Hoping for an American answer

Hoping for an American answer US President Woodrow Wilson
100 years on…
This paper felt Europe’s best hope after the Great War lay with the US president, writes Gabriel Doherty


For several weeks prior to the week ending Saturday December 14, 1918 the pages of The Irish Catholic had been dominated by preparations for the forthcoming general election. With the ballots for same now cast (in, the paper was pleased to note, a calm, reflective manner), and its outcome beyond the ability of any newspaper editor to influence, that week’s number was predominantly concerned with several matters of moment that lay beyond Irish shores – although the residual aftermath of the recent domestic contest could still be detected in its columns.

Foremost amongst the foreign matters discussed was the Versailles Peace Conference, the convening of which was now less than a month away. More specifically the paper was concerned with the issue of whether the Holy See would be represented at same, with its discussion focussed in particular on a papal encyclical on the topic that had been issued on December 1.

This text was marked by a certain fatalism, a resignation to the fact that the papacy would find itself on the outside looking in while the important business was being transacted well beyond the reach of Church diplomacy. Given that “such grave and complex decisions will have to be taken as no human assembly ever took before”, the encyclical declared, “it is impossible to say how much the delegates need to be Divinely enlightened to be able to accomplish this mission”.

But such evident frustration notwithstanding, the Pope assured politicians and diplomats that he would do all in his power to ensure that the resulting decisions were carried out loyally by Catholics.


The paper’s editorial was less magnanimous. It stated that not merely to Catholics “but to all Christians of goodwill and of a reasonable way of thinking – to whatever denomination they may belong – it will be a source of great grief and profound disappointment if, when the delegates assemble round the Conference table, it should be found that they do not include a representative of the Holy See”.

Indeed it went much further and argued that one of the principal reasons for the “disastrous events of the past four and a half years” lay precisely in the progressive marginalisation of the Papacy in international affairs over previous decades. While this claim may have been debateable, the paper was on firmer ground in noting the consistent efforts on the part of Pope Benedict XV to achieve a negotiated settlement to the conflict, notably his appeals for peace in December 1914 and August 1917.

These, of course, had not alone been unavailing, but had, as has been discussed in a previous column, far from enhancing his claim for a place at the High Table of world diplomacy, instead positively damaged Benedict’s standing among the victorious Allied powers.

The war had indeed produced strange outcomes. While condemning practically everything else that Bolshevism stood for, the paper welcomed the decision of the revolutionary regime in Russia to publish secret diplomatic documents, notably provisions of the 1915 Treaty of London that well-nigh guaranteed Benedict’s exclusion from the post-war peace settlement.

Invoking, in an ironic manner, the catch-cry of die-hard Ulster unionism, it summed up the philosophy of the anti-papal policies of the ‘Grand Orient’ of majority-Catholic Allied states such as France and Italy as that of ‘no surrender’. And completing the Ulster theme, perhaps most surprising outcome of all was the growing belief that the Catholic Church’s best hope of placing the future of Europe (including Ireland) on a sound moral footing lay in the personality and ideals of Woodrow Wilson, grandson of Ulster-Scots immigrants and President of the United States of America, a country with a long and at times disgraceful tradition of anti-Catholic sentiment and action.


It was to Ireland that the paper’s editorial turned in its closing paragraphs. Citing an article in the current edition of the Jesuit journal Studies, the editorial repudiated Lloyd George’s claim to speak for the island, on the basis that British policy amounted to “a complete negation” of Wilson’s “democratic maxim” of government by consent of the governed.

By way of contrast, it argued that Britain’s title in Ireland rested solely on its disdain for the Irish as a “conquered people”. This it dismissed as “the Prussian standard, which the war of Emancipation has swept away”.

Further, the paper stated (and evidently wished to believe), the government in Washington, having abandoned its traditional disdain for the problems of the ‘Old World’, and having sacrificed a number of its young men in the terminal stages of the war, would not tolerate such a retrograde mindset on the part of the British Government.

Just how realistic this assertion would prove to be would, in part, be determined by the form of the polity to which the Irish people had just given their democratic consent. Their judgement was now eagerly awaited.