Agnes DE DREUZY.  The Holy See and the Emergence of the Modern Middle East: Benedict XV’s Diplomacy in Greater Syria (1914-1922).  Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2016.  xi + 303 pp., ISBN: 9-780813-228495, $69.95, hardcover.  Reviewed by Patrick J. HAYES, Redemptorist Archives, Philadelphia.


Part of the residue of the twentieth century left on global politics is the inability of the Roman Catholic church to operate freely and openly in all the places to which it extends an invitation to live the Gospel.  Among those areas in which it has been especially fraught is the greater Middle East.  In the days of the Ottoman empire, papal interests in the holy places of Palestine, the European missionaries who staffed them, as well as the wider pastoral concerns of Catholic Christians in Turkey, Armenia, Syria, and elsewhere, gave rise to altogether novel diplomatic strategies.  The result was the re-invigoration of papal statecraft and the geo-political insertion of the Vatican as a major player on the world stage.  Leading this charge was Pope Benedict XV, one of the most unheralded popes of the modern era.

Precisely how the Pope and his Secretariat of State managed this is the subject of the present monograph.  They faced considerable challenges, not least from uncooperative and abusive regimes who had little to no regard for suffering Christians.  De Dreuzy, a church historian at the University of British Columbia, breaks her study into two parts that correspond to Benedict XV’s papacy.  Part one deals with the Holy See’s interests in both pre-war and wartime greater Syria, 1914 to 1917.  In this section five chapters relate how and why the pontiff acted to protect Catholics in the Ottoman regions, what he did (and failed to do) to secure the safety of Catholic clergy and property, and how the pope provided humanitarian assistance during the war years.  In these efforts, the pope was severely limited—constrained mostly by Pashas who hoped to confiscate properties being run by foreign missionaries from hostile countries—but also especially adept at ecumenical cooperation.  His sympathies with Eastern rite churches endeared him to their populations and earned for him the reputation of a loyal ally during dark hours.

The second part of the book places the Holy See on the world stage, first as an instrument for peace in the postwar order; second as a unique but useful partner toward Syria and Palestine.  Through these chapters the author examines many important letters bundled in Roman archives, particularly the Vatican Secret Archive, the collections of the Secretariat of State’s Office of Ecclesiastical Affairs, the Archive of the Propaganda Fide, and the archive of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.  She handles the voluminous and complex correspondence between Pietro Cardinal Gasparri, the Secretary of State, and Msgr. Frediano Giannini, papal nuncio to the Porte, with aplomb and sifts through mounds of secondary literature to construct her argument that Papa della Chiesa’s was anything but a lackluster papacy.  How could it have been?  There were so many wild cards.  Among these, de Dreuzy includes the eager encroachments of Russia into Turkish affairs and a contemplated occupation of Constantinople by the Eastern Orthodox.  The secularized French government balked at the Holy See’s offer of a protectorate over the Hagia Sophia if the church were returned to Catholic control.  British agencies doing humanitarian work in greater Syria routinely sought to proselytize affected Catholics. At no point did any country—Catholic or not—seek to assist the Holy See’s efforts without significant concessions.  Trying to convince even the most sympathetic to aid those Catholic holdouts amidst a vast Muslim majority was also a hard sell, even on moral grounds.

De Dreuzy’s study accords some new and interesting insights into the preservation and growth of Catholic institutions in the region.  We get new detail on the creation of the old Near East Relief organization.  We see how the Holy See approached the question of a mandate system in replacing imperialist tendencies.  We learn more about Pope Benedict’s interest in dialogue with Prince Faisal, son of the emir of Mecca, on the future of Syria.  The volume is recommended, therefore, to research libraries and others with collections in church history and international diplomacy.