With Benedict XVI in the US this week, it brings to mind the many times US presidents have meet with the Roman Catholic Popes. Last year, President Bush also met with the Pope in Italy (he also attended John Paul II’s funeral – he’d meet with John Paul II two times). The San Luis Obispo also has a pictorial show of past presidential meetings. The Seattle Times has a list of all 25 meetings.
I thought I’d talk specifically about the first meeting – Woodrow Wilson and Benedict XV (made sense to me since we have Benedict XVI here…I liked the continuity). Benedict XV actually tried to bring World War I to an early end in 1917 by mediating between the warring factions:
In the spring of 1917, Pope Benedict XV called on the warring governments to make a peace of mutual forgiveness and forbearance. As a starting point, the Pontiff proposed the restoration of Belgium, disarmament, arbitration machinery to prevent future wars, and freedom of the seas for all nations.
To the Americans, the timing of the Pope's message seemed almost devilishly unpropitious. In Stockholm, international socialists had convened a peace conference to appeal over the heads of the warring rulers to the workers of the world. In Petrograd, the Bolshevik wing of the Russian revolution had already called for peace on the basis of no annexations and self determination for all peoples, and bullied the so called Provisional Government of Russia into going along with them.
The Germans and the Austro-Hungarians promptly accepted the Pope's proposal, although Berlin avoided specific commitments. The provisional Russian government also welcomed the papal mediation. The leaders of France and Italy, with largely Catholic, extremely war weary populations, were transfixed with alarm. They wanted a fight to the finish but they hesitated to take issue with the Pope. The English, even more determined to go for what Prime Minister Lloyd George called "a knockout blow," decided to let Wilson answer for all of them.
At first the president was inclined to say nothing. He seemed angry at the Pope's intrusion into the war. However, as the impact of the pontiff's appeal grew larger, Wilson decided he had to reply. The Pope was saying many of the same things Wilson had said before he opted for war. Now, as British ambassador Cecil Spring-Rice wryly pointed out, the president was doing "his utmost to kindle a warlike spirit throughout [the] states and to combat pacifists." No wonder the pope's appeal gave him indigestion.
Colonel House strongly seconded this presidential decision -- and warned Wilson not to dismiss the Pope's proposals out of hand in his reply. The new Russian ambassador in Washington had informed House that alarming splits were appearing in the revolutionary government, with the call for immediate peace one of the chief issues. A dismissal could lead to the overthrow of Russia's moderate leader, Alexander Kerensky.
House also revealed that the Pope's proposal had evoked a sympathetic response in him. The colonel wondered if it would be a good thing in the long run if "Germany was beaten to her knees." That might leave a vacuum in central Europe which the Russians would be eager to fill. Before the declaration of war, Wilson had agreed with this balance of power viewpoint. It was the idea behind his appeal for a peace without victory.
Later during his tour of Europe, Wilson stopped at the Vatican to officially visit Benedict XV. Benedict gave Wilson a mosiac of St. Peter that hangs in the Woodrow Wilson House (so you can go see it in DC if you want or check it out here in the drawing room picture).