Apocalypse Now

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Go
ahead: name the three great dystopian novels of the twentieth century.

Well,
of course, there's George Orwell's 1984
and Aldous Huxley's Brave
New World
… and… and….

The
book that always falls off the list is Robert Hugh Benson's Lord
of the World
. Published in 1907 — and still in print — it
is the precursor of those later dystopias, but it is also unique.
Where Orwell saw the future primarily through the prism of politics
and Huxley primarily through the prism of science, Benson sees the
future primarily through the prism of religion — and of where religion
and politics meet.

In
many ways, the book is a LewRockwell.com manifesto. In this future
there are, in the West, only two political factions: the Communists,
who are essentially extreme Tony Blair Socialists (remember this
book was written before the Bolshevik Revolution), and the Individualists,
an alliance of old Tories and Catholics. Protestantism no longer
exists. The Protestant doctrine of individual judgment has finally
dispensed with God altogether and leached into the secular humanitarianism
of the Communists.

The
West is a unified bloc that incorporates Africa (Benson did not
imagine the West's retreat from empire, at least in Africa). The
other two global power blocs are the East and the Americas.

And
then there is Rome.

The
pope has surrendered to Italy all of the churches on the peninsula
in exchange for making Rome a fully Catholic city, where progress
is essentially forbidden and people go about their lives as Christians
first and people of the world second. Gathered around the pope are
not only the splendor of the papal court and the charm of an antiquarian
city amidst a future of rubberized rooms and low-flying "volors"
(Benson's word for airplanes), but the dismissed kings of Europe.
It is a reactionary paradise.

Outside
of it is progress, freely available and sometimes mandatory euthanasia
(a trend that many twentieth-century dystopian writers predicted),
and legally mandated conformity to the greater glory of man (or
political correctness). In this world, the Catholic Church is tolerated
at sufferance. Until….

There
is one great flaw in the brave new world, and that is the possibility
of world war. Benson completely missed the possibility of the resurgence
of Islam. Very Englishly, he imagines that it has faded away into
the esoteric mysteries of Sufism. The threat comes not from Islam,
but from sheer power-bloc politics — and the East is the biggest
bloc in the world.

Then
a peacemaker comes — a superman — and the world is now united as
one. In this new dispensation, "spirituality" — the worship
of man and nature — is encouraged, even required. But the recalcitrant
Catholic Church is no longer seen as tolerable. It is an impediment
to man's great progressive march forward. It is the embodiment of
ignorance, superstition, shameful history, war, and oppression.
It is remembered that Jesus Himself said that He came not to bring
peace, but a sword. And in the name of humanity and peace… Rome
is bombed into oblivion.

Quite
a story — and it doesn't end there.

The
author, too, is something of a story. Robert Hugh Benson was the
son of an Archbishop of Canterbury and the brother of E. F. Benson
(of the Mapp and Lucia books). He became an Anglican priest himself,
then converted to Catholicism, in that well-trodden path of religiously
conservative Englishmen, and became a Catholic priest, speaker,
and prolific writer. Lord of the World is his most famous
novel, and while at times its spiritual passages appear to be written
with a passion that defies understanding, it is never a simple-minded
apologetic. There is no real defense of the Church (aside from hints
that it is true), and the Communists in their speeches and thoughts
are painted as thoroughly reasonable. It is the Catholics who stick
out as holding to something unreasonable — to an unseen God. There
is, in short, no egging of the cake. Nor is there any happy ending
for the characters (at least in traditional, secular terms). The
hero-priest is hardly heroic, save by circumstances that make him
a target. He lives under threat of the categorical imperative of
the new humanitarianism. It orders that the Catholic Church must
be destroyed to the point of killing every man capable of making
a claim to apostolic succession.

We
shouldn't forget that in twentieth-century Russia, Spain, Mexico,
and in every Communist country, this program was to varying degrees
enacted — albeit, not globally but locally. There were more Catholic
martyrs in the twentieth century than in every other century put
together.

And
even today it should give us pause. The experience of the Catholic
faith in the United States has been singular. We were spared a century
of martyrs — few other countries were.

Lord
of the World teaches us something else, too. Though Rome might
lie in ruins, though liberalism — and its convert faithless priests
— might seek the destruction of the Church, in the end the faithful
will find, even if they are but a bare remnant of mankind, that
their faith is true.

Not
beach reading, perhaps, but a book to put on your list for Lent.

June
28, 2002

H.
W. Crocker III [send him
mail
] is the author of the newly published Triumph:
The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000-Year History

(Random House). His
prize-winning novel, The
Old Limey
, has just been reissued in paperback.

H.W.
Crocker III Archives

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