How the Church Would Rule the World
by Peter Freeman
In his 1911 preface to Dawn of All, Robert Hughes Benson proposes:
to sketch—again in parable—the kind of developments, about sixty years hence which, I think, may reasonably be expected should the opposite process begin, and ancient thought (which has stood the test of centuries, and is, in a very remarkable manner, being “rediscovered” by persons even more modern than modernists) be prolonged instead.
This project was, of course, an attempt to reconsider the themes of his previous work, The Lord of the World, in a way that was less “exceedingly depressing and discouraging to optimistic Christians” (a complaint Benson claims to have heard about his apocalyptic novel).
Thus, Benson constructs a fantasy in which people fully embrace Catholicism and allow it to inform their reason and imaginations. As a result, governments are reorganized according to Catholic principles; complete social structures are overhauled to reinforce the individual’s pursuit of eternal life, spiritual liberty, and divine happiness. All of these overhauls are described through the perspective of Msgr. Masterson, an English priest who has recently suffered what appears to be a stroke that has left him an amnesiac. Masterson only remembers the time before the changes, giving other characters occasion to explain the social practices that Masterson (and the reader) find different, alien, or even troubling.
Given that Benson’s narrative projects sixty years into the future (which would set the novel about 1971), the 21st Century reader will, at some point, wonder which of Benson’s predictions could only be the products of an early 20th Century mind. That is, which of Benson’s unfulfilled predictions now seem even more unlikely given the directions the Church has taken since he composed the book.
Msgr. Masterson is perplexed by the requirement of all men to wear uniforms designating their station and occupation in life. This seems like a quaint throwback to medieval and early modern European social customs where particular social classes were in fact forbidden from wearing particular fabrics and particular colors. Sumptuary laws did have a degree of usefulness in trying to maintain a certain status quo, especially as mercantilism and capitalism grew in the West. Once commoners gained wealth, they threatened to blur class distinctions by attiring themselves as their betters. Historically, sumptuary laws could keep those upstart fishmongers and sheep farmers from getting delusions of grandeur.
In Fr. Benson’s book, sumptuary laws still strike Msgr. Masterson as somewhat sinister and elitist, but, in an ideal Catholic state, they serve less as a means of distinguishing classes as they do to remind citizens of their different vocations. They emphasize purpose more than rank, reminding individuals that they are all equally but distinct parts of the mystical body of Christ. There is no shame in wearing the badge of any particular guild; rather, they become a source of pride. That being said, after the atrocities of Nazi Germany which was fond of forcing its citizens to identify themselves with uniforms and badges, it seems unlikely that the Church would recommend sumptuary laws any time soon. Furthermore, 21st Century Catholics often find it unusual to find religious in their collars and habits, let alone trying to impose uniforms on the laity. I wouldn’t sell off your wardrobe any time soon.
Msgr. Masterson has clearly been unwell, so his Cardinal recommends a professional medical diagnosis. The monsignor is taken aback however to learn that medicine has adopted psychic-readings as a means of determining and treating illness. He expresses his skepticism by calling the process “Christian Science.” The idea of Christian Science has largely faded in modern popular culture, although something quite similar to it perhaps resides in modern day Scientology. Christian Science, for Benson, equates to a form of faith-healing, a mind-over-matter philosophy in which the spirit has more influence over the health than physical or chemical reactions. Obviously, our modern Catholic Church has not suggested that we abandon the pharmacy just yet, and this is probably the item on the list that requires the greatest suspension of disbelief. In the fiction, the reader ends up having to merely accept this fantasy because, as is explained, science actually confirms that the spirit and mind are the true mediums of healing. Benson’s fictive science even has equipment that can perceive, quantify, and analyze Msgr. Masterson’s aura. If such a tool were in fact possible, I guess Catholic hospitals would be among the first to install them, but I wouldn’t gamble on faith-healing as a practical solution to the health care crisis.
