Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

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Newsletter- July/August 2001- Vol. VII, no. 7-8

 

 

Dear Friends,

I hope that all in the northern hemisphere are now enjoying their summer holidays with appropriate sunny conditions. But I send you this dual issue in case you have time or desire to consider these rather interesting new books on different aspects of our subject.

1) Book reviews:

a) K.Clements, Faith on the frontier. A life of J.H.Oldham
b) J.Pollard, The Unknown Pope. Benedict XV
c) ed. K.Chadwick, Catholicism, Politics and Society in 20C France, R.Bedarida, Les Catholiques dans la guerre 1939-1945

1) K.Clements, Faith on the Frontier. A life of J.H.Oldham. Edinburgh and Geneva: T.T. Clark and WCC Publications. 1999 515pp

Joe Oldham was one of the leading figures in the world-wide ecumenical movement of the Christian churches during the first half of the twentieth century. But he was a humble unassuming man who principally operated through behind-the-scenes diplomacy and advocacy. He is hence not so well known as such pioneers as William Temple, John R.Mott or Archbishop Söderblom with their more charismatic personalities. But now at last this masterly biography has appeared which does justice both to Oldham as a person and to his far-reaching and searching ideas on the future paths of Christianity at a time of particular travail.
The author, Keith Clements, is himself an experienced international ecumenical leader, based in Geneva as General Secretary of the European Conference of Churches, one of the many agencies now carrying out much of Oldham,s legacy. From this vantage point he brings an insider,s knowledge of the difficulties faced by the promoters of ecumenical and international Christianity. This is a first-rate scholarly biography which deserves full praise.
Oldham was born in India in 1874, but grew up in Scotland in a devout and pious family, very conscious of its Christian calling. Not surprisingly he was "converted while at Oxford after a visit by the renowned American evangelist, Dwight N.Moody, and resolved to devote his life to the burgeoning missionary movement, which drew so much inspiration from its annual meetings in Keswick. As a supporter of the Student Volunteer Missionary Union, he soon received a call to go to India, and served in Lahore for nearly four years until ill health forced him to return. He was, like so many young men in Europe and North America, fully inspired by the SVMU,s goal, as enunciated by its leader, John R.Mott, which sought the "evangelization of the world in this generation. But his experience in India taught Oldham that it was not enough to send out platoons of idealistic well-educated white males to undertake this task. The voices and interests of the recipients must also be heard and above all the disastrous divisions within the churches must be overcome. These were the themes adopted by Oldham as he returned to take up work for his church,s mission board in Edinburgh.
This city was to be the site of the first great international missionary conference in 1910, and not surprisingly Oldham was drawn into its organization. Clements shows how his resourcefulness, his high-minded energies and his skillful personal diplomacy made him the ideal person to become secretary of the whole enterprise, and subsequently of its continuation committee, in collaboration with its Chairman, Mott. Mott,s gift was to be able to inspire hundreds of young men at large rallies, and then give them their marching orders. "Young man, the Lord has need of you in Shanghai. Here is your boat ticket. Oldham was more restrained but no less effective.
For years the two men worked together in close harmony, especially after 1919 when the International Missionary Council became a permanent reality. Oldham recognized the need to have effective machinery for keeping missionaries in touch with each other and with new developments around the world. The International Review of Missions was started by Oldham in 1912 and is still going strong after 90 years. This was a successful vehicle for spreading new ideas across old frontiers, and of stimulating ecumenical contacts at a high intellectual and theological level.
But this optimistic era, looking forward to the rapid spread of the Gospel around the globe through ever wider campaigns of personal evangelism, came to a crashing halt with the outbreak of war in 1914. Clements rightly notes that Oldham, by 1916, had recognized the effect the war was having, particularly in two directions: first, that this mutually destructive European struggle had dealt an almost irreparable blow to Christian credibility in other parts of the world, and especially in the mission fields.
Secondly, it revealed the deficiencies of a limited appeal for personal salvation. From then on, Oldham began to call for the need to Christianize the social order as well as individuals in it. Christendom and its churches would have to adopt a much less triumphalist tone. He began to point prophetically to the need to mobilize a new moral passion sufficient to restore a broken world. To be sure, the traditional Protestant insights of the missionary movement, drawn from its Puritan and Wesleyan roots, were to be reaffirmed, but the emphasis had to be on forgiveness and reconciliation in order to find a new life in Christ.
One sign of this was Oldham,s concern for the overseas missions in war-time, particularly the German establishments in areas captured by the British in Africa, as well as in India. Contrary to the propaganda spread by the German missionaries and their home boards, these "orphaned missions were not confiscated by Oldham and his gang of robbers, nor were the missionaries unduly maltreated. Clements makes quite clear that Oldham fought hard against any such tendencies in British government policy, and indeed succeeded in having included in the Versailles Treaty a specific clause exempting German mission properties from being seized for reparations. But the resentment of the Germans lingered on - even to this day - as part of their unwillingness to face the loss of a war they had largely caused. These feelings were to cause great difficulties in the whole ecumenical movement throughout the inter-war period.
