by Joshua Madrid

Religious endorsements of state sanctioned violence are common phenomena in modern warfare. For example, on 16 September 1939, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales issued a statement affirming their unilateral support to the British Government in the Second World War. Writing on behalf of the bishops, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley declared, ‘We, the Catholic Hierarchy of England and Wales, wish to urge upon all the faithful at this time of national trial and endeavour, the duty of loyal obedience to His Majesty the King, and of willing co-operation in every form of National Service.’[i] The Hierarchy pressed upon the Catholic communities within England and Wales the gravity of the situation and the British cause in fighting. Similarly in today’s world, Patriarch Kirill, the Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, recently endorsed Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilise young people into the armed forces and declared that ‘it was their Orthodox duty to go’ (“Putin’s Holy War”). Endorsements like these carry a compelling message to the faithful about their role within organised violence as well as try to supply a sense of meaning to their actions (Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, 2). More than this, they influence the collective memory of conflicts decades later by emotionally charging the historical narrative resting behind wartime myths.

In the case of the Second World War, these wartime myths are commonly remembered as the ‘People’s War,’ or the ‘Good War.’ They try to evoke a sense of heroism, bravery, and determination that the Allied powers had in defeating the forces of evil in Europe and abroad. Consequently, these myths provide a narrative for animating future individual and collective action in wartime. Chris Hedges, a veteran war correspondent, noted the power of these myths and stated that ‘Most of us willingly accept war as long as we can fold it into a belief system that paints the ensuing suffering as necessary for a higher good, for human beings seek not only happiness but also meaning’ (War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, 10). In order to live with the experiences of war, societies created these mythical narratives to help make their actions more acceptable. Being a part of the ‘Good War,’ or the ‘People’s War,’ held more meaning than just fighting in another conflict for no reason at all.

While there have been many debates over the purpose and place of wartime myths in collective memory, the factors that contribute to the making of these myths require more consideration. As seen above, religion can play a crucial role in influencing public opinion on the morality and political viability at stake in conflicts. As historian Michael Snape noted on the power of religion during the interwar period:

Religion did play an important role in national morale during the Second World War, shaping British propaganda and exercising a defining influence on contemporary perceptions of the war. In this respect, the sacredness of Britain’s cause was reflected in recurring national days of prayer, in the anti-Nazi pronouncements of the churches, in the widely acclaimed ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk and in the celebrated image of the dome of St Paul’s cathedral standing untouched in the midst of the London Blitz (Michael Snape, God and the British Soldier, 120)

Religion certainly shapes public perceptions of war. Sociologist Mark Jurgensmeyer also acknowledged the influential role of religion in warfare, arguing that it could be taken even further into ‘cosmic warfare,’ that is, the ‘idea of a radical divine intervention in human history, an existential battle between religion and irreligion, good and evil, order and chaos’ (Mark Jurgensmeyer, God at War, 74-81). It is where eschatology meets warfare; where military action can determine salvation. In part, it neatly reflects Clausewitz’s notion of an ‘absolute war’ in its most distilled form (God at War, 79). While Jurgensmeyer presents a compelling argument that offers insight into the relationship between religion and warfare, it beckons a further question of whether war is religiously motivated and, therefore, inherently cosmic.

While English Catholicism in the Second World War played a role in justifying Britain’s engagement in the conflict thereby fuelling the mythical narrative of the ‘People’s War’ as a fight for the survival of ‘Christian Civilization,’ the wider socio-political narratives of Britain in the Second World War seem to suggest otherwise. The activity of the Catholic Church in England reflected not so much a cosmic battle that was ushering in the eschaton (i.e., a final event in the divine plan), but rather the diffusive nature of Christianity in Britain. Diffusive Christianity was, according to Mike Snape, an ‘ethically based and non-dogmatic form of Christianity,’ which permeated British society in the twentieth century (God and the British Soldier, 22). Its adaptability into secular politics and ideologies enabled Christian culture to preserve its values and principles within society. Similarly, if Christianity was diffused extensively into British culture and society, wartime rhetoric was also infused with religious motifs to create a collective stake in supporting the national war effort. This was certainly the case with how English Catholics approached and justified their participation in the war, especially between 1939 and 1941. Allied military defeats coupled with changes in geopolitical alliances complicated Catholic perceptions of Just War Theory and engagement with political ideologies that were contrary to Church teaching.

When war originally broke out in September 1939, Catholic leaders and the laity held mixed views about Britain’s involvement. Whilst the bishops tried to promote Catholic support for the war effort, some members of the laity felt the present war was just another European conflict. The PAX Society, for example, was a strong advocate for Catholic forms of conscientious objection. Formed in Britain in 1936, this society was comprised of mostly lay Catholics who opposed modern warfare. Interestingly, PAX differed from other pacifist organisations in that it did not oppose warfare in general, but rather argued that specifically modern warfare was not compatible with Just War Theory, dating back to moral views on organized violence by St. Augustine. Although PAX was not nominally Catholic, some of its high-ranking Catholic members – such as Eric Gill – laboured to support Catholics who opposed Britain’s involvement in the war. On 12 January 1940, Gill published an advertisement in the Catholic Herald, informing its readers that the PAX society was, ‘able and willing to assist Catholics, COs in particular.’[ii] Gill’s advertisement promised support to those Catholics who wished to obtain conscientious objector status, but were prevented due to the clergy’s reluctance to support any application. Despite the stance set by the Hierarchy, groups such as PAX demonstrated that Catholic support for the war was not unanimous.  

