Note on a Novel Recommended by the Pope

The Holy Father recently told reporters to read Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s novel Lord of the World, which he praises for its depiction of  ‘ideological colonization.’ It has been a while since I read Lord of the World, but it is one of those books that stick in the mind. One of the most interesting things about it is Benson’s description of Rome as the last place that resists ‘ideological colonization;’ a city implacably opposed to the false gospel of human progress; an anti-modern, anti-democratic, anti-technological island in a world in which modernity is everywhere triumphant:

While the world had moved on, Rome had stood still; she had other affairs to think of than physical improvements, now that the spiritual weight of the earth rested entirely upon her shoulders. All had seemed unchanged—or rather it had reverted to the condition of nearly one hundred and fifty years ago. Histories related how the improvements of the Italian government had gradually dropped out of use as soon as the city, eighty years before, had been given her independence; the trains ceased to run; volors were not allowed to enter the walls […] It was an extraordinary city, said antiquarians—the one living example of the old days. Here were to be seen the ancient inconveniences, the insanitary horrors, the incarnation of a world given over to dreaming. The old Church pomp was back, too; the cardinals drove again in gilt coaches; the Pope rode on his white mule; the Blessed Sacrament went through the ill-smelling streets with the sound of bells and the light of lanterns. A brilliant description of it had interested the civilised world immensely for about forty-eight hours; the appalling retrogression was still used occasionally as the text for violent denunciations by the poorly educated; the well-educated had ceased to do anything but take for granted that superstition and progress were irreconcilable enemies.

Benson was assuming that the Holy See’s policy toward modern civilization would remain basically that of the Pian age. But of course Vatican II changed that, attempting a more conciliatory policy toward modernity. In a post written between Pope Benedict’s announcement of his abdication and the conclave that elected Pope Francis, I speculated that given the actual developments of secular culture ‘future popes’ might revert to something more like the policy of Bl. Pope Pius IX. Pope Francis certainly hasn’t, but who knows what the future holds.

There is something rather attractive about Benson’s vision of Rome. But there is one point on which I would quibble with him. He describes how all the royal houses of Europe, rejected by their peoples, end up in Rome:

His heart quickened as he saw it—as he swept his eyes round and across to the right and saw as in a mirror the replica of the left in the right transept. It was there then that they sat—those lonely survivors of that strange company of persons who, till half-a-century ago, had reigned as God’s temporal Vicegerents with the consent of their subjects. They were unrecognised, now, save by Him from whom they drew their sovereignty—pinnacles clustering and hanging from a dome, from which the walls had been withdrawn. These were men and women who had learned at last that power comes from above, and their title to rule came not from their subjects but from the Supreme Ruler of all—shepherds without sheep, captains without soldiers to command. It was piteous—horribly piteous, yet inspiring. The act of faith was so sublime; and Percy’s heart quickened as he understood it. These, then, men and women like himself, were not ashamed to appeal from man to God, to assume insignia which the world regarded as playthings, but which to them were emblems of supernatural commission. Was there not mirrored here, he asked himself, some far-off shadow of One Who rode on the colt of an ass amid the sneers of the great and the enthusiasm of children?…

Although I am a monarchist myself, I nevertheless think that Benson here misunderstands what it means for rulers to receive their authority from God. Rulers do indeed receive their authority from God, but their reception of such authority is essentially tied to their role in caring for the common good of society, and thus they must actually have subjects in order to be rulers. As Elliot Milco puts it in The Josias:

Legitimacy depends on two parallel realities: essentially (i.e. in the real order), on the extent to which the sovereign acts to promote the common good; practically, on the extent to which manners conform the idea of “legitimacy” to the actuality of the sovereign.

The idea of ‘manners’ is a helpful one, and shows how regimes which began as tyrannical usurpations can later gain legitimacy. Thus, while the Hanoverian kings of England began as usurpers, they acquired legitimacy over time. And this was recognized by Pope Clement XIII, who abandoned the Jacobite cause, and recognized the legitimacy of King George III.


9 thoughts on “Note on a Novel Recommended by the Pope

  1. Distinguo. They must have subjects to be actually ruling, but must they have them in order to have the right to rule? Can a hereditary monarch lose his legitimacy without his own fault (leaving aside for now the question of his possible depostion by the pope)?


  2. In the De Regno it seems that what matters is to follow the constituion of the given state. If the people have the right to choose a leader and he becomes a tyrant, he can be expelled, not by private authority, but by through some subsidiary public organ. But for as long as he is not tyrannical, the people have no right to expel him; and if the constitution states that his son inherits his right to rule, then I don’t see why the passage of generations as such removes that right, so long as each heir explicitly maintains it.


    • But surely customary law would at some point develop that would not recognize the authority of the son or grandson or whatever generation we’re at. And any constitutional provisions get their authority from customary law, or from caretakers given authority by customary law.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The right to rule has to have some connection to actual ruling. While government itself reflects a natural order, the identity of particular governors cannot be entirely separated from popular consent. Is the Stuart heir (the head of the House of Wittelsbach) the rightful King of England & Scotland? Is it really an injustice that he isn’t on the British throne? Is there really no statute of limitations, so to speak, on the legitimacy of fallen governments?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Here were to be seen the ancient inconveniences, the insanitary horrors, the incarnation of a world given over to dreaming.”

    Sounds like my apartment. Thanks for quoting at length – reminds me of a (more explicitly) Catholic Poe. I wonder how many people dream (literally, while sleeping) of such an urban environment. I do. It also deepens the mystery of Pope Francis, doesn’t it?


  4. Brandon Watson – but does custom trump law if it is contrary to law and if the (true) legislator explicitly maintains the law that is being flouted? Ryan Burke, as far as I know, the heirs of James II have not consisently maintained their right to rule Great Britain, and so they can be taken to have acquiesced in the new succession.


  5. Thomas Cordatus, in your view, if an illegally deposed royal house maintains its claims consistently and with a much force as they can muster, does the passage of time and the outward marks of legitimacy assumed by the de facto government ever alter the legitimacy of the former royal house? If, for example, the Stuarts had maintained their claims and periodically called upon the loyalty of their subjects in unsuccessful attempts to regain the government (and leaving aside the issue of religion–let’s assume Britain was restored to the Church either way for this scenario), would a true son of Britain be in any sense honor-bound to support the Stuart heir, more than 12 generations since a Stuart actually governed?


    • I’m inclined to think he would, though if one takes a strong view of the Pope’s power to give the temporal sword to whomever he sees fit, then papal recognition of the new regime, if it was unequivocal, would change things.


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