In the 1920s Oldham became directly involved in strategic planning for a new approach to mission problems in Africa. But his interest went beyond mere ecclesiastical organization. He saw that the new era called for a specific change towards the native inhabitants, and one which would recognize their paramount interests. This was strongly opposed by the white settlers of South Africa, Rhodesia and Kenya, and a heated debate continued throughout the decade over imperial and colonial policy. Oldham,s concern for education, which was largely in the hands of the missions, prompted him to lobby intensely the British officials in London and in the colonies, and even to take part in an official investigating committee. Not surprisingly, this new interest was not well understood by his more conservative colleagues on the mission boards.
But in the 1930s, when the focus turned back to Europe, Odham diverged further from the traditional evangelical approach. He now saw the need for new Christian social thinking in face of the challenges of totalitarianism and racism, and the threat to Christianity in its own heartland. By this time he had been much influenced by Karl Barth,s theology, and no longer accepted the progressive liberalism of earlier years. At the same time, he placed less faith in clerical gatherings and conferences, which seemed to be too often expressions of idealism without clear goals for remedying the world,s defects. Oldham,s forte was to match expectations with effective action. He was, in Clements, view, a sanctified pragmatist who considered carefully the practical steps towards his desired end. This made him a most dynamic stimulator of action. Memoranda, proposals, preliminary studies, letters to significant leaders, conference addresses poured forth from his desk, and the impact was undoubtedly significant, even after increasing deafness made it difficult for him to communicate directly. But he never abandoned his view that the Christian cause needed to mobilize its best brains and look carefully at future strategies. Organizing such meetings and ensuring that the results were put to work was his strength.
Notably Oldham,s preparations for the Life and Work meeting in Oxford 1937 was the high point of his career. Less well-known was his inside-track participation in the moves to unite all the international ecumenical bodies in a single World Council of Churches, and particularly to recruit a young Dutchman, Visser t Hooft, to be its General Secretary. This was achieved in 1938, but the outbreak of war delayed the actual founding until a decade later.
To meet the disasters of the second world war, Oldham pioneered one of his most memorable achievements - the Christian News-letter. This was a weekly initiative to maintain the Christian fellowship in war-time, based on Oldham,s extensive network of contacts, and specifically designed to deal with the war,s mortal challenges. Any repetition of the disastrous splits in Christendom of 1914 was to be sedulously avoided. Rather, constructive practical consideration was to be given as to what kind of society Christians should seek after the war ended. Readership quickly grew among informed laymen and women throughout Britain, and even abroad. Oldham,s personal touch ensured both a continuity and a welcoming call for a new engagement of Christian thought in the contemporary and changing world.
As Clements makes clear, Oldham was not really a team player. But he had the gift of finding very talented men and women and persuading them to join in his enterprises. His influence was therefore extensive and elitist rather than popular. On the one hand, his extraordinary creative services to the whole ecumenical world led to many outstanding developments. On the other hand, his habit of asking searching and critical questions was intolerant of complacency, timidity, or introversion. He also had an ingrained suspicion of ecclesiastical structures, which he feared would inevitably be conservative and stifling of creative thought. Church conferences, he knew from experience, had a regrettable tendency to indulge in moralizing pronouncements. Others, however, saw rightly that inspired freelancing by talented individuals would not be enough to sustain ecumenical institutions for the long haul. They would need to be clearly representative of the churches and accountable to them. Oldham, like his German counterpart Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze, feared that the result would be a dull mediocrity and ecclesiastical sclerosis. For this reason, as Clements admits, Oldham proved obstructive over the setting up of a British Council of Churches, which only followed in 1942. And he kept on insisting that his finest creation, the World Council of Churches, should have clear and pioneering thinking as its first priority. His faith in Visser t Hooft, as General Secretary, was to be vindicated, although at times Vim could be far more of a general than a secretary. But Oldham lived long enough, until 1969, to see the World Council firmly established as the major international focus point for all the Christian churches, with the exception of the Roman Catholics.
Oldham,s life,s work was undertaken at a time of world-wide catastrophe, political disorder and moral collapse. The institutions he sought to build, and the Christian heritage he sought to protect, have not - as yet - fulfilled his hopes. But this account of his struggles, urging his fellow Christians to grapple with the issues involved, and the possible roads ahead, is a convincing statement of a Christian visionary contribution in an age of violence and dissension.
We can be grateful to Keith Clements for this insightful and trenchant narration of Oldham,s theological pilgrimage, his administrative strategies, his prophetic discernment and his warm personal relationships. This is also a major account of the Christian churches,developments and interactions during the twentieth century from a sympathetic but not uncritical perspective. Above all, Clements correctly places Oldham on the frontier of Christian responsibility, prophetically seeking new forms of corporate Christian witness in the face of the new challenges of each succeeding decade. This is where, Oldham believed, faith must stand if it is to live and grow. Retrieving this interpretation of Christian mission was the objective of this biography. Clements is to be congratulated on so splendidly fulfilling his goal.
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2) John F.Pollard, The Unknown Pope. Benedict XV (1914-1922) and the Pursuit of Peace. London: Geoffrey Chapman 1999 240 pp ISBN 0-225-66344-0

