February 5, 2015, Thursday — The Peril the Pope Fears

“I advise you to read it.” —Pope Francis, to the Vatican press corps, during a press conference on the papal airplane on January 19, flying back from the Philippines, referring to the novel by the British Catholic convert from Anglicanism, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, The Lord of the World (1907)

On January 19, on the airplane returning from his trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis gave a long press conference to the representatives of the world’s media traveling with him on the airplane.

Among the points that Francis made was the need to read a certain book to understand better what is happening, politically and culturally and spiritually, in our world today.

He said, in response to a journalist’s question:

“There is a book, excuse me but I’ll make a commercial, there is a book that maybe is a bit heavy at the beginning because it was written in 1903 in London. It is a book that at that time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization and wrote in that book. It is called The Lord of the Earth, or The Lord of the World. One of those. The author is (Robert Hugh) Benson, written in 1903. I advise you to read it. Reading it, you’ll understand well what I mean by ideological colonization.”

The Pope’s recommendation of The Lord of the World is the topic of my editorial for the February issue of Inside the Vatican magazine (text below; to subscribe to the magazine, call 1-800-789-9494.)

First, two brief notes, one on the publication date of the novel, the second on other mentions of this same work by Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

(1) On the date of the writing of the book.

Pope Francis says here that it was written “in 1903.” However, the Pope — who was speaking off the cuff, without notes, and after a week-long journey to Sri Lanka and the Philippines — mis-remembered the date.

Benson had the idea for the book in 1905, wrote it during 1906, and published it in 1907.

Benson’s biographer, Fr. Cyril Martindale, says that Benson had the idea for Lord of the World while he was a Catholic chaplain at Cambridge University. Benson first mentions the book in a letter to his mother on December 16, 1905: “I have an idea for a book so vast and tremendous that I daren’t think about it…. mix up Saint-Simon, Russia breaking loose, Napoleon, Evan Roberts, the Pope and Antichrist…”

In a letter to his friend and literary mentor Frederick Rolfe on January 19, 1906, Benson writes, “Anti-Christ is beginning to obsess me. If it is ever written, it will be a BOOK. How much do you know about the Freemasons? Socialism?… Oh! If I dare to write all that I think! In any case, it will take years.”

But it did not takes years. On May 16, 1906, Benson writes in his diary, “Anti-Christ is going forward; and Rome is about to be destroyed.”

On June 28, 1906, he again writes in his diary, “I HAVE FINISHED ANTI-CHRIST. And really there is no more to be said. Of course I am nervous about the last chapter — it is what one may call just a trifle ambitious to describe the End of the World. (No!) But it has been done.”

(2) On the other citations of this book by Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI:

At 9:09 p.m. on September 11, 1990 (precisely 11 years to the day prior to the attacks which brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York City, September 11, 2001) — US President George H. W. Bush made an important speech to a joint session of the the US Congress regarding the looming war in the Persian Gulf. In that speech, he for the first time used the famous phrase “new world order” to describe what he saw as the overarching foreign policy goal of the United States. Bush said:

“The crisis in the Persian Gulf, as grave as it is, also offers a rare opportunity to move toward an historic period of cooperation. Out of these troubled times, our fifth objective — a new world order — can emerge: a new era — freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony. A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor. Today that new world is struggling to be born, a world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak. This is the vision that I shared with President Gorbachev in Helsinki. He and other leaders from Europe, the Gulf, and around the world understand that how we manage this crisis today could shape the future for generations to come.”

One year and five months later, on February 8, 1992, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) also used the phrase “new world order,” clearly in response to Bush’s use of the phrase. But the context in which he used the phrase was very different. It was the context of Benson’s book.

Note well, this was not long after the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and just five weeks after the signing of the dissolution of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev on Christmas Day in 1991.

