Who could have imagined the outrages of the Federal government’s contraception mandate shenanigans?
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, for one.
If you’re drawing a blank on this name, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was one of the most popular preachers and literary authors of turn-of-the-century England. He was also son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which made his 1903 conversion to Roman Catholicism, and subsequent ordination, a cause célèbre that rivaled that of Newman.
Benson is best known for his historical fiction–his most famous work being Come Rack! Come Rope! (1912), his stirring account of the Protestant revolt in 16th-century England–as well as for his dystopic fantasy, Lord of the World (1907).
In Lord of the World Benson imagines the rise of a socialist, humanist one-world government that suppresses religious expression. Esperanto is the official language. Euthanasia is the customary antidote for extreme suffering. A culture of death parades itself as a culture of life.
At the head of this new order is a charismatic figure, an American named Julian Felsenburgh. The newspaper account at the beginning of Book II Chapter 1 of Felsenburgh’s rhetorical power is eerie:
“Of his actual words we have nothing to say. So far as we are aware no reporter made notes at the moment; but the speech, delivered in Esperanto, was a very simple one; and very short. It consisted of a brief announcement of the great fact of Universal Brotherhood, a congratulation to all who were yet alive to witness this consummation of history; and, at the end, an ascription of praise to that Spirit of the World whose incarnation was now accomplished.”
Felsenburgh is the Anti-Christ. And the world’s panicked desire for a superficial peace and justice allows it to quickly fall under his sway.
Benson offers a fantastic scenario in Lord of the World, and it may be thought hyperbolic, if not hysterical, to turn to this story as a premonition of what Americans are experiencing now with the Federal government’s contraception mandate. But when we see a government wantonly disregard the right of religious freedom and true social justice in the name of a sophomoric notion of autonomy; when we witness that same government attempting to appease offended parties with an absurd “accommodation”; when we have to endure the cries of those who would frame the whole issue as an attack against women–then only a kind of moral blindness can deny that the civil power is becoming even more dangerously bold in its attacks against the genuine dignity of human persons, both in terms of their natural good and their supernatural destiny.
Felsenburgh himself may not yet be here, but it certainly feels as though he’s coming.
Yet Lord of the World is not principally the story of Julian Felsenburgh. That honor belongs to Percy Franklin, an English priest who eventually is named Pope Silvester III. It is Percy who, in the book’s riveting climax, bravely keeps alive the tabernacle flame of faith as the forces of the Anti-Christ move in and the fabric of time and space is rent as the Apocalypse commences.
Catholics must be grateful for the outstanding courage and wisdom displayed by our own heroes in this fight, in particular Cardinal Dolan and his brother bishops. We must remember to pray for them and that our cause, which is American as well as Catholic, will prevail as the battle plays out.
I hope you will read Lord of the World if you haven’t read it–you can find it available at St. Augustine’s Press.
I would also recommend for spiritual reading Monsignor Benson’s The Friendship of Christ, available from Scepter. The chapter on the seven words of Christ on the Cross is a wonderful resource for Lenten meditation.
P.S. Seems I’m not the only one who has turned to Lord of the World as an analogue for our times. See Dale Ahlquist’s piece here.