For a class on Catholic Social Teaching this past fall, I assigned my college students Robert Hugh Benson's dystopian novel Lord of the World. I thought the book would pair well with our extensive studies of the thought of Pope Francis, in part because Francis has conspicuously mentioned Benson’s novel a number of times. (Francis isn’t alone in praising the book: F. Scott Fitzgerald listed Lord of the World among the books that had “the greatest influence on my mind.”) The primary goal of the class was to understand what is distinctively theological about Catholic Social Teaching, and we focused heavily on the thought of Pope Francis. I hoped Benson’s book would provide a rich image of the ultimate outcome of “spiritual worldliness” and the perverse logic of the dominant “technocratic paradigm” that Francis so rightly laments.
Benson and Francis both implicitly endorse Saint Augustine’s account of the Two Cities as a crucial theme of social analysis. As Benson puts it, the world currently suffers under “the agony of divided homage.” The City of God is marked by love of God and all things in God, and in this City every thought and action should be a form of worship. In the City of Man, on the other hand, self-love is the catalyst of a perpetual process of social and personal disintegration that masquerades as Progress. In Francis' writings, the ethos of the City of Man lives on in the spiritual worldliness and technocracy that plague both the Church and society, and the logic and consequences of these two themes are dramatically unveiled in Benson’s book.
In Lord of the World, the hero and the villain, Fr. Percy Franklin and Julian Felsenburgh, are the same age and look almost like twins, though Fr. Percy's hair is “white throughout. . . .Strangers usually looked twice at him.” As with the Two Cities, first impressions reveal striking similarities, and differences are seen only when we look under the surface. Fr. Percy exhibits a deep holiness lived out in humility. He is above all a man of vocation and responsiveness to God, and his call is lived out in a life of quiet prayer and moments of courageous ministry. Felsenburgh, like the City of Man, has a very different understanding of his own call.
Felsenburgh is driven by a sense of his own messianic destiny, and the people are eager to crown him with many crowns. Hosannas ring out when Felsenburgh, having ended all war and been named President of Europe, comes to St. Paul's Cathedral in London to proclaim a New God: “There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity.” Felsenburgh's New Jerusalem, like the technocracy of today, is, as Benson puts it, “self-originated, self-organised and self-sufficient.”
If Man is God, then technology is God's omnipotence on display. What Francis calls “the cult of unlimited human power,” Benson portrays most dramatically in the City of Man’s approach to death. Early in the novel a plane crashes in London, and the failure of technology appears like a “ghastly extinct monster, pouring out human screams.” Almost instantaneously the “ministers of euthanasia” come running with their portable machines of mercy to offer the new last rites. One of the witnesses later wonders, “what do you say to people when they are dying?” Her husband, who is something like the city planner for the secular New Jerusalem, remarks, “you know it doesn't really matter. It's all over.”
For both the City of God and the City of Man, death is an absurdity. But death in the City of Man reveals the fundamental impotency at the core of the technocracy. War may be defeated, but the last enemy still reigns. One must not say anything to the dying, because any words carry the admission that Man has failed to save himself. The technocratic society is haunted by the realization that this world will pass, as Benson remarks in the novel's last line.
For the City of God, on the other hand, death is an absurdity that is illuminated only in the light of transcendence. The citizens of the City of God have hope that the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead will give life to their mortal bodies also (Rom. 8:11), and this hope is at the core of a truly human society. As Augustine puts it in Book 22 of The City of God, the new heaven and new earth will be a form of communion: “we shall see the bodily forms of the new heaven and the new earth in such a way as to perceive God with total clarity and distinctness, everywhere present and governing all things, both material and spiritual.” Only when death is impossible and God's love fully enlivens all of creation will there be a true community sharing in, as Benson puts it, “the pealing storm of everlasting praise.”
Josh Evans has a Ph.D. in Ethics and Moral Theology from the Catholic University of America and is currently a Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.