(3 Sept. 1914–22 Jan. 1922)
Born at Genoa on 21 Nov. 1854, the sixth child of an old though relatively poor patrician family, Giacomo Della Chiesa graduated doctor of civil law at Genoa University in 1875, then studied at the Capranica College and the Gregorian University, Rome, where he gained doctorates both in theology and in canon law. After ordination on 21 Dec. 1878, he trained (1878–82) for the papal diplomatic service at the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics where he briefly became a lecturer. From 1883 to 1887 he was secretary to Mariano Rampolla, then nuncio to Spain, assisting him not only in diplomatic business like the papal mediation between Germany and Spain on the Caroline Islands (1885), but also in organizing relief during a cholera epidemic. When Rampolla became secretary of state and cardinal in 1887, Della Chiesa remained with him, being promoted undersecretary of state in 1901 and continuing as such when Rampolla was succeeded by Rafael Merry del Val in 1903. He had hoped to become nuncio to Spain, but Pius X, who suspected him of being a disciple of Rampolla, appointed him archbishop of Bologna in 1907. One of his tasks as archbishop, determined by Rome, was to rid his diocese of modernists. Della Chiesa, however, while stressing obedience to the holy see, expressed himself in sympathy with new trends of thought so long as they were tested against ‘the sense of the church’, and acted with prudent restraint. Because of opposition from Merry del Val, only in May 1914 did Pius name him cardinal, and three months later he was elected pope. Pius' death coincided with the outbreak of the First World War, and the choice of Della Chiesa was due to the recognition that in the crisis the church needed an experienced diplomat at its head. The choice is commonly presented as a surprise—he had only been a cardinal for a few weeks—but he was from the opening ballot a leading candidate.
Benedict's reign was inevitably overshadowed by the war and its aftermath, but the diplomatic isolation of the holy see as a result of the unresolved Roman question reduced any role he could play to one on the sidelines. While protesting against inhuman methods of warfare, he maintained strict neutrality, a neutrality which became all the more difficult to uphold after the entry of Italy into the war in 1915, something which Benedict had tried to prevent. He abstained from condemning any of the belligerents, with the result that each side accused him of favouring the other. In the early years he concentrated on alleviating suffering, opening a bureau at the Vatican for reuniting prisoners-of-war with their families, and persuading Switzerland to receive soldiers of whatever country suffering from tuberculosis. He was especially concerned about the welfare of children, and from the start gave strong support to the Save the Children Fund. From early in the war Benedict and his secretary of state Cardinal Gasparri were actively seeking to resolve the conflict. On 1 Aug. 1917 the Pope dispatched to the Allies and the Central Powers a seven-point plan proposing a peace based on justice rather than military triumph, but it was stillborn. France and Britain, regarding it as biased against them (as it was, in the current military situation), ignored it, while after an initial welcome Germany cooled towards it when the collapse of Russia made victory again seem possible. Benedict was undoubtedly attracted by Germany's offer to give Rome back to the holy see after defeating Italy, and dreaded Orthodox Russian expansionism in the event of an Allied victory. He was allowed no part in the peace settlement of 1919, the Allies having secretly (treaty of London: Apr. 1915) agreed with Italy that the Vatican should be excluded; in any case, he considered it a vengeful diktat.