The rather gloomy outlook of the Church meant that it was better equipped than most faiths to cope with the horrors of the First World War, writes Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith in The Catholic Herald.
August 4 marks the centenary of the entry of Great Britain and her Empire into the First World War. In the vast discussion of the war’s significance, two things I have heard stand out for me.
The first is this. Germany knew it faced industrial competition from Russia, and there was talk that by 1916 Russia would have overtaken Germany in industrial output, and thus the year 1914 was the year for war if Germany wanted to ensure its dominance, before it was overtaken. That is the usual narrative.
But the Kaiser and his government were also told in no uncertain terms that Germany was destined to dominate Europe without war as well. In other words, the entire war was counter-productive; the Germans started it to dominate Europe, to grasp a prize that was already theirs. They lost the war, and thus ensured the prize was, at least for some time, snatched from their grasp. The moral of this is that war really is never worth it; you can get what you want by keeping the peace.
The second matter is the impact of the war on faith. An Anglican clergyman once told me that WWI destroyed the credibility of the Church of England, because the experience of the trenches raised questions that the Tommies’ chaplains were simply not able to answer.
By contrast, the Catholic clergy were able to provide better answers – or maybe Catholic devotional practices were: thus Catholicism survived the war in better condition than Anglicanism. I am convinced by this thesis, which strikes me as analogous to the ‘rampant omnibus’ theory of Dr Trevor Wilson in his 1966 discussion of the cause of the decline of the Liberal party; though there is no space here to discuss this in depth. But it makes sense.
The rampant omnibus of the First World War destroyed all forms of optimism; a rather gloomier Catholicism, with its focus on the undeserved sufferings of Christ, was better equipped than most to survive.