When asked my politics, I sometimes say, “Papal Insurrectionist.” In the classic Catholic novel Dawn of All, by Robert Hugh Benson, I get my wish. Here is a future wherein the world (or at least Europe and the Americas and increasing parts of Asia and elsewhere) has come to be “really and intelligently Christian.” And Christian means Catholic, because the world understands “that if Christianity were true — true, really and actually — the Catholic Church was the only possible embodiment of it. . . . It was the Catholic Church or nothing.”
In such a world, the Church has restored itself as the acknowledged leader of society. It is the Middle Ages reborn as the future, because what is medievalism but “human nature with faith and reverence without cant”? And as with the Middle Ages, men dress not like drab businessmen but colorfully, and in ways that identify themselves as members of their various guilds. Monarchies are everywhere restored, because it has finally been recognized “that there were, after all, only two logical theories of government: the one, that power came from below, the other, that power came from above. The infidel, the Socialist, the materialist, the democrat, these maintained the one; the Catholic, the Monarchist, the Imperialist maintained the other.”
As a Catholic-Monarchist-Imperialist, I can only say “Bravo” to this observation — as well as to a future where Massachusetts has been set aside as a colony for Socialists and materialists who will not willingly submit to Rome. Ireland, on the other hand, is a religious enclosure, almost entirely devoted to convents and monasteries.
Religious orders are bursting with members, but so are families — the average family size is . . . ahem, a sobering ten. The Church has regained control of education from the state, and priests are widely represented — even dominant — in all professions.
But original sin persists. The Inquisition, and the death penalty for heresy, is in operation. A parliamentary motion to recognize the Catholic Church as the official Church of England has met with potentially dangerous Socialist opposition. And in Germany, a hotbed of socialism and materialism, the emperor’s surprise conversion has led to violence . . .
This extraordinary vision of the future was penned by the Rev. Robert Hugh Benson in 1911 as a follow up to his dystopian novel Lord of the World, an unjustly neglected precursor to Brave New World and 1984 (though Dawn of All is even more neglected and harder to find).
Many readers found Lord of the World too depressing. Though, to my mind, it is much more believable than Dawn of All. And in its ultimate message of the indestructibility of the Church — even if the Church is outlawed, its members few, and the Vatican bombed to rubble — rather consoling and true.
Benson was part of that army of Anglican literary converts that can be traced from John Henry Cardinal Newman to . . . well, me. But Benson was a big catch — not only an Anglican priest but an archbishop of Canterbury’s son.
If Lord of the World offered a working out of secular ideas that were becoming dominant, Dawn of All provided a vision of the future where Catholic ideas — the ideas that won converts like Benson — beat the opposition.
Like Lord of the World, Benson’s Dawn of All is not only provocative but prescient. He predicts “the European War of 1914” that leaves France “a very small country.” He accurately describes the Church as “like rollers in a calm sea . . . in its serenity, its gentleness, its reasonableness, and its irresistible force.” Yet, he is frank about how that “irresistible force” can both repel and inspire rebellion in others; and he is unwilling to paint the Socialists and materialists as anything other than people with a rational belief in the rightness of their own cause.
Our narrator sees that “in spite of the sharp rigidity and certitude and inexorable logic from which he shrank, [the new Church-dominated world was] undoubtedly a place of large horizons. In fact it seemed there were no horizons. On all sides there stretched illimitable space.” In this world, eternity is as important as time.
The Socialists and materialists, however, “made their plans for this world, and this world only. Good government, stability, good bodily health, the propagation and education of children, equality in possessions and opportunities — these were their ideas of good; and better government, greater stability, more perfect health, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and more uniform equality, their ideals.” These are the ideals of many today (though, of course, the propagation of children must be rationally planned and limited and, in some cases, avoided altogether as a messy and annoying inhibition on careerism and the good life).
It is not a self-evident truth that the Catholics are right and the Socialists and materialists are wrong. In fact, our narrator doesn’t share Catholic certainty and sympathizes with the opposition. But he also feels that the Socialists and materialists, in their limited horizons, “not only live in the pit, but are content to live there,” despite the fresh air of Catholic eternity.
Dawn of All, like Lord of the World, is an arresting book. It is not often that one confronts utopia — with a narrator who distrusts that utopia, even as he is a representative of it. But that sort of complexity makes a book worth reading — and makes Dawn of All worth tracking down.
This column originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Crisis Magazine.