Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lord of the World, V: Benson, Money, and Modernism


One of Robert Hugh Benson’s undeservedly lesser-known novels, Initiation (1914), includes a seemingly trivial detail to which virtually no one today attaches any importance.  That is his choice of name for the ebullient and attractive nouveau riche American couple who fill a minor, if important role in the story: Hecker.  Most people who have read the book don’t even think about the name.

Rev. Isaac Hecker
In the late 19th and early 20th century, however, Father Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), Founder of the Paulists (the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle) was front page news.  He was the protégé of Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876), friend of Archbishop John Ireland (1838-1918), and someone of whom John Henry Newman (1801-1890) spoke very highly.  He was a significant individual in American history, and had a good reputation in both Catholic and Protestant circles.

Orestes A. Brownson
Ironically, after his death Hecker managed to become the center of a controversy that split the Catholic Church into three factions, and that still divide it today.  Nor is this just a “Catholic thing” or even a religious thing.  Civil society has split along the same lines.  Making matters even more confusing, there are actually very, very few people who are purely of one faction.  Most people jumble up elements of all three into some vague synthesis that helps them muddle through, going from one incomprehensible situation to another — probably why “New Age” thought and conspiracy theory are so prevalent these days.

The factions are: 1) the liberal-modernist faction (new things in new ways), 2) the conservative-traditionalist faction (old things in old ways), and 3) the progressive-orthodox faction (old things in new ways).  It’s not entirely accurate to label this last a “faction,” as “old things in new ways” was the policy of every pope since Pius IX, but things have become so muddled in the minds of most people that people aren’t even aware of it.

James Cardinal Gibbons
Very, very briefly, here’s the situation.  Modernists adopted a distorted version of Hecker’s progressive thought, which drew condemnations from traditionalists, who lumped modernists and progressives together.  As a Catholic priest, Benson was aware of the intricacies of the issue, which made headlines around the world, and seems to have supported the progressive-orthodox position of Brownson, Hecker, Archbishop Ireland, James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921), Francesco Cardinal Satolli (1839-1910), and the popes.

Cardinal Satolli
The politics and events of the Americanist/Modernist controversy are so complex that even giving a summary will give every reader a headache.  If there is any doubt about that, reading Testem Benevolentia Nostrae, “Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature, and Grace with Regard to Americanism,” issued in 1899, should put those doubts to rest. The “Apostolic Constitution” praises American political and social institutions highly, but warns of the application of such otherwise admirable principles to the discernment of religious truths and the natural moral law. These are not something subject to a democratic vote or to change at the will of the majority or the strongest will — a clear warning against the dangers of Manichaeism.

That’s enough on that, however, which warrants a book (or a couple of books) by itself.  What we’re looking at here is how Benson regarded Americans, of which the fictional Heckers seem intended as the epitome.  The key is in the contrast Benson saw between rich Americans and rich English folk — the “Upper Ten Thousand.”

With respect to Benson’s analysis, it appears that he saw the chief spiritual difference between England and the United States in how the upper classes viewed themselves and their respective purposes in life. Possibly to over-generalize, the American upper classes tended to have purpose, while the English seemed to exist merely to take up space.  This is fully consistent with the focus on vocation that suffused Benson’s work.

To take an example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the term “old money” in America did not mean vast wealth. Instead, it identified a class that, while it might pursue “genteel” trades, still felt compelled to do something. A man or (especially) a woman of the upper class was expected to engage in some useful occupation, all the better if it was something that offered no compensation other than the sense of a job well done and filled a social need. The “socialite” of the mid-twentieth century was a pale imitation of her purpose-driven nineteenth century sister, while the celebutants of the twenty-first century seemingly exist only to drift from one meaningless activity to the next in order to get mentioned in the media.

Men of that class might enter politics but, on the whole, politics was something that “the best people” avoided as dirty. Theodore Roosevelt was an anomaly — yet even there, true to the “code” of his class, he entered politics to carry out the socially useful task of trying to reform what had become a very rotten system.

The Upper Ten Thousand
To someone of Benson’s mindset, with his constant worry about whether or not he was doing God’s Will, the contrast of the American upper classes of his day (at least as he perceived them) and the English upper classes as he personally experienced them could not have been more striking. The typical member of the English Upper Ten Thousand (as the ruling and social elite was termed) seemed to have as its sole object the condition of being absolutely idle, and of serving no useful purpose whatsoever. Benson saw the ancient tradition of noblesse oblige, which was long believed to justify the presumably exalted position the upper classes enjoyed, as replaced with arrogance and pride, with the belief instilled at a very early age that the rest of humanity was made to serve their every whim.

No wonder Benson viewed Americans of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with such favor.

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Sources for Benson’s novels and related material:






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