Among the millions of largely inane words which Benedict XVI - formerly Cardinal Ratzinger - has already inspired from mainstream media commentators, quite the most ludicrous have been assertions that he will rule as a so-called hard-line conservative.
It goes without saying that the new Pope will uphold the Church's traditional teachings as he strove to do when Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. In that sense political terminology becomes irrelevant since he was and will be merely exercising a Catholic leadership, as is his duty.
On the other hand, examining the new Pope's choice of name is possibly a more illuminating exercise since, in calling himself Benedict XVI, he has deliberately evoked a Vicar of Christ whose opposition to unjust wars he himself reaffirms.
Cardinal Giacomo Della Chiesa, reigning as Benedict XV from 1914 till 1922, remains even more obscure now than he had been as a prince of the Church. (Baltimore's Cardinal Gibbons, on learning that Della Chiesa had been elected pontiff, asked simply "Who's he?").
His very physique told against him. Small, lame, bashful, short-sighted, hard of hearing, and - partly thanks to that last handicap - afflicted with a harsh rasping voice, he never seemed an obvious leader. A 1907 photograph of him near St Pius X shows the latter still standing ramrod-straight and his eventual successor already bordering on invalidism.
Moreover, dying when only 67 (an age when most popes have scarcely begun their work), Benedict XV provoked as little official reverence after his passing as he had done before it. An obituary in Italy's Socialist journal Avanti on 24 January 1922 snarled: "cold, mediocre, obstinate - tomorrow history will have forgotten him."
Yet if he had achieved nothing else, he would deserve posterity's thanks for his tireless initiatives to end the Great War. Happily these initiatives have been described in several well-researched English- language books, notably Walter F. Peters's Life of Benedict XV (1959), and John Pollard's The Unknown Pope (1999).
The saintly Pius X died within three weeks - and as a direct consequence - of war's outbreak; for once, that trite phrase "a broken heart" fits the facts. Benedict always cherished Pius's memory with filial, rather than merely dutiful, care. In his very first public exhortation he echoed his predecessor's grief over Europe's rage for battle, trenchantly urging its politicians "to be satisfied with the ruin already wrought."
His first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi (November 1914), sounded and developed the same theme. No lavender-water sentimentalist, he laid specific blame for the conflict's eruption and continuation: on a humanitarianism severed from the Gospel and turned into "race hatreds" (by which Benedict meant chauvinism rather than biological determinism); on contempt for legitimate authority; on class war; and on simple greed, inflamed by "godless schools" and "an unscrupulous press continually playing upon the inexperienced minds of the multitude."
Rejecting allegations of being neutral - for neutrality implies indifferentism - the Pope called himself impartial: a significant verbal nuance. Was he accurate?
Many leaders, Catholic as well as anti-Catholic, doubted it. England's Cardinal Gasquet complained of abundant pro-German attitudes in Vatican circles. Parochialism perhaps blinded Gasquet to the sound reasons for Vatican indulgence towards the main Central Powers, one of them an ancient Catholic monarchy, the other at least tolerant of Catholics ever since Bismarck had abandoned his Kulturkampf.
By contrast, the French and Italian administrations (whatever their portfolio changes) retained anti-Catholicism as their first principle. Robert Speaight, Belloc's biographer, gently observed: "Neither the Masonic governments of France and Italy, nor the Liberal Government [in Britain] É gave much ground for hoping that the rights of Catholic populations would be respected."
Belloc himself visited St Peter's in mid-1916 and felt surprised at his esteem for its incumbent: "I had a long, long talk with him. He is a thoroughly good man, which is not what I had been led to expect! I had thought to see one of those É bureaucrats. Instead of that he has something like holiness in his expression and an intense anxious sincerity."
Few at home shared Belloc's enthusiasm, especially after Benedict's displeasure at the notorious Balfour Declaration, which he clairvoyantly predicted would turn the Middle East's Christians into helots or worse.
Meanwhile the French Prime Minister Clemenceau condemned Benedict as "le pape Boche", while the German General Ludendorff condemned him as "the French Pope". Such loathing from both sides indicates by itself that the Holy Father was doing something right.
Incidentally Benedict eschewed pacifism. A pacifist pope would never have canonised - as Benedict later canonised - Joan of Arc. Along with abominating the conflagration's bloodiness (which he publicly feared would wipe out all Europe's young men), he abominated its failure to meet just-war criteria.
Benedict found his most skilled and unscrupulous opponent in Italy's indestructible Foreign Minister (and Freemason), Sidney Sonnino, who held the real power whoever undertook the Prime Minister's role, and whose anti-papal virulence astonished even his colleague V. E. Orlando.
Historian Thomas Nelson Page, in Italy and the World War (1920), credits Sonnino with having "stood for fighting the war through to the end." Like most warmongers Sonnino had never himself seen a single day's military action.