Ratzinger had been invited to give a talk at Milan’s Catholic University of the Sacred Heart (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore), on his recently published book A Turning Point for Europe?: Diagnosis and Prognosis regarding the State of the Church and the World (published in German in 1991 as Wendezeit fuer Europa?: Diagnosen un Prognosen zur Lage von Kirche und Welt).

In his discussion of the prospects for a new, unified world, Ratzinger said that Benson, too, had forseen the arrival of such a society, but that there were grave dangers accompanying this arrival. Benson foresaw “such a unified civilization and its power to destroy the spirit,” Ratzinger said. In fact, in Benson’s work, Ratzinger continued, “the anti-Christ is represented as the great carrier of peace in a similar new world order.”

Ratzinger then went on to note that a previous Pope, Benedict XV (and note, when Ratzinger was elected Pope himself 13 years later, in 2005, he chose the name “Benedict,” and so became Benedict XVI) had also had doubts about the goodness of building a humanistic world order without reference to or mention of Christ.

“Benedict XV,” Ratxinger said, “on July 25, 1920 delivered an encyclical Bonum sane, in which he warned: ‘The coming of a world state is longed for, by all the worst and most distorted elements. This state, based on the principles of absolute equality of men and a community of possessions, would banish all national loyalties. In it no acknowledgement would be made of the authority of a father over his children, or of God over human society. If these ideas are put into practice, there will inevitably follow a reign of unheard-of terror.'”

So, we have persuasive evidence from this 1992 address of Ratzinger, that Ratzinger was profoundly affected by Benson’s vision of a “new world order,” seen as an order which most likely would come into being by setting aside Christ.

Pope Francis has also publicly cited Benson’s book on another occasion, not just on the airplane on January 19.

In a sermon on November 18, 2013 (a year and three months ago), Francis praised The Lord of the World as depicting how “the spirit of the world… leads to apostasy, almost as if it were a prophecy.”

That is, almost as if it Benson’s novel were a prophecy of what has happened in our time.

To put it another way: Francis believes that Benson’s book describes with prophetic power how the “spirit of the world” leads many, including Christian believers, astray, and even into apostasy, that is, into denying the faith they once held, “almost as if it were a prophecy” of the widespread apostasy that has come to pass in our time.

Here below is the text of the Editorial for the February 2015 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine:

Editorial, February 2015

The Peril the Pope Fears

Pope Francis has once again mentioned the apocalyptic work by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, The Lord of the World (1907). The book describes the coming of the Antichrist. Does Francis believe the Antichrist is… about to arrive?

By Robert Moynihan

Pope Francis told the journalists traveling with him on his flight back from Asia on January 19 that there is one book they should read to better understand the dangers facing the Church and humanity today. He said it is his favorite book, entitled The Lord of the World, by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson (London, 1907). And note well: Francis has recommended this same book before, and it has been cited on occasion also by Pope Benedict XVI, both as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Pope.

When two Popes both advise reading the same book to gain deeper perspective and understanding on the perils of our time, it seems clear that there must be some teaching or insight in that book that has deeply impressed both Popes, a teaching or insight that all Catholics ought to know about and reflect upon.

Benson’s novel, written in the early 20th century, is set in the late 20th century — a time already in the past for us today. It describes the coming into the world of a political leader who presents himself in many ways as a good and decent person, except for one key thing: he rejects Christ, and asks Christians to reject Christ, for the sake of world peace. And, in the end, many Christians do…

What we have, in essence, then, in this book, is a warning from more than a century ago that when the Antichrist comes, he will come not with horns on his head, but with smooth and persuasive arguments that set aside the traditional Christian hope, for a “new hope,” a “human hope.”

Christian orthodoxy centers everything on Jesus Christ. I repeat: Christian orthodoxy is entirely “Christo-centric,” centered on Christ, the center of time, of human history, of reality itself.

