The following comes from a June 1 Aleteia article by Father John McCloskey:
On several occasions Pope Francis has referred to the 1907 novel by Robert Hugh Benson “The Lord of Our World.” The book portrays a dystopian vision of a future world in which humanism is pitted against Catholicism, ending in Armageddon. Here, Fr. C. John McCloskey provides an introduction to this essential work:
Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World is a novel about the Antichrist, who will tempt Christians to apostasy before Christ’s Second Coming. It describes the final battle in the supernatural war for souls that has been fought continually both in heaven and on earth from the time of the Fall and will conclude with the general judgment; thereupon will follow the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. As we will see, before creating his fictional account, Msgr. Benson carefully explored the various passages on the end times included in Scripture and the teachings of the Church Fathers as background for this tale of the Antichrist.
Let’s look at the most recent teaching of the Church on the Antichrist from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.
When are we to look for his coming? We are told that “the day of the Lord” will be preceded by a “revolt”; this apostasy is an outcome of the great apostasy, which already “worketh.” Many commentators have found more or less clear allusions to the Antichrist in the coming of false Christs and false prophets in all the four gospels (Matt 24:24; Mark13:6, 22; Luke 21:8), particularly in the “abomination of Jerusalem” and in the reference to him that “shall come in his own name” (John 5:43).
I am, of course, drawing from traditional Catholic teaching regarding the events leading up to the Second Coming rather than to the hundreds of theories concerning the Antichrist, the Second Coming, and the Final Judgment that have multiplied in the thousands of Protestant denominations and sects whose authority is suspect at best and ludicrous at worst, given the absence of apostolic authority and divine foundation.
Blessed John Henry Newman says towards the end of the “Patristical Idea of Christ” that:
What I have said upon this subject may be summed up as follows: that the coming of Christ will be immediately preceded by a very awful and unparalleled outbreak of evil, called by St. Paul an Apostasy, a falling away, in the midst of which a certain terrible Man of sin and Child of perdition, the special and singular enemy of Christ, or Antichrist, will appear; that this will be when revolutions prevail, and the present framework of society breaks to pieces; and that at present the spirit which he will embody and represent is kept under by “the powers that be,” but that on their dissolution, he will rise out of their bosom and knit them together again in his own evil way, under his own rule, to the exclusion of the Church.
These instances give us warning: Is the enemy of Christ, and His Church, to arise out of a certain special falling away from GOD? And is there no reason to fear that some such Apostasy is gradually preparing, gathering, hastening on in this very day? For is there not at this very time a special effort made almost all over the world, that is, every here and there, more or less in sight or out of sight, in this or that place, but most visibly or formidably in its most civilized and powerful parts, an effort to do without Religion? Is there not an opinion avowed and growing, that a nation has nothing to do with Religion; that it is merely a matter for each man’s own conscience? Which is all one with saying that we may let the Truth fail from the earth without trying to continue it in and on after our time. Is there not a vigorous and united movement in all countries to cast down the Church of Christ from power and place? Is there not a feverish and ever-busy endeavor to get rid of the necessity of Religion in public transactions? … An attempt to educate without Religion? —that is, by putting all forms of Religion together, which comes to the same thing… An attempt to make expedience, and not truth, the end and the rule of measures of State and the enactments of Law? An attempt to make numbers, and not the Truth, the ground of maintaining, or not maintaining, this or that creed, as if we had any reason whatever in Scripture for thinking that the many will be in the right, and the few in the wrong? … An attempt to supersede Religion altogether, as far as it is external or objective, as far as it is displayed in ordinances, or can be expressed by written words — to confine it to our inward feelings, and thus, considering how variable, how evanescent our feelings are, an attempt, in fact, to destroy Religion?
Surely these words resonate with us today. For what Newman describes as the social and religious situation of his times and their presaging of the Second Coming sounds eerily like our own, except that we have had time to become even more decayed—morality ever more decaying as the worship of Science and Technology grows. Indeed there has been and continues to be a mass apostasy from the Church in the West (Europe and the Americas). Simply said, the West, Christendom, or Christian civilization has been steadily declining from the High Middle Ages up to our time, with peaks and valleys, while, of course, the Faith and its Saints perdures.
Lord of the World is set in a distant future that is now our past. The latest date mentioned in the fictional prologue of the book is 1989, placing the events of the book more or less around the millennial year 2000, which in actuality was a Jubilee year of great celebration for the Church and a conduit for indulgences. For Catholics the transition to the new millennium was a “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” as Blessed Pope John Paul the Great put it in his book of the same name. However, the years approaching 2000 were full of apocalyptic fears, including a (now almost forgotten) Y2K change of date computer scare that amounted to nothing.
Much has been made of Benson’s prophetic insight in the novel, such as global air travel via airplane-like Volors and what we would today refer to as weapons of mass destruction, but to my mind most prophetic is how accurately he foresaw in the “Prologue” the political, religious, and ideological history of the world in our own time. The fictional 90-year-old Mr. Templeton recounts to the main protagonist of the book, Fr. Percy Franklin, what has transpired from 1904 up to our own time:
“Briefly,” he said, “there are three forces–Catholicism, Humanitarianism, and the Eastern religions. About the third I cannot prophesy, though I think the Sufis will be victorious… But in Europe and America, there is no doubt that the struggle lies between the other two. We can neglect everything else. And, I think, if you wish me to say what I think, that, humanly speaking, Catholicism will decrease rapidly now. It is perfectly true that Protestantism is dead. Men do recognize at last that a supernatural Religion involves an absolute authority, and that Private Judgment in matters of faith is nothing else than the beginning of disintegration. And it is also true that since the Catholic Church is the only institution that even claims supernatural authority, with all its merciless logic, she has again the allegiance of practically all Christians who have any supernatural belief left. There are a few faddists left, especially in America and here; but they are negligible. That is all very well; but, on the other hand, you must remember that Humanitarianism, contrary to all persons’ expectations, is becoming an actual religion itself, though anti-supernatural. It is Pantheism; it is developing a ritual under Freemasonry; it has a creed, ‘God is Man,’ and the rest. It has therefore a real food of a sort to offer to religious cravings; it idealizes, and yet it makes no demand upon the spiritual faculties. Then, they have the use of all the churches except ours, and all the Cathedrals; and they are beginning at last to encourage sentiment. Then, they may display their symbols and we may not: I think that they will be established legally in another ten years at the latest.
“Now, we Catholics, remember, are losing; we have lost steadily for more than fifty years.”