Writing at Crux yesterday, John Allen suggested that Pope Francis is driven by a “sense of urgency,” and Allen thinks he knows why. During his recent airborne press conference, the Pope advised listeners to read Robert Hugh Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World, a dystopian vision of a near future in which the Catholic Church has been marginalized and a charismatic, secular world ruler is taking hold.
We’re not talking Oprah’s Book Club here. When the Pope recommends a book, it’s striking news that Catholics might well heed.
Trying to read between the lines, Allen notes that Lord of the World displays a “keen sense that the world is reaching a turning point and there’s not much time left to set things right.” This, Allen writes, may explain why the Pope has such an accelerated travel schedule over the coming year: not that the Pope thinks his life may be coming to a close but that civilization itself may be nearing a “turning point.”
I read Lord of the World nearly four years ago when I saw that it was recommended by some of the smart folks of Communion and Liberation. At that time, I posted a review at Goodreads, which is still there. This is what I wrote:
Being Catholic today is a challenge. It can be awkward talking about one's faith in polite company—at the average Boston-area cocktail party, for instance. The Church's position on social issues is all wrong, at least if you heed the common mentality. Catholics are among the biggest threats to good, sound, everyday, politically correct thinking. Catholics actually believe in such antiquated notions as God, faith, obedience, life, chastity before marriage, and fidelity in marriage, and they have the nerve to suggest that others might want to consider such beliefs themselves! In a world that often seems to have embraced secular humanism to the exclusion of all ways of looking at life, a world that says you can believe anything you want as long as you don't force your beliefs on me, the Catholic is fast becoming a pariah.
Maybe I am overstating the case. Things may not be this dire. Yet. But if you read Lord of the World by 19th-century Anglican-turned-Catholic-priest Robert Hugh Benson, you may share my fear that we are not far from a time when being Catholic will be outlawed. If it is forbidden to pray in public places, or display even a cross, can outright prohibition of religious faith be far behind?
In Benson's brave new world (a late 20th-century world imagined from 1908), there are three super powers—America, Europe, and “the East”—much as there are in Orwell's 1984. As the book begins, a world leader named Julian Felsenburgh has emerged preaching the divinity of Man himself, and the Catholic Church is the last traditional institution standing against Felsenburgh's atheistic humanism. It is no surprise to the majority when the Church is strictly regulated, then outlawed. The world is soon plunged back into a Second-Century scenario in which the only way to be openly Catholic is to invite martyrdom.
Characters include an English priest promoted to Pope when all hell breaks loose, an English woman who becomes disenchanted with the new persecution, and her husband, a government official charged with carrying out Felsenburgh's program.
Orwell's 1984 predicted a world in which human freedom was imprisoned by totalitarianism. Huxley's Brave New World foresaw a time when social and scientific engineering would call the shots.
Benson's dystopian novel brings on the apocalypse but from a different cause: the tragic demise of Catholic faith in the world.
In my limited experience, the only Catholic novel(s) that compete with Lord of the World for showing the Church pitted against culture are the works of Sigrid Undset, especially my favorite, her “Master of Hestviken” series.