Ruling vs. Leading the Church

In Pope Francis's favorite book "The Lord of the World," the fictional pope does not lead but rules the Church. Ecclesiastical power is centralized in his person. The Cardinal Legates are his supervisors of the local Church. Some might see a pattern here.

Several times during his pontificate the Holy Father has referred to a novel by an English monsignor written over one hundred years ago. Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson was supposedly inspired by some of H.G. Wells’ fictional futures when he wrote The Lord of the World. It was a Catholic response to the Fabian and Labourite fantasies of Mr. Wells.

The book cannot really be described as dystopian (the opposite of utopian) because there is a happy ending. However, what Benson predicted was the extreme secularization of Great Britain—where the monarchy has been abolished, the Tory party ceases to exist, euthanasia is practiced openly, and religion is marginalized. 

The world has been divided into three great powers: the United States, which controls the whole western hemisphere; Europe; and a Sino-Japanese Empire that rules in the East. There is a threatened war between Europe and the Asian Empire (Benson wrote the book shortly after the Russian-Japanese War). An American senator, by his extraordinary eloquence in several languages, is able to make what looks like lasting peace (shades of Teddy Roosevelt, who helped negotiate the end of the war between Russia and Japan). This Senator Felsenburgh becomes President of Europe and begins to make war on traditional Christianity by founding a Humanistic religion. He is the figure of the Antichrist, but one with mesmerizing charisma and polish.

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The Catholic Church has fallen upon bad times in Benson’s future. Many priests have abandoned not just the ministry but the Faith. Europe has granted the pope rule over the city of Rome and the capital of Italy is Turin. Rome is a religious ghetto, a backwater of the new civilization. It is the only place where capital punishment is still in force, and it is also the haven of the former royal families of Europe. Benson, a thorough monarchist, even imagines the Kaiser serving the pope’s Mass. 

The pope is named John XXIV. This is because at the time of the novel’s writing the antipope John XXIII was still considered to be a legitimate pope. When it was decided that he was not, the count for John went back to twenty-three. Benson’s John XXIV rules the Church through Cardinal Legates who exercise governance in various countries. An English historian entitled a book about the popes Absolute Monarchs (“not for nothing,” as they say in Rhode Island). John XXIV is that and more. 

The holy autocrat has merged religious orders into three: Jesuits, Franciscans, and Carthusians. Then he decides, on the advice of the English priest Fr. Percy Franklin, to found a new order dependent of the bishops but dedicated to Christ Crucified, “freer than Jesuits, poorer than the Franciscans and more mortified than the Carthusians.” Their spirituality prepares them for the martyrdom that Felsenburgh’s persecution inevitably brings.

The story, despite the complete destruction of Rome by the forces of Europe, ends well at Armageddon in the Holy Land where Felsenburgh and his combat dirigibles have come to make an end of Catholicism in the person of Pope Sylvester (erstwhile Fr. Percy Franklin) and his reconstituted College of Cardinals. The denouement is a bit anti-climactic, but so is the final conflict of good and evil recounted in Revelation, where the battle is won quite succinctly and with no unnecessary gory details.

Pope Benedict XVI recommended this novel, but I think he was probably seeing it as a warning about a New World Order, secular and socialist and post-national. I wonder if Pope Francis saw the same thing in the book. This is pure speculation, but I think the Holy Father might have seen himself in the figure of John XXIV, who changes the Church so forcefully and (alas) autocratically.  I think the Holy Father might have seen himself in the fictional figure of John XXIV, who changes the Church so forcefully and (alas) autocratically. Tweet This

No doubt Msgr. Benson was an ultramontane when the appellation meant ultra-Catholic. He was a convert from Anglicanism, his father was the Archbishop of Canterbury. His fictional pope does not lead but rules the Church. Ecclesiastical power is centralized in his person. The Cardinal Legates are his supervisors of the local Church. 

Some might see a pattern here. I sometimes think that the centralization of the power of the papacy has been at the expense of the episcopate. That seems very anti-Vatican II. Cardinal Müller has spoken about the collegial and apostolic ministry of the bishops being obscured by the impression that the episcopate are only functionaries of the Vatican bureaucracy. There are many examples of this, even before the sad affair of Bishop Strickland: all the bishops of Chile had to resign at once when a scandal hit one bishop; a Puerto Rican bishop was apparently removed because of opinions about the pandemic; there are stories of pressure put on bishops to bend to the will of Rome in even non-doctrinal matters that can honestly be described as bullying.

The Cardinal Legates in Benson’s book are meant to be a response to the end times. Some nuncios seem to have taken leaves from the novel in that respect. Our own nuncio, in an interview with (of course) America magazine (reminiscent of the English version of Pravda), criticized the Catholic Church in America with rather undiplomatic characterizations. Church attendance is down in the United States, but has His Eminence seen what Europe is like? He says he is shocked and wants us to see also that the U.S. hierarchy did not steep itself in the conclusions of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean which took place in Aparecida, Brazil. 

Bad bishops did not do their homework, is the general impression one gets. But then the new Cardinal says that Aparecida was about “synodality.” The word does not appear in the index of the final document and most of us who have read Aparecida usually say its key insight is that all Catholics are called upon to be missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. This was its theme, one that is much more theological and easier to grasp than “synodality.” This last is about methodology more than ministry. 

Our Cardinal Legate went on to discuss a kind of history of the evangelization of the United States that sounds quite general. The attention (obsession?) with the Irish and their clergy and religious sounds like cocktail capsule history conversation in the interview, but the Catholic religious experience in America is much more varied. The first bishop in my diocese was a French missionary, and there are several other dioceses that can say the same. Bishop Rappe brought French religious orders to Cleveland; Irish religious were not as prominent. 

But I don’t want to quibble about history. I do think, however, that a nuncio can operate best by not taking it on himself to criticize the hierarchy or the dynamics of Catholic culture in the United States (ditto for the Holy Father, whose sources on our scene do not serve him well in my opinion). I thought perhaps the pope was hampered by the typical Latin intellectual’s resentment of “Yanqui” power and oppression (not without reason, we have to admit); but now I wonder if it is also the fault of the persons who take it upon themselves to influence the Holy Father’s decisions and perceptions. The Cardinal Legate, for instance, seems to think that there is a personal animus against the pope (“the great sinner,” he characterizes an attitude). 

The bishops, as brothers in the episcopate, should not be afraid to address the misperceptions of the nuncio or of the Holy Father. I vainly hope that some bishops might even voice some solidarity with Bishop Strickland, but I am afraid that intimidation is very real and the article in America is a shot across the bow. Lord have mercy on us all.


  • Msgr. Richard C. Antall

    Monsignor Antall is pastor of Holy Name Parish in the Diocese of Cleveland. He is the author of The X-Mass Files (Atmosphere Press, 2021), and The Wedding (Lambing Press, 2019).

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