John Pollard calls Benedict XV the "unknown Pope mainly because his short reign was overshadowed by the First World War and its contentious aftermath, and also because later Popes, such as Pius XII and John XXII, have attracted more notice and controversy. But Pollard,s skillfully researched biography provides the English-speaking reader with a clear account of this pontiff,s career, which he sees as one of the most significant, though often overlooked, reigns of the past century. In particular, he contends that Benedict,s pursuit of peace in the midst of an unprecedented and horrific war raised the papacy to a new level of moral authority.
Giacomo Della Chiesa came from a noble but impoverished Genoa family. Thanks to various patrons he was able to be trained for the Vatican,s diplomatic service. He became a protege of Cardinal Rampolla, later Secretary of State to Pope Leo XIII. But in 1903, on Leo,s death, Rampolla failed to be elected Pope, and so he and his protege suffered an eclipse at the hands of the more "integrist Pius X and his much younger Secretary of State, Merry del Val. Eventually Della Chiesa was sent off to the provinces to be Archbishop of Bologna, but was denied promotion to the rank of Cardinal for seven years until the spring of 1914.
On August 1st 1914 war erupted across Europe. Less than a month later Pius X died. In the subsequent conclave, the Cardinals were clearly looking for someone in a different mould. Della Chiesa had the right combination of diplomatic, curial and pastoral experience. At 60, he was the right age, and had enough discretion to recognize how crucial his future policy would be for the welfare, or even existence, of the Church.
Pollard makes the claim that in 1914 the Vatican had reached the nadir of its international prestige. France had recently disestablished the Church, Britain and Germany were controlled by anti-Catholic leaders, and Russia brooded in distant hostility. The new nation of Italy was militantly anti-Papal. Only Austria with its aged Emperor supported the Holy See, but its involvement in the Balkans was to prove a self-inflicted and lethal wound.
With the 1914 outbreak of war, the situation changed. Pollard places much emphasis, as his sub-title suggests, on Benedict,s efforts to promote peace. He also skillfully outlines the parameters within which the Vatican was operating and the numerous frustrations which these constraints caused. In reality, the Holy See possessed little real power or influence, but it was presumed to have immense potential moral force. Hence both warring sides exerted themselves to attempt to win the Vatican over to their cause, or equally strenuously to prevent the other side from doing so. Benedict,s initial horror at the bloodshed and the losses inflicted on the Catholic populations impelled him to seeks ways and means to stop the hostilities, or at least to mitigate the results. Such a stand necessitated impartiality, and also led to large expenditures to assist the victims of the war without favour to either side.
Benedict,s strenuous efforts to hinder Italy from joining in were thwarted in 1915. Worse still, he found the Italian government continuously opposed to his humanitarian gestures, putting practical difficulties in the way of many of his initiatives. Such a situation revealed how much the Pope was a prisoner within the Vatican,s walls and at the mercy of Italy,s anti-clerical and Masonic politicians. As an example, the Italian High Command and censorship office broke all the, admittedly primitive, Vatican codes and intercepted its telegraph traffic. The security of the Vatican,s diplomatic mail was constantly violated. The Italian police were effectively spying on the Pope and Curia without hindrance. The unkindest cut of all came when the Italian government negotiated with the western powers to join the war in 1915, and deliberately included in their secret treaty the demand that the Holy See should be barred from taking part in any peace settlement once the war was won. Benedict only found out about this later to his great chagrin.
