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Benson, Robert Hugh
Jaca Book - 1997, Pagine 344 Prezzo €13,43
Distopia cattolica scritta nel 1907 e ambientata in un mondo futuro dominato da un anticristo apparso sotto vesti umanitarie. La Chiesa cattolica è perseguitata e rischia l'estinzione.

Recensione di Harry W. Crocker III

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 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.


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