When the celebrated Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson published his utopia The Dawn of All in 1911, he was answering critics who said that his 1907 Lord of the World envisioned too hopeless a future for the Catholic Church – one of continued persecution, with the Church driven underground once again. Both Pope Francis and his immediate predecessor (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) recommended Lord of the World. The trends of today make the Lord of the World scenario all too probable.
Is a Dawn of All scenario possible? In Benson’s later work, a monsignor wakes up after years in a coma to discover, to his disbelief, a world in which Catholicism stands on the verge of conquest. Asking why Catholicism has approached a moment of triumph, the monsignor is told that its doctrines turned out to be well suited to answering the fundamental questions of the age. The nascent field of psychology, Benson imagines, could yield instead to a renewal of Catholicism’s insights about the soul.
Benson’s The Dawn of All is not meant to be a diagnostic of the future turn toward Catholicism. Instead it is a guide about how to think – and how to plan. It explains how Catholicism could answer the deepest concerns of the contemporary age.
When faced with a Lord of the World scenario, though, Catholics often despair about the difficulty of “changing the culture”. Once corruption has taken hold in a society, must we not work for decades, even centuries, slowly “taking back the culture” – or perhaps securing only a few redoubts against the deluge?
If we think about Catholicism as an ism – a doctrine or theory in competition with other theories – we are likely to opt for discouragement. If the advance of our ism is contingent on, say, persuading our countrymen about the theology of the body, for example, we might want to head for the hills. Benson’s mindset in The Dawn of All, however, teaches us to look at how Catholic approaches might align with the needs, not simply of ordinary folks, but of the elite.
What is the situation of the “elite” today – the liberal, progressively-inclined business and political rulers? While their rule looks all the more intent on imposing itself throughout Western societies, and corporations, in particular, march in lockstep on all major social issues, the experience of 2020 suggests that, if anything, liberalism’s grasp on power is increasingly desperate.
Last year’s Covid-19 lockdowns were the actions of a white-knuckled, not confident elite, desperate to drape its decisions in the garb of science. In the United States, the media’s round-the-clock effort against Donald Trump bespoke more a fear of a reaffirmed populist presidency than it did their confidence in directing American politics. In Europe, too, the EU’s pretensions have been punctured again and again – by Britain’s final departure, by the pandemic’s fresh exposure of European fiscal tensions, and by the success of alternatives to the liberal approach to political rule.
The last year also exposed the rootlessness and separation of the elites more clearly than ever before. They have been more than happy to pull out of the large cities their wealth had built over decades, withdrawing into online work and private enclaves as those who formerly waited their tables and scrubbed their floors looked helplessly to state services for assistance.
These are not the actions of a confident, noble elite, eager to identify with their countrymen, taking part in their same sacrifices. For that elite, we have to look to leaders of the generation of Prince Philip. During the Second World War, he served in the Royal Navy, and over the course of his 69 years as royal consort, the prince patronised countless institutions in the arts and society, and from universities to industry. The true spirit of nobility is to be found in continuous personal self-sacrifice; today, our elite are characterised by withdrawal and separation.
Our own era is hardly the first to suffer under the rule of a detached and self-interested elite. But Christianity has faced challenging situations to navigate before. If we judge the present trends of liberalism certain to continue, we will be poorly positioned to find opportunities at which Christian approaches to politics could offer alternatives.
Throughout the last centuries in which liberalism was on the upswing, seeking to establish a benign commercial world shorn of passionate religiosity or moral qualms, many Christians tended to see the propositions of liberal universalism as distant echoes of Christian claims, worthy of proportionate support. Recent years, however, have made the longtime core of liberal rule clear. Thinking of itself as a mere form of “management”, liberal politics has not grasped or articulated a claim to rule. Continually forced by events into exercising rule anyway, liberalism rapidly becomes desperate, frightened, reactionary and despotic.
In The Dawn of All, Benson envisions Catholicism as a well-matched alternative to the political divide before him. Faced with the socialist assertion of the rights of society on the one hand, and the “anarchist” assertion of the individual, “the Church stepped in at that crucial point” and presented the family as the reconciliation of those tensions. “For in the Family,” Benson wrote, “you have both claims recognised: there is authority and yet there is liberty.”
To be sure, the political situation facing Catholics in the third decade of the 21st century is a distant cry from that which faced Benson in 1911. Yet his approach suggests an important way of thinking about how to leverage the trend of current events for the restoration of Christian, and indeed Catholic society.
What might a Dawn of All scenario look like today? For starters, seeing the nature of liberal rule more plainly indicates how tenuous is its grasp on power. The presence of bizarre quasi-religious beliefs has become increasingly common. Purity rituals have returned in the form of Covid-era paranoia.
The need to imagine and then exorcise every demon from the Western past has seized societies, particularly the United States, with what Georgetown political theorist Joshua Mitchell has diagnosed as a new religious fervour. The gradual seizure of commanding power by Big Tech has likewise cowed political actors and imbued contemporary society with a simultaneous feeling of power and brittleness.
If the contemporary crisis is one of rule, we should hardly expect a gradual changing of the culture to be the likely way of overturning it. In fact, the Catholic “genius”, if you will, has always been devoted to the ruling arts. In the centuries before the modern revolutions, the Church built an international bureaucracy and a surprisingly mobile ruling elite. Catholic scholars rediscovered and reconfigured Roman law for the use of a sprawling arrangement of ecclesiastical and civil institutions across the European world.
Faced with the adoption of “Machiavellian” maxims by rulers in the 16th century, Catholic political writers produced reason of state – a modern form of rule acknowledging the acquisitiveness the Machiavellians had praised, while incorporating a genuine Christianity and practice of the virtues back into the ruling arts. Catholic reason of state writers showed that genuine justice and liberality were better guarantees of improving material circumstances than the ruler’s naked self-interest.
Catholic reason of state writers did not neglect to provide “practical” reasons for the promotion of religion to the busy modern prince. Cardinal Richelieu, no naïf, wrote that the “reign of God… is, in fact, so absolutely necessary that without this foundation no prince can rule well nor can any state be happy and successful”.
For today’s elites, Catholic accounts of the nature of society and its purpose, as well as the character of rulers and the arts of rule, would be as far from their concern as the arguments of astrology. But Catholic works on the arts of rule and the justification of society have hardly disappeared. They wait on bookshelves and in seminars – ready for the apostasy of the elites.
Gladden Pappin is associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas and deputy editor of American Affairs
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.