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Pope Francis, Robert Hugh Benson, and the “Spirit of the World”
According to a recent report in The Times newspaper (30 January 2015), “the Pope has urged anyone who wants to understand him to read a science fiction novel published in 1907 by Robert Hugh Benson”. Monsignor Benson was an Anglican priest and novelist who embraced Catholicism in 1903. He was the son of Edward White Benson, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 to 1896. He passed away in 1914 at the age of 42, possibly from pneumonia judging by an account of the last days of his life by Canon Sharrock in the Tablet, 24 October 1914, 569. The report in The Times observes that his novel, Lord of the World, set in a dystopian twenty-first century, “sees Marxists, humanists and Freemasons taking over a society where euthanasia is obligatory for the ill and Esperanto is the common language. The antichrist returns, becoming the president of the world before going to war with the Catholic Church, precipitating the end of the world.” Tom Kington, “Etonian novelist shaped Pope’s world view,” The Times, 30 January 2015, 40.
The report in the Times had in mind the papal press conference that occurred during a recent flight (on 19 January 2015) from the Philippines to Rome. According to News.Va, the pope stated: “Think of the Balilla [an Italian Fascist youth organization during the 1920s and 1930s], think of the Hitler Youth…. They colonized the people, they wanted to do it. So much suffering … Each people has its own culture, its own history. … But when conditions are imposed by colonizing empires, they seek to make these peoples lose their own identity and create uniformity. This is spherical globalization — all points are equidistant from the centre. And true globalization — I like to say this — is not a sphere. It is important to globalize, but not like the sphere but rather, like the polyhedron. Namely that each people, every part, preserves its identity without being ideologically colonized. This is ‘ideological colonization’. There is a book — excuse me I’m advertising — there is a book, perhaps the style is a bit heavy at the beginning, because it was written in 1907 in London…. At that time, the writer had seen this drama of ideological colonization and described it in that book. It is called Lord of the World. The author is Benson, written in 1907. I suggest you read it. Reading it, you’ll understand well what I mean by ideological colonization” (link to report in News.Va).
Pope Francis made another remark endorsing Benson’s book a year earlier in his homily at Mass on 18 November 2013, suggesting that the novel demonstrates how the “spirit of the world” can lead to “progressivism”, “uniformity of thought” and “apostasy” (link). It seems that Benson’s dystopian drama, Lord of the World, is important for Pope Francis, providing (as far as the pope is concerned) a partly metaphoric, partly prophetic narration of past, present and future history, “ideological colonization,” and the “spirit of the world” (the latter phrase used by Pope Francis and Monsignor Benson on a number of occasions). Others have expressed similar admiration for the novel’s so-called prophetic nature. For example, Joseph Pearce, an English Catholic author, has described Benson’s “novel-nightmare” as a work of prophecy which is “coming true before our very eyes.” Joseph Pearce, Catholic Literary Giants (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 141. Dale Ahlquist, a fervent supporter of the movement to have G. K. Chesterton declared a saint, despite the anti-Jewish stereotypes and caricatures in Chesterton’s novels and journalistic essays (Chesterton’s stereotypes are discussed in my book, Chesterton’s Jews), has also expressed admiration for Benson’s Lord of the World. According to Ahlquist, “whether or not Monsignor Benson’s picture of our future is accurate, the fact is his picture of our present is chillingly accurate.” Dale Ahlquist, “A surprising book about the end of the world, but we know that the world ends,” The Catholic Servant 17, no. 4 (May 2011), 12 (link).
