The eye of The Irish Catholic was firmly on international affairs 100 years ago, writes Gabriel Doherty
The week ending Saturday September 7, 1918, was lacking somewhat in significant domestic events for The Irish Catholic to discuss, but on the international stage truly portentous developments were occurring on a daily basis.
The most important was the continuing retreat of German forces from the French territory they had occupied earlier in the war. This withdrawal had been on-going since mid-July, and it was becoming increasingly clear that it was no mere tactical rectification of the line between the opposing forces, but rather a strategic development of the first order, one that within two months was to lead to military defeat, and political collapse, for both Germany and Austria-Hungary. After more than four years of bloody war, it seemed that the end was nigh, and an Allied victory was at hand.
Attention, therefore, was shifting to the shape of post-war Europe, and to the principles that would underpin the reconstruction of the continent. The paper’s editorial, ‘Religion and democracy: a message from the New World’ addressed these issues with an unambiguous endorsement of the ideals espoused by the President of the US, Woodrow Wilson.
It is difficult nowadays to appreciate the millenarian promise then associated with Wilson’s name, all the more so as Ireland was subsequently to prove the outstanding example of his failure to force his erstwhile allies to apply his vision to their own ‘captive peoples’.
Such disillusionment was for the future, however, and his stock in September 1918 continued to rise, as it was until the brand name was sullied by the hard negotiations that produced the Versailles Treaty.
The editorial reiterated the position that the paper had adopted since the outbreak of hostilities: that the war was one between the forces on one hand of Might and Tyranny, as incarnated in the Central Powers, and on the other those of Right and Democracy, as embodied in the Allies. Utilising a recent sermon by Dr Edward Hanna, the-then Archbishop of San Francisco, the leader writer sought to rebuff the suggestion that the Church was opposed to democracy, and rather argued, pace Hanna, that it was in the thoroughly Catholic principles of self-sacrifice and personal responsibility that “the real and only foundation of ideal democracy is to be found”.
Archbishop Hanna argued that the belief that man was created in the image of God was not alone consistent with, but reinforced, the doctrine of popular sovereignty, and notions of equality before the law and benevolence to the marginalised, which were at the heart of the new, enlarged sensibility of democracy spreading across the continent.
The international position was, however, more complicated than this exposition of first principles would suggest. While The Irish Catholic may have consistently supported the Allies throughout the war, the Vatican had remained neutral during the conflict. To the eternal credit of Pope Benedict XV, he had since 1914 engaged in a number of overtures to the belligerents, with a view to promoting a negotiated settlement to the conflict, so as to bring the slaughter to a swift halt.
From the point of the Allies, however, these proposals were unacceptable, as they were predicated on the suggestion that the cease-fire lines would be based on the military front-lines at the time the shooting stopped rather than the pre-war international borders. Had the Pope’s suggestion been adopted it would have meant that German forces would have remained on French and Belgian soil during peace negotiations, with the suggestion that some form of transfer of territory from the Allies to Germany would be part of any final settlement.
With the best of intentions, but regrettably nonetheless, the Pope had been labelled as ‘pro-German’ in certain sections of the British and French press, and this perception would inevitably limit the extent to which the Vatican would be allowed to influence, or even engage with, post-war diplomacy.
There was, furthermore, the impasse between the Vatican and the Italian state (since the 1915 Treaty of London, now an Allied, rather than Central, Power). This stand-off had been in existence since creation of that state following the unification of Italy, which included amongst its territories the Papal territories annexed in 1870.
The Papacy had refused to accept this loss, and consequently also refused to recognise the legitimacy of the Italian state itself. The Italian government, for its part, felt threatened by the loyalty many Italians still felt towards the Pope, and feared the international reach of the Vatican might stymie Italian ambitions. For different reasons than the British and French, the Italians too wished to minimise the role played by the Holy See after the fighting had concluded.
In such an unprepossessing environment the paper elsewhere in the edition shrewdly focussed on an issue where there was broad agreement between the Allied Powers and the Vatican as to future policy: Poland. Since late 1916 there had been a growing consensus that the restoration of Polish statehood would be an essential feature of any post-war settlement. Benedict XV supported such a move, and to this end had appointed Msgr Ambrogio Ratti (the future Pius XI) as Apostolic Visitor to the country earlier in 1919.
What was the significance of these developments from an Irish perspective? A great deal, as it happened, with two ramifications deserving of particular attention.
The first concerned the growing international consensus around recognition of Poland’s claim to self-government. This diplomatic route to independence was precisely the one that had been championed by Irish republicans since Count Plunkett’s victory at the Roscommon by-election, and which had been incorporated into the constitution of Sinn Féin at its ard fheis in late 1917. If the Poles could achieve their independence this way, so the argument ran, so could Ireland. The fact that it was the republican party in Ireland that was championing this peaceful path to Irish independence helped to broaden yet further the already growing area of agreement between Church and Sinn Féin.
The second consideration arose out of the on-going work of Msgr Ratti in such matters as the creation of new Polish dioceses and appointment of new bishops, work that was reinvigorating Catholicism in lands that had been under sustained attack for much of the previous century.
The paper argued that such activism reinforced the Catholic aspects of Polish national identity, a sense of identity that would be an invaluable asset to the government of any future Polish state. It was the clear, if unstated, logic of the article that the paper envisioned a similar role for Catholicism as the core value for a self-governing Ireland.