Benedict, and his closest advisor Cardinal Gasparri, were under tremendous pressure to move away from their impartial stance. Every move, every speech was scrutinized to see if it gave advantage to either side. Journalists constantly launched rumours of this or that piece of favouritism. This led to a spate of denials, and at times brought out in Benedict his obstinacy, his notorious irascibility and not a little paranoia. Nevertheless he was determined not to give up. Too much was at stake for the Catholic Church. By 1916 he realized that general moral exhortations for peace would achieve nothing. But he still believed that, as a neutral power, the Vatican,s influence could be effective at a time when both sides wanted to bring hostilities to a close. Such was the case in 1917. In Germany, a strong group of Reichstag members, led by the Catholic politician, Matthias Erzberger, passed a peace resolution in July. This seemed to offer possibilities, and the Vatican envoy to Germany, Eugenio Pacelli, was sent to explore with the Kaiser and his Chancellor, Bethman-Hollweg, what terms might be feasible, such as a general limitation of armaments, the German withdrawal from Belgium and other occupied areas, and the creation of international arbitration courts. Accordingly in August Benedict sent out a Peace Note to all the belligerent powers, setting out systematic proposals for bringing the war to an end and securing a just and enduring peace.
Unfortunately, at that very moment, Bethman-Hollweg was overthrown by the German army leaders, who were still fixated on a German military victory. Even the western powers showed reluctance. The British Government acknowledged receipt of the Note, but did nothing. The French never replied at all. And the Italians intrigued hard to prevent the Vatican from getting any increase in international prestige and profile. President Wilson usurped many of the Papal ideas in order to incorporate them in his own 14 Points a few months later. The Papal initiative failed.
Nevertheless, these attempts, and the large-scale humanitarian efforts launched by the Vatican, induced a much more open and friendly climate towards the Holy See, even in the ranks of the Italian government. To be sure, the Vatican was barred from taking part in the Versailles peace-making, but Pollard judges this to have been a disguised blessing, as the Holy See was therefore not burdened by having to defend this much-vilified Treaty. So too, Benedict was not able to find any solution to the vexed question of the Vatican,s own status in Italy, which was left to his successor, Pius XI, to solve.
More successful were Benedict,s efforts to alter the tone of theological debate within his own ranks. The intolerant dogmatism of his predecessor, Pius X, with its strident invectives and condemnations of anyone suspected of the so-called Modernist "heresy, had done much damage in the supposed interests of "integrisme. While not prepared to disavow the hierarchy,s stance, Benedict moved to eject zealots from sensitive positions.
But from the end of the war, it was political rather than theological radicalism which seemed to be the greater danger. All of Benedict,s conservative instincts were predictably brought into play against the spread of militant violence or disorder. The kind of bitter class warfare seen in the Soviet Union, Hungary and Germany, boded ill for the Church, as did also the unbridled agitation of more domestic foes such as Benito Mussolini. The rise of Fascism in Italy was constantly deplored by the Vatican, even when the alternative of a Socialist victory looked worse. In fact, when Mussolini eventually seized power, he wisely recognized the need for a more harmonious relationship with the Church. But Benedict did not live to see this development. As for the Vatican, it was to swallow the stifling of Italian democracy for the sake of a new and more stable settlement of its future international position.
Benedict,s conservatism, as Pollard points out, was equally displayed in his antagonism towards both Protestantism and Orthodoxy. Although the war had demonstrated the urgency of all Christians standing together, Rome remained implacable. Error had no rights. The post-war ecumenical movement was therefore built without Catholics. Yet it can be argued that what the Catholic Church needed was consolidation not experimentation. This is what Benedict in his short reign provided. And Pollard,s final verdict is surely correct: "He steered the barque of St. Peter through some very stormy waters. . . and in the process left his enduring mark on the Roman Catholic Church (p.215). We can certainly be grateful to John Pollard for this comprehensive and sympathetic account.
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3) ed K.Chadwick,Catholicism, Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century France. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press 2000 295pp
Renee Bedarida, Les Catholiques dans la guerre 1939-1945. Entre Vichy et la Resistance.
Paris: Hachette litteratures, 1998

