The Pope’s dystopian reading material

Pope Francis (CNS)

John Allen has written in Crux that there is a sense of apocalyptic urgency to recent papal pronouncements and travel plans. “Given his repeated references to Lord of the World, his rush may not be related only to a hunch that at 78 he’s got limited time”, Allen conjectured. Alluding to Pope Francis’s interview on his flight home from the Philippines, in which the Pope said that his phrase about “ideological colonisation” could be explained by Robert Hugh Benson’s famous novel, Allen suggested that “his fondness for the novel seems to track with his belief that humanity is making some definitive choices today.”

This is fair comment. It is worth remembering also that the Pope comes from Argentina, a country that is culturally and spiritually very different from the First World. Perhaps it is this background that makes him so easily refer to the work of the devil, as he has done on many occasions. Most western Catholics assent to the Church’s liturgy when it mentions renouncing “Satan and all his empty promises”, without otherwise giving the devil a moment’s thought. Well, the Holy Father has a keen appreciation of the power of the devil and the harm he can do when we make too easy an accommodation with this world, as Fr Dwight Longenecker, picking up the Benson thread, also suggests in a recent article.

For those who don’t know it, Lord of the World is a dystopian novel of 1907 that is probably little read today except in arcane Catholic circles; in Benson’s lively imagination, it depicts an England where Man has enthroned himself in place of God and where the Antichrist, Julian Felsenburgh, a sinister figure who has sprung from nowhere to achieve world domination in a matter of months, sets out to destroy the only serious opposition to his diabolical pride: the Catholic Church – “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 its logic: if God is dead, so too is traditional morality, the humane and civilised values than come from the Christian inheritance. Thus euthanasia is widespread and legal; “sin” is meaningless; an “alliance of psychology and materialism” provide the answers to all human questions; and the state has taken complete control over people’s lives. Children even have “citizenship” lessons.

When “Reason” is worshipped violence and murder soon follow. Mabel Brand, a young woman who has come under Felsenburgh’s spell during a huge rally (the similarities to Nuremberg will be obvious to post-war readers), turns to despair when she comes to realise that the god of “Humanity” which has seduced her, is in reality a “ravening monster, dripping blood from claws and teeth”. Rejecting the new world order she chooses suicide.

Evelyn Waugh, whose own prophetic and dystopian short story, Love Among the Ruins (1952), deserves to be better known, thought highly of Benson, 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 belief that gives the novel its fascination and power. The reader recognises the world is in the end times and in its death throes; all that remains is the final stark confrontation between good and evil. The only power capable of overcoming the ruthless determination of Julian Felsenburgh is held by a lonely figure in a white cassock, the former Fr Percy Franklin, now Pope Silvester III, who prepares to confront the enemy in Palestine at a place called Megiddo, “sometimes known as Armageddon”, armed only with “an iron box and within that box a silver cup and within that cup – Something.” In an interesting authorial touch, Felsenburgh bears an uncanny resemblance to Franklin: a “reverse of the medal”, suggesting how closely evil can mimic or ape the good.

Given this literary scenario, what might be the “definitive choices” humanity is making today that John Allen refers to? From Pope Francis’s visionary perspective, a world in which unborn babies are routinely killed, where euthanasia increasingly seems the best solution to a sick, sad or aging population and where “ideological colonisation” has altered the fundamental meaning of marriage, can start to bear an eerie resemblance to the appalling anti-civilisation of Lord of the World.