Benson’s novel combines elements of then – and now – pervasive anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, theological myths about the arrival of the Anti-Christ, and millenarian narratives about the end of the world. Benson was by no means entirely original in combining these themes, or in suggesting that the Anti-Christ would be either Masonic or Jewish. English Catholics had already been exposed to such ideas prior to Lord of the World. For example, Henry Manning, the second Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, had argued that the Anti-Christ would be of the “Jewish race”, and he suggested that the erosion of the Church’s temporal power in the 1860s by the Risorgimento (Italian unification), demonstrated that this Antichrist may already be in the world (link). During the Diana Vaughan hoax in the mid-1890s, letters and articles in various Catholic newspapers (such as the Tablet) supported the idea that a Masonic conspiracy was attempting to destroy the Church, and that an inner-circle of Freemasons called the “Palladians” were worshipping Lucifer (link). Colonel James Ratton, an English Catholic author, argued in 1904 that Jews and Freemasons were conspiring to control the world, and that the so-called “Sovereign Pontiff of Freemasonry” and the Jewish “Anti-Christ” were working together to rebuild Solomon’s Temple (link).
In the alternative history constructed in Benson’s anti-Masonic apocalyptic novel, the twenty-first century world has been divided into three great powers: the “Eastern Empire” (consisting of Russia east of the Ural Mountains, Asia, Australia and New Zealand), “Europe” (consisting of Russia west of the Ural Mountains, Europe and Africa), and the “American Republic” (consisting of the North and South American continents). At the beginning of the novel, these three competing “forces” hold sway across the globe. In the huge Eastern Empire, “a federalism of States,” there are the “Eastern religions,” a volatile melting-pot of Sufism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Islam, and Pantheism. Elsewhere in the world there are only two surviving religions, Catholicism (concentrated primarily in Rome and Ireland) and a religious Masonic “Humanitarianism.” It is explained that “Protestantism is dead”, as “supernatural religion” could not thrive without an “absolute authority”. “Private judgement in matters of faith,” it transpires, led to the “disintegration” of Protestantism. Interestingly, Judaism is not mentioned in the novel, and Jews are only mentioned in passing. However, at one point, Father Percy Franklin (the hero of the novel) does observe that: “A great access of Jews to Freemasonry is to be expected; hitherto they have held aloof to some extent, but the ‘abolition of the Idea of God’ is tending to draw in those Jews, now greatly on the increase once more, who repudiate all notion of a personal Messiah.” Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).
Though described as “anti-supernatural” – i.e. without a belief in God – “Humanitarianism” is portrayed as a new pantheistic religion, providing a succour to satisfy Man’s craving for the supernatural, through the rituals of Freemasonry, and the creed that “God is Man”. Echoing Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. … Must we not ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it?” [Die fröhliche Wissenschaft 125], this new religion declares that Man, having learned his own divinity, is now God. In Benson’s alternative history, Freemasonry has spread throughout Europe, and has seized control of most of the churches and cathedrals. It has replaced Anglicanism as the official religion of England, and unlike Catholicism, it is permitted to display its symbols. As the novel develops, attendance at Masonic “Humanitarianism” services becomes mandatory (with increasing periods of incarceration mandated for those who refuse to attend). Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).
Mirroring anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, such as the Diana Vaughan narratives – that had the Tablet persuaded at the end of the nineteenth century that “there is an inner Masonry whose workings are unknown to the general run of Masons,” and that “Satanism is practised under circumstances at least pointing to Masonic association” (“Devil Worship in France,” The Tablet, 3 October 1896, 529-530) – the narrator in Benson’s novel explains that an inner circle or higher grade of Freemasonry is responsible for the anti-religious movement. According to the narrator of the novel, “what Catholics had always suspected then became a certainty in the revelations of 1918, when P. Gerome, the Dominican and ex-Mason, had made his disclosures … It had become evident then that Catholics had been right, and that Masonry, in its higher grades at least, had been responsible throughout the world for the strange movement against religion.” Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).