In recent years the writing of French church history has been very much an "in-house affair. Foreigners were not encouraged. The only significant work in English was W.D.Halls, Politics, Society and Christianity in Vichy France, (1995). So the appearance of this volume from Liverpool is much to be welcomed. Under the editorship of Kay Chadwick, this collection of essays is both bi-lingual and bi-national, where senior French scholars such as Emile Poulat and Y-M.Hilaire are joined by younger British scholars, mostly from the provincial universities. The title is clearly derivative from Halls, study, but covers the whole of the twentieth century. There is a variety of interesting perspectives on the position of the Catholic Church over this period, though the Church,s theology is virtually ignored, as is any treatment of Protestantism.
The century began with the controversial disestablishment of the Catholic Church in 1905. With the advantage of hindsight, Professor Poulat now argues that this can be seen as a beneficial move, by liberating the church from the state,s bondage. But at the time and for many years after, the imposition of this move at the hands of radical anti-clericals seemed to be a bitter blow. Hence the eagerness with which numerous Catholics greeted the overthrow of republicanism in 1940, and espoused the hopes for a better deal under Petain. But in fact, over the past fifty years, republicanism has shown a more moderate face, and the secular nature of the state is now assured. Catholic schooling plays a very considerable role, as an example of pluralism. There are even moves to urge Islam to follow the Catholic path as a means of integration within the French state.
The 1905 loss of status was undoubtedly induced, in part, by the reactionary stance of most Catholics in the Dreyfus affair. The rootedness of Catholic antisemitism cannot be denied. But as two of these essays show, attitudes have changed. To be sure, the stance of the Catholic hierarchy in face of the German war-time persecution of the Jews looks vacillating, but at least some bishops and several courageous priests and lay persons raised voices of protest to defy both Vichy and the Nazis. This paved the way for a new epoch of Christian-Jewish dialogue, led by such figures as Jules Isaac and Jacques Maritain. Though antisemitism and racialism still exist in France, such forces have no religious support from Catholics.
Another significant change over the years has been in the political stance of French Catholics. At first the polemical attacks of the republican left prevented any political sympathy from Catholics, and entrenched the right-wing attitudes of such groups as Action francaise or the Croix de Fer. After 1945, however, the scene changed. A new openness to at least some dialogue with Marxists showed that some Catholics were interested to have a potential stimulus to Catholic social thought or alternatives to capitalism. And this paved the way for a much more committed stance towards issues of social justice. Even though the experiment of worker priests was abandoned, the impact remained.
On the other hand, the rigidity of Catholic doctrine, especially on sexual matters, has undoubtedly contributed to Catholicism,s institutional decline in France. The majority of priests are elderly, more parishes are "orphaned and monastic life has suffered badly. In part, this is a reflection of the European-wide growth of a secular culture, but does not necessarily mean a loss of faith. France now has a multi-cultural appearance, in which French Catholicism appears in many guises.
