Benedict XV, Pope
BENEDICT XV, POPE
Pontificate: Sept. 3, 1914, to Jan. 22, 1922; b. Giacomo Della Chiesa ("of the church"), Pegli, near Genoa, Italy, Nov. 21, 1854. His parents, the Marchese Giuseppe Della Chiesa and Giovanna Migliorati, were of the nobility, his mother related to Innocent VII (1404–06).
Early Life. As a child he was of delicate health and was first educated by tutors, his secondary schooling being at the Istituto Donavaro e Giusso. His father, insisting that even priests needed a profession in modern society, required him to delay his clerical studies, and he received a doctorate in civil law from the University of Genoa before going to Rome, where he resided at the Capranica College, studied at the Gregorian University, and was ordained Dec. 21, 1878. He subsequently received doctorates in theology and canon law.
He was small, stoop-shouldered, and very thin (dubbed "the midget" by some, even after he became pope), with the left side of his body higher than the right, and he limped. His personality was not prepossessing. Kindly, he nonetheless manifested occasional outbursts of temper of which he repented.
Papal Diplomat and Curialist. Teaching at the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici, he attracted the attention of Archbishop Mariano rampolla del tindaro, who had Della Chiesa appointed to the staff of the papal Secretariat of State. When Rampolla became nuncio to Spain (1882), Della Chiesa became his secretary. Besides their official diplomatic work, the two clerics organized relief programs and nursed the victims of a cholera epidemic.
In 1887 Rampolla was named secretary of state and cardinal, and Della Chiesa returned to Rome with his patron. In 1901 he was promoted to undersecretary. With the accession of Pius X (1903), Cardinal Rafael merry del val became secretary of state, replacing Rampolla, who had been denied the papal throne after his candidacy was vetoed by the Austro-Hungarian emperor. Della Chiesa remained as undersecretary, although considered a member of the Rampolla group in rivalry with Merry del Val.
Ordinarily Della Chiesa might have become nuncio to Spain in 1907, but Merry del Val apparently wanted him removed from the papal diplomatic service, and Della Chiesa was made archbishop of Bologna and consecrated by Pius X in the Sistine Chapel (Dec. 22, 1907).
Archbishop of Bologna. His exile from the Vatican probably aided the career of the future pope, giving him the pastoral experience usually considered necessary for the papal office. Bologna was in one of the more secular and anti-clerical districts of Italy, with a good deal of social turmoil. The new archbishop visited every Catholic institution in his see, some of the rural parishes being reachable only on horseback. His priorities included catechizing the laity and raising the spiritual level of the clergy, both of whom he found deficient.
The condemnation of Modernism by Pius X had given rise to a high degree of vigilance against heresy. Although impeccably orthodox, Della Chiesa defended some of his seminary professors against what he considered unwarranted suspicions.
Bologna had long been a cardinalitial see, but Pius X did not confer the red hat on its archbishop until May of 1914, the delay undoubtedly due to Merry del Val, who among other things considered Modernism to be a greater danger than Della Chiesa judged it to be.
Election as Pope. Pius X died three months after the archbishop of Bologna's elevation. Della Chiesa led on
each ballot in the conclave and was elected on the 10th (September 3). He probably took the name Benedict in memory of the last pope elected from the see of Bologna, Benedict XIV (1740–58). The coronation was held in the Sistine Chapel, because of the crisis of World War I.
Merry del Val had been Benedict's chief rival in the conclave and was now replaced as secretary of state and transferred to the Holy Office. Both German and Austrian cardinals had spoken against Della Chiesa before the election, accusing him of pro-French partisanship, but the chief issue was probably integralism, the militant orthodoxy which had led to what Benedict and others regarded as excessive zeal in searching for heretics.
The Search for Peace. From the beginning, the new pontificate was dominated by the pope's urgent attempts to end the war. Along with his sincere longing for peace, he was motivated by the need to avoid dangerous political shoals, as they affected the interests of the Church. Great Britain, Germany, and (later) the United States were predominantly Protestant countries, France and Italy anticlerical, Russia militantly Orthodox, and Ottoman Empire Muslim. Thus Vatican neutrality was dictated both by moral considerations and by the need to avoid becoming linked to the interests of any one country or to either of the two alliances. Austria alone was staunchly Catholic, and Benedict saw it as an essential buffer between Germany and Russia. However, he urged Austria to make territorial concessions to Italy, so as to keep Italy out of the war.