The principal antagonist in the novel is Senator Julian Felsenburgh, a Masonic “Grand Master,” who champions the cause of “Universal Brotherhood,” as the successful “consummation of history” and the manifestation of the “Spirit of the World” (an allusion, it would seem, to Hegel’s teleological philosophy of history and the Weltgeist). In the novel, it becomes increasingly apparent that Felsenburgh is the Anti-Christ, whose arrival will usher in the destruction of the world (which occurs at the end of the novel). He has the power to convince those he meets that he is the true Saviour of the world (for example, at one point Father Percy Franklin recalls people kneeling before a picture of Felsenburgh, or calling out his name on their deathbeds, and in a meeting with the pope, he explains that Felsenburgh was called by some newspapers “the Son of Man” and “the Saviour of the World”). Felsenburgh has a number of special abilities, such as an amazing facility with words and facts, the ability to converse in at least fifteen languages, an astonishing memory, and an intuitive grasp of the histories, expectations, hopes and fears of all sects and castes. This allowed him to negotiate a peace between the various factions in the Eastern Empire, and then between the three empires, resulting in world peace and the end of war. He is later appointed as President of Europe, and ultimately as President of the World. In his capacity as President of Europe, he arranges the bombardment and utter destruction of Rome, which in this alternative history (written of course long before the Lateran Treaty of 1929), had been fully restored to the Church as the sovereign capital of Catholicism – in return for all the other churches in Italy being relinquished to the Humanitarianists. The destruction of Rome occurs when the pope and all but three cardinals (one of whom is Cardinal Percy Franklin) are present. A new pope is elected by the remaining cardinals: Cardinal Franklin, who takes the names Silvester. Pope Silvester III forms a secret Church network. Later, as President of the World, Felsenburgh introduces a new law legalizing the “euthanasia” (i.e. systematic extermination) of all surviving Catholics. At the end of the novel, the Antichrist has discovered the location of the pope and his new College of Cardinals (at Tel Megiddo – Armageddon), and a large force of military Zeppelins (called Volors) is dispatched to wipe out this last vestige of Catholicism. Robert Hugh Benson, Lord of the World (1907).
Pope Francis made no reference to the Anti-Christ and anti-Masonic narratives within Lord of the World. It is thus likely that on the occasions he referred to the novel, he was more concerned with it as a metaphor for globalisation, secularisation, contraception, same-sex marriages, and other so-called evil aspects of the “Spirit of the World” which he has lamented on various occasions, rather than with (a mythicized construction of) Freemasonry. In the novel, Freemasonry & Humanitarianism were linked to the so-called “Spirit of the world”, a concept that Pope Francis has referred to on a number of occasions. At Assisi, the pope stated that a Christian cannot co-exist with the “Spirit of the World,” which, he suggested, leads only to vanity, arrogance and pride. According to Pope Francis, “the Spirit of the World” is the” leprosy” and the “cancer” of society. He explained that the Spirit of the World “is an idol, it is not of God” (report in the Catholic Herald) (report by Zenit). However, whilst Freemasonry and the Anti-Christ were not explicitly evident in his references to Lord of the World, it is unlikely that their presence in the novel would have deterred him. Pope Francis has made many references to Satan, on occasion linking the evil “prince of this world” with the “spirit of the world” (report by Zenit). And with regard to Freemasonry, there are reasons to think that he may consider it an anti-Christian agency. In 2013, returning from Brazil, he made some conciliatory remarks about gay men who seek God, though he went on to criticise gay-rights lobbying. He suggested that such lobbying was orchestrated by Freemasons. “The problem,” he explained, is “lobbying by this orientation, or lobbies of greedy people, political lobbies, Masonic lobbies, so many lobbies. This is the worse problem” (report by the BBC).
It is noteworthy that whatever the pope’s concerns with Freemasonry, his remarks about it have been interpreted as a coded warning about a secret Masonic group in the Vatican by at least one regular correspondent at the Catholic Herald. According to Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith, “it is to be noted that the Pope has constantly warned of the desacralisation of the Church, and its turning into an NGO. Is he warning us against the agenda of the masonic lobby?” Lucie-Smith suggests that such an entity, if embedded within the Vatican, would be a “real enemy within.” He concludes: “Let us hope and pray that there is no masonic lobby in the Vatican. But the very fact the Holy Father has mentioned it, makes one wonder.” Alexander Lucie-Smith, “Should we be worried that Pope Francis mentioned a masonic lobby in his famous press conference?”, Catholic Herald, 30 July 2013.
It would seem that there is still a long way to go before the anti-Masonic conspiracy narrative loses its allure.