Re-incorporation of Britain’s Colonial Powers
As an American, I am perhaps too biased to judge this particular aspect fairly. Benson imagines that, in a utopian Catholic world, the United States of America would apologize for its revolution and resubmit itself to the British monarchy. I can only assume he wrote this with a British tongue planted firmly in an Imperial cheek. His (hopeful) humor aside, he does present a certain logic for this move from a political science perspective. Once minds realize the authenticity of Catholic teaching, they come to conclude that all political power flows from God through his agent, the pope. The pope then distributes that power to the worldly princes. Thus, Americans would feel the weight of a guilty conscience for rejecting their king—their God-given ruler. Given the Vatican’s (sometimes confusing) diplomatic relationship with the United States of America, this prediction seems rather unlikely as well.
The Church’s Anti-democratic Policy
The Catholic political philosophy of Dawn of All reads like a paradox for the 21st Century Westerner. It sounds both anarchist and tyrannical. On the one hand, it values Individualism as opposed to Socialism. On the other hand, those Individuals all subscribe to a belief that the best rule is by the wisest and holiest few. This means that Benson’s brand of individualism favors monarchy over democracy. After watching two popes emerge from tyrannized nations, it’s rather hard for me to imagine a 21st Century pope coming out and condemning a nation for enfranchising its citizens and allowing them to elect their government officials. The logic behind Benson’s move, however, is the classical philosophic suspicion of true democracy – in which a rule purely of the majority would ultimately devolve into mob rule. Benson suggests that socialism is a natural consequence of democracy; a society that places the will of the majority over the collective is a society that will eventually convince itself to devalue its individual members and only see them as groups.
When Msgr. Masterson is finally brought before the Socialist President in Germany, we also see a suspicion of even the Socialist ideal. The Socialist President appears to have surprising authority over the collective. The democracy of the Socialists turns out to have been a cover for monarchical tyranny after all. While I personally still favor democracy, I have to admit that Benson seems a little uncanny in this regard. The Western democracies, America included, do seem to be willingly adopting more socialist tendencies as a whole (when he announces that Boston, Massachusetts has long been a refuge for socialists, I almost did a spit-take in the coffeeshop).
Capital Punishment for Heretics
The most controversial development in Benson’s Catholic utopia is the execution of heretics, and the author is well aware of the problem. Indeed, when Msgr. Masterson discovers that heretics are executed routinely for their beliefs, we see him begin to turn apostate. The outrage of people dying for their beliefs is utterly abhorrent to him, smacks of irrational tyranny, and makes him sympathetic to the Church’s enemies. He almost goes rogue. But Benson makes sure to remind us that his fictional version of the Church neither performs nor officially endorses the executions. Rather, the State executes heretics as a means of self-preservation, believing that heresy undermines the identity and stability of society. The pope, we are told, preaches against the death penalty for heresy, but permits the State to defend itself. There are other ameliorating factors as well. For instance, heretics can save their lives if they refuse to call themselves Catholics. Even so, Benson grants Msgr. Masterson’s skepticism on this point, and, by the end of the novel (spoiler alert), the Church agrees to merely deport heretics…to Boston.
Fr. Benson gets away with all of these predictions in the end thanks to a narrative sleight of hand (and here is where I must issue a “major spoiler alert”). The conclusion of Dawn of All reveals that the entire story to have been a dream. Perhaps Benson chooses to end his story this way because he wants to distance himself from the work itself. He winks and nods at us: I don’t really think the world will be this way; don’t take the details of this Utopia too seriously. However, I’d also argue for a more meaningful interpretation that saves the “dream” from being a mere literary device.
The dream has been imagined by an apostate priest on his death bed. Upon awaking, the priest has a last minute conversion, receives extreme unction, and dies reconciled with his Lord. Thus, the last image that Benson leaves his audience with is of a quasi-miraculous, hard-to-believe, yet certainly plausible microcosm of the book. He draws our attention away from the large-scale, spectacular social conversion and reminds us that what ultimately matters most is the individual conversion.
As with The Lord of the Word, much of the tale has been an ideological conflict between socialism and individualism, with the Church siding squarely with the individualist in both books. If we ended the story looking at how a social reorganization (the deportation of the socialists to Boston) really did bring about peace on Earth, we might get the impression that social engineering has the last laugh after all. Instead, he shows us how he hopes that fiction might inspire imagination and lead an individual towards conversion.
Peter Freeman is an assistant professor of Renaissance English Literature at a liberal arts college in the United States.