Those in the secular media who diligently follow the movements and pronouncements of Pope Francis will have observed that he quite often refers to the devil. He has also referred on a few occasions to a book on the subject of diabolical activity that has clearly impressed him: Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson. For those in the press who have not done their homework on the Holy Father’s literary tastes and who feel more comfortable when he seems to fall in with their own socialist agenda, Benson’s book will present an enigma: why is this elderly, gregarious man from a Third World country, with his large capacity for heart-warming human gestures, so caught up in the dystopian and apocalyptic vision of a book published in 1907?
A flippant answer would be that it has a brilliant story-line, written at a pace and with an intensity that keeps the reader turning the pages of the dramatic plot. A more serious response would be that Pope Francis has fully grasped why Benson chose to use all his gifts as a writer to show his readers what lay beneath the surface of their seemingly peaceable and genteel Edwardian lives: the mortal battle, as long as human life on earth exists, between good and evil, God and Satan. As a convert (he was the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury) from middle class Anglicanism, with all its characteristic tolerance, respectability and capacity to balance conflicting beliefs, Benson had come to see that the Catholic Church which he had joined was the only moral and spiritual authority on earth capable of serious combat with evil.
The novelist Evelyn Waugh, another Catholic convert, whose own dystopian short story, “Love among the Ruins”, published in 1952, deserves to be better known, thought very highly of Benson’s talents, writing “he was a magnetic preacher, an excellent story-teller, a ready writer; he had enthusiasm and unremitting energy, a rich imagination…but he knew that there was only one relationship of absolute value, that of the soul to God.”
It is this conviction that gives the novel its fascination and power. Benson describes an England where God is officially dead and where a strange and sinister figure, Julian Felsenburgh, who has sprung from nowhere to achieve world domination in a matter of months, emerges as the Antichrist, determined to destroy the only serious opposition to his cult of self-worship: the Catholic Church, described as “a superstition which, however infamous, is yet the one and only force capable of withstanding the true progress of man.” The novel is ruthless in the logic of its theme: if God is dead, so too is the traditional morality and humane values that have been inherited from the Christian faith. Thus, Benson shows an England where suicide is legal and euthanasia widespread; where the concept of personal sin is meaningless; where an “alliance of psychology and materialism” provide the answers to all human questions; and where the state has taken complete control over people’s lives.
Where the god of “Humanity” is worshipped, violence and murder soon follow. Mabel Brand, a young woman who has fallen under Felsenburgh’s spell during a huge rally in London (the strong similarities to the Nuremberg rallies, with their quasi-religious overtones, will be obvious to post-WWII readers), turns to despair when she finally realises that the compelling personality of the smooth-talking “god” who has seduced her mind and heart, is in reality a “ravening monster, dripping blood from claws and teeth.” Rejecting this terrifying new world order, she commits suicide.
Swept along by the dizzying pace of the novel, the reader realises that the world is now in its death throes; all that remains is the final stark confrontation between the forces of evil and a lonely figure in a white cassock, Pope Silvester III, who, living secretly in Palestine, prepares to face all the deadly instruments of war in the hands of his arch-enemy at a place called Megiddo, “sometimes called Armageddon”, armed only with “an iron box and within that box a silver cup and within that cup – Something.”
What sets Benson’s dystopia apart from the two more famous works in the same genre later in the 20th century, Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World is its spiritual character. Where Orwell showed man’s inhumanity to man that followed from slavish adherence to a Marxist-type ideology, and Huxley presented the shallowness of a merely technological paradise, Benson’s is a deeply spiritual vision: when God has been banished from the world, Satan will inevitably be enthroned. Persecution and death will follow those who cling to the old faith; finally will come the last battle.
The parallels between Benson’s fiction and certain features of the modern world have not been lost on Pope Francis: sterile relationships between men and women leading to a catastrophic fall in the birth-rate in many countries; callous disregard for life in the womb; the constant pressure to allow euthanasia for the sick, the sad and the elderly. Secular commentators who fasten on his seemingly more “liberal” pronouncements may have missed the underlying point of what he is saying to them. They might like to read Benson.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.