and the forwarding of 50,000 letters to and from prisoners and their families.
The Allied blockade caused widespread hunger, and Benedict spent beyond his resources to alleviate it. He played a major role in raising funds internationally to relieve the famine in Russia in 1921. Thanks to his intervention, an obscure appeal by two English women for funds for the starving children of Austria and Hungary became a world movement whose activities still continue, the Save the Children Fund.
The tone of this biography is unnecessarily defensive. Benedict was a typical ecclesiastical bureaucrat of his day. He was obsessed by the idea that his primary job was to restore the temporal power of the papacy. He worried that the war would destroy the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire and increase the influence of Protestant Germany. He was horrified that Russia might occupy Constantinople, reconvert Santa Sophia from a mosque to a cathedral and place Orthodoxy on a level with Rome. Better, he thought, to leave it to the infidels.
Benedict was not John XXIII. He saw his role as defending the church as institution rather than as placing the institution at the service of humanity. But he was a good pope with all his limitations, which included a short temper. That is already a lot to expect from the head of any major institution. Not every pope can be a John XXIII. We are in good shape if we have one every century.
Gary MacEoins e-mail is email@example.com
National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999