By making Christ the center, orthodox Christian faith, hope, and love “relevatize,” make less central, more peripheral, all of our human faith, hope and love, allowing us to focus intently upon and arrive at the ultimate meaning of our lives, which is Christ himself, and in Christ, to be “saved” from sin and death, to be “made holy,” and, ultimately (as scandalous as it may sound), to be “divinized” — made able to share in the very life of the eternal, triune God.

The vision of Benson’s novel is of a “humanistic” temptation which leads people first to forget Christ, then to reject him. And that is why this “humanistic” tempter of the novel is called the Antichrist.

This vision has, arguably, made its way, to some degree, into the magisterium of the Popes, the official teaching authority of the Church. The American Jesuit scholar Father James Schall, after reading this papally-suggested novel, wrote in Crisis in 2009 that “this novel is remarkably similar in theme to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, one of the very great encyclicals. That is, the novel is about the futility of a this-worldly utopia with the instruments of death (abortion, euthanasia) and endless life (prolongation of life, cloning) that are designed to make it come about. Indeed, in a lecture he gave at the Catholic University in Milan on February 6, 1992 [editor’s note: the lecture was on February 8] Josef Ratzinger cited The Lord of the World and the deadly Universalist, inner-world atmosphere it depicted.”

So, not only did Pope Francis on January 19 on the plane suggest reading this book to the entire press corps covering the Vatican (and we reprint that entire interview on pp. 36-41 of this issue, so you can find there exactly what the Pope says about this book), but it was also cited approvingly by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 1992, and then, seemingly, as Schall argues, when Pope Benedict wrote his encyclical on hope, he drew on the book’s insight.

As Schall puts it: “The anti-Christ figure in The Lord of the World becomes the ‘Man-God,’ the ‘Lord of the World,’ precisely by promising universal brotherhood, peace, and love, but no transcendence.”

The hero of the book is an English priest, Percy Franklin, who watches with increasing concern as Julian Felsenburgh, an American senator from Vermont, appears on the world scene, a lone figure promising the world goodness if it but follow him. Felsenburgh becomes the president of Europe, then of the world, by popular acclaim. The only group who in any sense oppose him are a few loyal Catholics.

The English priest is eventually called to Rome by the Pope, John XXIV, to brief him on the rise of Felsenburgh.

All that had gone before, Percy tells the aging Pope, pointed to what had now actually taken place — namely, the reconciliation of the world on a basis other than that of Divine Truth.

It was the intention of God and of His Vicars to reconcile all men in Christ Jesus; but the corner-stone had once more been rejected, and instead of the chaos that the pious had prophesied, there was coming into existence a unity [editor’s note: a “new world order”] unlike anything known in history.

This was the more deadly from the fact that it contained so many elements of indubitable good.

War, apparently, was now extinct, and it was not Christianity that had done it; union was now seen to be better than disunion, and the lesson had been learned apart from the Church. In fact, natural virtues had suddenly waxed luxuriant, and supernatural virtues were despised. Friendliness took the place of charity, contentment the place of hope, and knowledge the place of faith…

Persecution, he said, was coming. There had been a riot or two already. But persecution was not to be feared. It would no doubt cause apostasies, as it had always done, but these were deplorable only on account of the individual apostates…

But what was chiefly to be feared was the positive influence of Humanitarianism: it was coming, like the kingdom of God, with power; it was crushing the imaginative and the romantic, it was assuming rather than asserting its own truth…

The soul “naturally Christian” seemed to be becoming “the soul naturally infidel”…

Finally, he expected, Humanitarianism would presently put on the dress of liturgy and sacrifice, and when that was done, the Church’s cause, unless God intervened, would be over.

Percy sits back, trembling.

“Yes, my son. And what do you think should be done?” the Pope says.

Percy flings out his hands, and says:

“Holy Father — the Mass, prayer, the rosary. These first and last. The world denies their power: it is on their power that Christians must throw all their weight. All things in Jesus Christ — in Jesus Christ, first and last. Nothing else can avail.”

(to be continued)

What is the life of man?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, Against All Heresies, c. 180 A.D.

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