From the editor's desk
31 July 2014
Churches must take a share of the blame
Church services are being held all over Europe to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. For instance, each of the Catholic bishops of England and Wales has pledged himself to say a Requiem Mass for the souls of the departed and for peace, to mark this and other key anniversaries of the four-year conflict. It took a toll of somewhere upwards of eight million human lives, and this enormous figure largely explains the very ambivalent public feelings about it today.
There is nothing ambivalent about the leadership shown by the Catholic bishops of Germany, however, who have issued a statement explicitly admitting the Churches’ guilt in fostering the climate of warmongering which made the war inevitable. What an achievement it would have been for truth, peace and goodwill, if Britain’s Catholics, through their bishops, had joined in such an admission. Cardinal Francis Bourne of Westminster was by no means the only English Catholic leader prepared to stoke up public opinion, contemptuously ignoring the leadership of Pope Benedict XV who made repeated appeals for peace. Maybe the Church of England bears the greater burden of blame. The Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, declared at the outset: “this is a Holy War: we are on the side of Christianity against anti-Christ … ” But the great majority of British Catholics, and their bishops, went along with the current.
What drove the Pope was the conviction that, whatever the circumstances of the war’s beginning, the way it was being conducted was morally indefensible. Whether or not there was just cause for going to war – the test in Catholic doctrine called jus ad bellum – the extent of the slaughter failed the test of jus in bello – how the war was actually fought. He was revolted by the sight of millions being treated as mere cannon fodder, an extent of human suffering and carnage which was grossly disproportionate to any progress likely to be made in the name of justice. History judges him to have been exactly right.
Generals on both sides ordered their troops “over the top” into battle knowing casualties were likely to be in tens or hundreds of thousands. But they only did so because their governments allowed them to, and governments were riding on a tide of public opinion that the Christian Churches, on both sides, had helped to shape. That is a cause for profound repentance, as the German bishops have acknowledged and the English and Welsh bishops, so far, have not.
Cardinal Bourne was strongly influenced by German aggression against neutral Belgium, the casus belli where Britain was concerned, and even at a distance of 100 years, critics of the war have offered no convincing alternative. But the moral minefield was already sown. War as “diplomacy by other means” was a widely accepted doctrine, rather than, as just war principles required, a last resort, and only where there was a reasonable prospect of ensuring a more just outcome than was achievable by any other means. Thanks to the bellicose state into which public opinion had been whipped, by 4 August 1914 “other means” were no longer available.
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