Renee Bedarida and her husband Francois are among the most distinguished practitioners of French contemporary history, especially of that period of national tragedy, the Second World War and the ill-fated Vichy regime. Madame Bedarida has already written extensively on the spiritual resistance to the Nazi onslaught of those years, arising out of her own participation as a student in the resistance movement. Not surprisingly, therefore, in her sprightly survey of the fate of French Catholics during the war, those men and women who upheld their true Christian faith, alongside their French nationalism, occupy a place of honour. Following a chronological basis, Bedarida depicts the attitudes of the Catholic literate elite, from its troubled and ambiguous relationship to the anti-clerical secularist Third Republic before the war to the heartfelt patriotic response of 1939. But the 1940 defeat proved that patriotism was not enough. In its place, the Catholic hierarchy preferred to place their faith in Marshal Petain as the saviour of the nation. The majority of Catholics loyally followed this lead, though, as Bedarida shows, only a handful of Catholic intellectuals were seduced into giving their support. By contrast, those who for Christian reasons opposed Nazism were increasingly sceptical of Petain and his compromises with the conqueror. But de Gaulle, in London, never got any support from the church hierarchy. Several Catholic writers and other resisters expressed their opposition in clandestine publications, and when caught, paid the ultimate price. Others retreated to less obvious, but no less determined passive resistance, concentrating on assisting the Nazis, victims, such as the Jews. If, at first, French Catholics had been silent about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, this changed in 1942. In August and September, no fewer than five bishops protested publicly against the inhuman mistreatment of the Jews in France, and this signal produced a wave of support, much to the consternation of the Vichy authorities. Despite continued assertions of the clergy,s respect for Petain, these protests were the first breach of Catholic loyalty. Even more striking in 1943 was the response to Vichy,s ordering young Frenchmen to be conscripted for work in German factories. The bishops prevaricated, though they were much more vocal in protesting the idea of recruiting young French women. But only the underground press urged these recruits, as a Christian duty, to join the secret resistance movement instead. Those who took this step of joining the underground, or Maquis, were not given the support of the Catholics bishops, though a few clergy risked their lives by acting as chaplains. The moral dilemmas caused by the threat of civil war, and the fears of communism, restrained the church leaders from openly endorsing the resistance, but in fact the number of young Catholics who did so grew rapidly, and their witness was to be a significant factor in the post-war renewal of the church.
In the aftermath, recriminations and accusations abounded. The thorniest question for Catholics was what to do with those bishops who had so enthusiastically endorsed the Petain regime. Some demanded that at least twenty-five bishops be dismissed; others would have been content with an acknowledgment of their faulty judgment and an expression of repentance. In fact the hierarchy gave neither. It insisted that it had only done its religious duty in seeking to uphold the Christian faith and to safeguard the church,s autonomy. They now preached reconciliation and rebirth. And, in fact, the Vatican refused to hear of any forcible removals, but quickly appointed a new Nuncio, the future Pope John XXIII, to act as mediator.
In all, Bedarida stresses the positive impact of the war on the Catholic church in France. For the first time, barriers between Catholics and others were broken down. In captivity or deportation or concentration camps, the clergy and laity were thrown together to their mutual enrichment. As a result Catholics were willing to play a more constructive role in the new political order, and their spiritual renewal brought new life to the parishes. To be sure the old habits of mind were still found in some of the hierarchy, who still clung to their traditional conservative and moralistic mentalities. But, Bedarida claims, this clash between temporal political conformism and audacious creativity in the spiritual and pastoral spheres opened the way for the kind of reforms, which twenty years later, were to be adopted by the whole Church,s aggiornamento at the Second Vatican Council.

With every best wish to you all,
John Conway
jconway@interchange.ubc.ca

Association of Contemporary Church Historians: website:
http:www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/akz/