Unabashed by his combat inexperience, Sonnino ended Italy's neutralism through the secret 1915 Treaty of London, into which he successfully demanded that the following words be shoehorned: "France, Great Britain and Russia shall support any such opposition as Italy shall make to any proposal in the direction of introducing a representative of the Holy See in any peace negotiations or negotiations for the settlement of questions raised by the war." Sonnino's supporters derided "Benedetto" - the Italian form of the pope's name - as "Maledetto [cursed]".
They thought all their birthdays had come at once in early 1917, with the disgrace of Benedict's trusted German chamberlain: Monsignor Rudolf Gerlach, accused of being in the Central Powers' pay. Strangeness still surrounds the whole affair. That Gerlach lied shockingly (not least to Benedict), and maintained secret contacts with German diplomats in Switzerland, is sure; that he committed actual espionage is less so.
Far from lusting to put Gerlach on trial, Italian officials escorted him to the Swiss border: an odd proceeding if he really had been guilty, or at any rate if his services to Berlin and Vienna had outweighed his services to Sonnino's cronies.
Eventually Gerlach - fortunate, whatever his actual deeds, to escape the firing squad - abandoned Catholicism altogether and turned up in England, where he died shortly after World War II.
The resultant calumnies humiliated Benedict, but did not sway him. He toiled without cease to have prisoners exchanged and, wherever possible, freed. Between January 1916 and November 1917, the "Pope's train" transported, to northern Italy's healthy mountain climate, a total of 964 English soldiers, 1,822 Belgian, 8,594 German, and 12,376 French: all tubercular.
In addition, Benedict established the Bureau for Prisoners of War, which handled gigantic volumes of correspondence from civilians frantic to find out the whereabouts of their conscripted loved ones. All the Bureau's staff had to labour gratis. Alas, the Sonnino crowd and its tame newspapers spread rumours that the Bureau served merely to aid spies. With predictable torment, Benedict therefore abolished it, hoping that he could thereby better continue his other charitable projects.
On 1 August 1917, the Pope released a plea "to the belligerent nations and their leaders" for general peace. His plan consisted of seven recommendations. First, substituting "the moral force of right" for mere militarism. Second, multilateral armaments reduction. Third, establishing some kind of international arbitration system. Fourth, preserving true freedom of the seas. Fifth, an end to calls for war reparations. Sixth, the restoration to their original owners, wherever feasible, of all territories occupied during the war. Last, a calm examination of rival territorial claims, notably those concerning poor blood- soaked Armenia.
Given this document's phrasing, some have argued that US President, Woodrow Wilson, deliberately used Benedict's proposals as the basis for his own Fourteen Points. (Of these points, Clemenceau cruelly and fairly quipped: "Fourteen Points! To think God Himself needed only ten!") This assertion flatters American liberal pride, but fails to convince.
Benedict believed, after all, in Original Sin. So his proposals, unlike Wilson's, had built-in limits. And he specifically denounced Wilsonian longings for secular globalism: "The coming of a world state is longed for, and confidently expected, by all the worst and most distorted elements É there will inevitably follow [from such a state] a reign of unheard-of terror."
A disgusted Churchill remembered, in The World Crisis, Wilson's blend of millenarianism and crude spite: "Peace and goodwill among all nations abroad, but no truck with the Republican Party at home."
It must be said that Benedict always showed Wilson not just courtesy, but active grace. When Wilson visited the Vatican, Benedict insisted on giving a public blessing to him and his whole entourage, whatever their religious beliefs. As against such kindness, we have Wilson's own characteristic response to the papal peace note: "What does he want to butt in for?"
To comprehend how dangerous calls for sanity had become in 1917, we should consider not only Benedict's failed negotiations, not only the comparable failure of Austria-Hungary's young Emperor Karl (now beatified), but also the fate of Britain's Lord Lansdowne.
A figure of nearly unbounded administrative influence, Lansdowne had once occupied almost every political office short of 10 Downing Street. The year of Benedict's and Karl's appeals also saw Lansdowne calling for a compromise peace. "We are slowly but surely", Lansdowne had earlier noted, "killing off the best of the male population of these islands." This unexceptionable and demographically astute sentiment, endorsing Benedict's own protestations, prompted from the gutter press an outcry that destroyed his career.
Aldous Huxley bore Lansdowne's fall in mind when he wrote (1946) words often, but not often enough, repeated: "For the last thirty years there have been no conservatives; there have been only nationalistic radicals of the right and nationalistic radicals of the left." Who by their de facto collusion against Christendom, justified the blunt verdict which Emperor Franz Joseph, Karl's great-uncle, uttered in old age: "Europe no longer exists."
Melbourne-based R.J. Stove is a Contributing Editor of 'The American Conservative'.