Monday, February 16, 2015

Lord of the World, IV: The Last, Best Hope

Last week, in the previous posting in this series, we discussed the question of vocation or “calling” as it affected the satiric fiction of Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, author of Lord of the World (1907) — and (of course) the critical importance of widespread capital ownership to empower people to be able to live their vocations without being unduly constrained by the need to gain a subsistence for themselves and their families.

Stupendously appalling
Today we look at another aspect of Benson’s work, one that surprises many of his latter-day fans, or those whose only acquaintance with his fiction is through the stupendously appalling Lord of the World, or his stunning historical fiction (which we won’t get too much into in this series).  That is, Benson’s remarkably positive attitude toward America and Americans.

From a number of hints, it seems obvious that Benson appears to have considered Americans the hope of humanity in some fashion.  This was a view in which Pope Leo XIII seems to have concurred.  We have only to read Rerum Novarum with its emphasis on widespread ownership in the means of production, a condition that still, even at that late date, marked American society, to see the importance that the pope placed on a property-based economic order.

Archbishop John Ireland
True, the loss of small ownership as well as the opportunity and means to acquire a capital stake had virtually disappeared.  This was a concern of Archbishop John Ireland (1838-1913) and Judge Peter S. Grosscup (1852-1921), who were both friends of Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858-1919) and who served on the same committee in Chicago in October of 1907 to investigate trusts and combinations.  Ireland promoted small land ownership, while Grosscup advocated ordinary people becoming significant shareholders (with full rights of property) in reformed corporations.

Leo XIII, however, was adamant that most people had to own capital, and America was the one place where widespread capital ownership had been achieved — after a fashion.  He considered the United States a model for Church-State relations when Catholicism was not the religion of the majority.

Clement XIV
Consequently, Leo XIII was very popular in America . . . with everyone except violent anti-Catholics, modernists, and traditionalists.  What surprises most people is the fact that a Protestant Senator, Cushman Kellogg Davis (1838-1900) of Minnesota, eulogized Leo XIII on the floor of Congress as “the greatest Pope since Ganganelli,” Ganganelli being Clement XIV (Giovanni Vincenzo Antonio Ganganelli, 1705-1774).

The ultramontane (traditionalist) party detested Clement XIV for his suppression of the Jesuits.  Other people of all faiths held him in high regard in the late nineteenth century, however.  Jews in particular had great respect for him, as his investigation of the notorious “blood libel” in 1758 at the behest of Pope Benedict XIV (Prospero Lorenzo Lambertini, 1675-1758) revealed the falsity of the charge.  (Lorenzo Cardinal Ganganelli, The Ritual Murder Libel and the Jew (1760).  London: Woburn Press, 1934, 67-94.)

Washington Hall, right of the Golden Dome, across from the church
Benson seems to have enjoyed his relatively frequent visits to the United States — he gave a series of Lenten sermons there every other year for a number of years.  He even gave a talk on the papacy to students at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, a few months before his death in 1914.  It was rumored he was going to talk on the dangers of “spiritism,” and Washington Hall on campus (one of the oldest buildings at Notre Dame still surviving) was packed for the appearance of “the distinguished English visitor” (Notre Dame Scholastic 47:25, April 25, 1914, 614-615.)

Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, foundress of theosophy
A word about spiritism, which concerned Benson greatly as a danger to all religion.  Spiritism, of which Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy became the most widespread version, merged and morphed to become the New Age movement, which was absorbed into various social theories, and is influential even today under various names and labels.  Benson had seen the dangers of spiritism first hand, having been an associate for a short while of one of the oddest of odd couples in recent history, the weird Marie Corelli (not her real name, which is unknown) and the sinister Baron Corvo (not his real name, which was Frederick Rolfe), until he realized their true characters and the nature of what they were teaching, whereupon he immediately cut ties — in revenge for which Rolfe began spreading vague accusations and stories about Benson, some of which still circulate today despite their obvious falsity.

Small is Beautiful: "The classic book on New Age economics"
Strangely, as Father Mitch Pacwa, S.J. and other commentators have noted, many Catholics and members of other mainline Christian denominations seem to have a fascination for the “Esoteric Buddhist” aspects of the New Age . . . that orthodox Buddhists shy away from.  This influence has been strongest among Fabian socialists, Christian socialists, and disciples of E.F. Schumacher, especially through Schumacher’s books, Small is Beautiful (1973) — warmed over socialism originally marketed as “The New Age Guide to Economics,” and today often categorized as “Buddhist Economics” — and Guide for the Perplexed (1977), a title (but nothing else) “borrowed” from the Aristotelian philosopher Moses Maimonides, which rehashes standard theosophical concepts and which, remarkably, has found its way onto some Christian recommended reading lists.

In tomorrow’s posting we’ll take a look at how Benson viewed Americans — and why he had such a positive view of them as they were in his day.

Msgr. R.H. Benson
Sources for Benson’s novels and related material: