Bringing the Great War Home


Convivium, 16 November 2018

A 1917 speech at Queen’s university disparaging Pope Benedict XV as a puppet of the Kaiser angered Catholic students so much it led to creation of the Newman House on campus

Last week I wrote – in advance of the centenary of the armistice at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – about the century-long consequences of the Great War for politics and culture, including the place of faith in our common life.

The commemorations last Sunday in France were understandably light on drawing out those conclusions, as commemorations of the war dead are not suitable occasions for a critical evaluation of the war’s prosecution. I was struck this week by a column from Convivium friend George Weigel, who wrote in First Things about those consequences:

The Great War also deepened and intensified the secularization of the West, as one religious leader after another joined the parade of homicidal nationalists, jingoes, and social Darwinists whose bombastic appeals to base (and often racist) emotions helped preclude a negotiated settlement before the collapse of Romanov Russia and the exhaustion of imperial Germany made the Armistice inevitable.

One notable exception to this massive default in religious leadership was Pope Benedict XV, the most understudied and underrated pontiff of the twentieth century. Had he been listened to by the great powers of the day, things might have been different. But Benedict was dismissed as an irrelevance, the carnage continued, and the question posed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 35 years ago—Did World War I terminally sap the strength of Europe?—remains an open one today.

In terms of how the Great War changed everything, the reference to Pope Benedict XV prompted for me a more local reflection. Not about what happened on the global stage, or at the war front, but about what happened here at literally on the home front for Catholic students at Queen’s University. The great tapestry of history is woven from the threads of thousands of such stories.

On the eve of the war, the first Catholic chaplaincy for students – in a very Protestant Ontario – was formed at the University of Toronto. Queen’s Catholics, given their rivalry with U of T, did not want to be left behind, but nothing materialized since they considered their numbers to be too small. Queen’s then was less than 2000 students, of which Catholics would have been only a small fraction.

Matters changed, though, in 1917, when war politics came to campus. At the spring convocation, the honorary degree was awarded to a visitor from England, then engaged in war against Germany with her Canadian allies. (Our records do not recall his name – perhaps for the best.)

In his survey of the wartime scene, the convocation address got around to Pope Benedict XV’s earnest and urgent peace initiatives. To say that they were ignored in the chancelleries of Europe would be to understate the case; they were disdained. Queens’ convocation speaker had disdain for the man who made them too.

“All the Kaiser has to do is press a button on his desk and his jack-in-the-box in the Vatican jumps up and yells 'peace,'” he said.

This did not sit well with the Catholic students, who thought that a) Benedict XV was not the Kaiser’s puppet, an b) whatever one’s views of the papal peace initiatives, disparagement of the Holy Father was rather out of place at convocation.

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