His formal peace proposal was made on Aug. 1,1917. Its main provisions were: (1) substitution of the "moral force of right" for military force, (2) reciprocal decrease in armaments, (3) arbitration of international disputes, (4) freedom of the seas, (5) renunciation of war indemnities, (6) restoration of all occupied territories, (7) examination "in a conciliatory spirit" of rival territorial claims.
While publicly the belligerents made evasive replies, in private their response was almost wholly negative. The Central Powers called Benedict "der französische Papst" and the Allies "le pape boche," and both sides treated his intervention as presumptuous. Pressed to condemn atrocities, he did so with a conscious effort to be non-partisan. The failure of the peace effort was the greatest disappointment of his pontificate.
The sincerity of Benedict's humanitarianism was demonstrated in his untiring efforts to relieve the sufferings of the war, personal charity being perhaps his most conspicuous virtue. He established an international missing-persons bureau, persuaded Switzerland to give refuge to soldiers suffering from tuberculosis, assigned priests to visit the wounded and prisoners, and established relief agencies. So generous was he in such activities that at his death the Holy See was virtually bankrupt.
The Peace. Benedict wanted to participate in the peace conference at the end of the war. However, the Allies, at the behest of Italy, had secretly agreed that the Holy See should be excluded, even though Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, the basis of the Versailles settlement, in many ways resembled Benedict's own plan. The pope deplored some aspects of the settlement, considering the reparations imposed on Germany too harsh and believing that the treaty contained the seeds of future wars. The Holy See was also excluded from the League of Nations, which Benedict thought would fail because it was not based on principles of justice. He was cool to nationalism, hence to Wilson's principle of "self-determination."
Postwar Diplomacy. Benedict remained diplomatically active until his death, activity which brought visible fruit in the fact that the number of countries represented at the Holy See rose from 14 to 26, with the Vatican now recognized as an important center of international intelligence.
Because of his dislike of nationalism he did not at first welcome Irish independence. He opposed the Balfour Declaration, which promised Jews a homeland in Palestine, fearing the major Jewish migration would threaten the status of Catholics in the Holy Land, even as he was fearful of Orthodox and Protestant influence there. He had some success in easing relations with France, the canonization of joan of arc (1920) contributing much to that improvement.
Cardinal Pietro gasparri, secretary of state, engaged in private discussions with Benito Mussolini, which helped prepare the way for the lateran pacts of 1929. Benedict cautiously supported the new Partito Populare Italiano, founded by the priest Luigi Sturzo, which for the first time gave Catholics a vehicle for participating in Italian electoral politics. The pope also supported women's suffrage, on the grounds that women would offset the influence of radicals.
Strongly anti-socialist, he was planning an encyclical on Communism which he never completed. However, instead of condemning the Soviet Union publicly he authorized negotiations with the Bolshevik government, hoping that the lot of Catholics would be easier under Communism than it had been under Orthodoxy.
Internal Church Matters. Although curbing what he considered anti-Modernist excesses, he reaffirmed Pius X's condemnations and in 1922 issued an encyclical, Spiritus paraclitus, warning against modern biblical criticism. He envisioned a universal Catholic catechism but was unable to take steps toward that goal during his brief pontificate. Although generally anti-Protestant, he gave cautious permission for the malines conversations between Anglicans and Catholics.
The codification of Canon Law begun under Pius X was completed by Gasparri, with Benedict's strong encouragement.
In 1917 the pope established the Sacred Congregation for the Oriental Church, with himself as prefect, his concern for Eastern Catholics having been one of his principal motives during the war and after. Maximum illud ("That Greatest Thing") (1919) signaled a change in missionary attitudes, especially in calling for the development of native clergy.
Death. Benedict's final illness lasted only a few days, the result of influenza which turned into pneumonia. The Holy See had to borrow money to pay for the funeral, the conclave, and the coronation of Pius XI.
Bibliography: j. f. pollard, The Unknown Pope (London 1999). a. rhodes, The Power of Rome in the Twentieth Century (New York 1983). f. j. coppa, The Modern Papacy since 1789 (New York 1998). m. c. carlen, Dictionary of Papal Pronouncements: Leo XIII to Pius XII, 1878–1957 (New York 1958). w. h. peters, The Life of Benedict XV (Milwaukee 1959). h. e. g. rope, Benedict XV (London 1940). f. a. macnutt, A Papal Chamberlain (London 1936). d. r. zivojinavic, The United States and Vatican Policy, 1914–1918 (Boulder 1978). g. rumi, Benedetto XV (Brescia 1990). c. falconi, The Popes in the Twentieth Century (London 1960). f. hayward, Un Pape Méconnu: Benoît XV (Tournai 1955).
"Benedict XV, Pope." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 18, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/benedict-xv-pope
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