English Catholic ambivalence toward the national war effort continued until June 1940 when British Expeditionary Forces evacuated from Dunkirk. At this time, a German invasion of Britain became a far more plausible and terrible reality. Winston Churchill articulated this fear when he famously proclaimed in 1940 to the British Parliament: ‘I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian Civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire…’ (“Their Finest Hour”). By mobilising the diffusive Christian culture of Britain, Churchill aimed to provide a ‘higher good’ that the nation could see worth fighting for. The fear of capitulation mixed with the stakes of preserving ‘Christian Civilisation,’ laid the foundation for the enduring myth that Britain was fighting a just cause. No longer would the war be viewed solely as another European conflict, but one that had significant reasons to fight and resist the Axis powers. The Christian institution, thus, furnished the supra-political meaning that seemingly made suffering and sacrifice acceptable and necessary.

The fear of ‘Christian civilisation’ being annihilated became even more acute when the Soviet Union joined the Allied Alliance in June 1941. Operation Barbarossa (the German invasion of the USSR) changed the geopolitical situation in Europe thereby causing a rift in the previous rationale for Catholic support in the war effort. Where previously Catholic justification for supporting the war was based on fighting against totalitarianism for the survival of ‘Christian Civilization,’ Catholics in England were now forced to collaborate with a communist nation to defeat Nazism. In contrast to continental Catholicism where Catholics had already been engaging in various ways to work with secular political ideologies to advocate a Catholic form of modernity (James Chappel, Catholic Modern, 4, 13-14), Catholics in England did not have to face direct military threats of fascism or communism in the British political system. Consequently, the new alliance posed significant questions as to whether collaboration would help or hinder their justification for the war. Over time some Catholics in England thought the new alliance provided a new opportunity to re-Christianise Europe.[iii] This new position enabled Catholic communities to accept their new Soviet ally, but retain their position toward communism. This change in position effectively shifted the focus from fighting for the ‘mere survival’ of Christian civilization to leading the re-Christianisation of Europe. Moreover, this shift in opinion encouraged the English laity to embrace this new role and some bishops such as Archbishop Richard Downey of Liverpool instructed priests to implement ‘special prayers’ for ‘the suffering people of Russia,’ and requested additional collections at mass to contribute to the ‘Aid to Russia’ campaign that was taking place across the country.[iv]

While Catholic perceptions toward the war may have had cosmic motifs, they were more diffusive in nature. The evolving disposition from ambivalence to fighting for survival to leading the creation of a new Jerusalem showed how individuals and communities applied Christian values to give meaning to the suffering experienced. Religious influence in wartime propaganda therefore was more consoling than advocating a salvific promise for participating.

Religion can certainly provide the necessary rationale and meaning for societal engagement in violent activity. However, war itself does not reflect the eschaton that every religion prophesies. What religion can do and historically has done is provide a strong basis for the development of wartime myths and their preservation in collective memory. As clinical psychotherapist Edward Tick observes, these myths have a special power in providing a desire to engage in conflict again and again. “We suffer war’s aftermath generation after generation, yet from that suffering we fail to correct our mythologizing” (Edward Tick, War and the Soul, 43). Religion and its institutions can easily neglect their own dangerous memories that require serious attention and historical reflection (Johann Metz, Faith in History and Society). If gone unchecked, the victorious narratives elicited in wartime myths provide a moral underpinning to future actions. Consequently, closer investigations of these repressed memories keep victorious narratives in check and remind society of the power wartime myths have in collective memory. Without this, victorious narratives lend easily toward promotion of a cosmic interpretation of war as a continuous battle of good versus evil.

[i] Arthur Hinsley, ‘The Catholic Hierarchy,’ Tablet, Statement to the Faithful, 16 September 1939.

[ii] Eric Gill, ‘Conscientious Objection,’ The Catholic Herald, 12 January 1940.

[iii] ‘A Concordat with Russia?,’ The Catholic Herald, 22 August 1941.

[iv] LAA/Ad Clerum and Pastoral Letters, Letter to the priests, 23 November 1941.

Joshua Madrid is a PhD candidate at University College London working on English Catholicism in the Second World War. His research interests lie at the intersection of warfare, religion, and nationalism and how they are each portrayed in collective memory. Josh’s current thesis, “Catholics in Conflict: Navigating the Social and Cultural Dynamics of Catholicism in Second World War England,” analyzes how English Catholicism related to total war and adapted to the modernization – and particularly the secularization – of society. His work has been published in the edited volume British Christianity and the Second World War (2023). Prior to attending UCL, Josh earned an MA in the History of Warfare at the University of Birmingham and a BA in History at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.

Edited by Jacob Saliba

Featured Image: A priest, probably Father Dixon, stands in the roofless shell of St George’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, on the corner of St George’s Road and Lambeth Road in Southwark, South East London. The Cathedral was severely damaged by an incendiary bomb attack which gutted the building on 16 April 1941. The photograph is taken from the altar end of the building, looking back down the nave towards the door. Imperial War Museum, Ministry of Information, Second World War Official Collection, public domain.