The One We Were Waiting For

by Fr. George W. Rutler

I am rereading Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson.

In 1907, the English convert Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson wrote The Lord of the World, in which he predicted inter-city air travel in “velors” (anticipating Zeppelins and war planes), electric billboards, globalized finance, rapid communications, atomic bombs, and the world progress of Marxism and world war. While abortion was beyond the pale even in this dystopia, he did foresee legalized euthanasia.

Benson was a brilliant neurotic, given to pulpit hysteria and remarkable narcissism. I was relieved years ago to learn that Father Martindale, whom I much admired, wrote his biography of Benson only under obedience to his Jesuit superiors. Still, notwithstanding his eccentricities, Benson was far more than a curiosity in his own land. He had a phenomenal impact on preaching and writing even in New York, where he loved to ride trains with the engineer in the locomotive.

He knew his book would be volatile, so he wrote in a preface: “I am perfectly aware that this is a terribly sensational book, and open to innumerable criticisms on that account, as well as on many others. But I did not know how else to express the principles I desired (and which I passionately believe to be true) except by producing their lines to a sensational point. I have tried, however, not to scream unduly loud, and to retain, so far as possible, reverence and consideration for the opinions of other people. Whether I have succeeded in that attempt is quite another matter.”

He writes of a young political figure from the American midwest, with enormous financial resources, who offers himself as a pacific healer of divisions between Eastern and Western world cultures. Julian Felsenburgh’s rise to power is inexplicable in terms of any accomplishment. He is serenely self-confident, cool to the point of coldness, and capable of reducing crowds to sobbing and fainting by his prepared speeches; he persuades all nations — which had not heard of him until recently — to make him “president” of the world.

He proposes benevolence through a world religion with himself at the center. Westminster Abbey is converted into a shrine for a statue of Man, for “Man is God.” Felsenburgh would be the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Saviour of the World. In the media, editors proclaim with increasing hysteria:

“Not peace but a sword,” said, CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. “Not a sword but peace” is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST’S claims or have never accepted them. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we now know that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. Man has groaned long enough. but at length he understands himself and is at peace.

The new world religion would be a humanitarian compact based on pacifism, pantheism, and the eradication of poverty through redistribution of wealth. The one obstacle to this was Christianity, which Benson makes synonymous with Catholicism (both because of his own ecclesiology and his prediction of the collapse of Protestantism as a significant force). Felsenburgh uses compromised Catholics and compliant priests to persuade timid Catholics, and they set up ritual parallels to Catholicism, rather the way the Theantrophistes and others tried in the French Revolution. In one scene a modernist priest offers the services of such to Felsenburgh’s minions in Whitehall: “We number about two hundred in London. I will leave a pamphlet with you, if I may, stating our objects, our constitution, and so on. It seemed to us that here was a matter in which our past experience might be of service to the Government.”

Felsenburgh betrays his pacifism by destroying Rome and virtually the entire Church on earth, save for one last pope and a dozen bishops, who witness the end of the world in the Holy Land, the Pontiff holding the Blessed Sacrament in this Armageddon as Felsenburgh, the anti-Christ no longer disguised, approaches. Under a red sky, with the Pope chanting “Tantum Ergo,” we are left to imagine for ourselves the next scene.

The book was so depressing that Benson wrote a cheerful sequel, The Dawn of All, which reverses the satanic scenes of Felsenburgh’s world. It is faintly ridiculous, with the Pope catering parties with orchestras for all races and tongues giving him homage in the Vatican. Benson likes a good party done well.

In 1992, a lecturer at the Catholic University of Milan specifically cited Benson and The Lord of the World. in describing the dangers of utopianism. He said of the fictitious Felsenburgh: “The anti-Christ is represented as the great carrier of peace in a similar new world order.” That speaker has a moral voice now, but no vote in the United States, since he has his own few acres of the world as Pope Benedict XVI.

— Fr. George W. Rutler is a Catholic priest in New York.