Robert Hugh Benson - Christianity and Modernism

Robert Hugh Benson - Christianity and Modernism

Sr Mary St. Rita RSM

Sister Mary St. Rita has worked as a Sister of Mercy in the Pathology Department of the Mater Public Hospital in Brisbane since her religious profession and has won high recognition as a medical laboratory scientist.

Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914) was the youngest son of Edward Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, and was ordained to the Anglican ministry by his father in 1894 - two years before his father's death. He later joined the Order of the Resurrection at Mirfield in 1898.

When Hugh became a Catholic, the sense of shock within the Anglican Church was very great, for, not only was he the son of the highest dignitary the Church of England but although only thirty-one years of age, he, himself, was recognised as one of the foremost preachers of his day.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Anglican Church in England was experiencing great changes as the result of the revival of learning and worship brought about by the Oxford Movement.

The Oxford Movement (1833-1845) was an intellectual movement which was wholly circumscribed within Oxford University. As such, it did not directly influence Robert Hugh Benson, but from it developed the Anglo-Catholic Movement, which was more a devotional and ritualistic movement. This movement did affect Benson and his way of thinking.

Modernistic trends

In England all the magnificent medieval cathedrals and beautiful churches were in the hands of the Anglicans, their liturgy was inspiring, having been composed in the heyday of English prose and the traditional culture of Oxford and Cambridge was theirs. However, Hugh, in his search for truth, had dug deep beneath the surface and unearthed the many buried riches of early traditional Catholic culture.

Yet, so illumined was his mind, so keen his spiritual perception, so great his understanding of the 'sacrament' of the supernatural which he saw In everything around him, that it was not long before he became disturbed by what he knew to be modernistic trends within the Church.

'Modernism' (Newman called it Liberalism), which affected both Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism at the time, appeals to the purely natural, as opposed to the supernatural. It is, in fact, an attempt to water down doctrine, in the hope of making it more palatable to modern man. It touches lightly on revealed truths, and dislikes discipline and directives which help to safeguard the deposit of faith - thus it ignores the teaching authority of the Church. Pius X, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and others have brought this fact out very clearly in their writings. Pius X in Pascendi Gregis said: "The Modernists lay the axe, not to the branches or shoots, but to the very root of the tree, that is to the Faith and its deepest fibres."

While still at Cambridge Rectory, Hugh wrote Lord of the World, a book which created a greater reaction than any of his other works. In this book he portrays the 'Anti-Christ' and gives an account of the effects which might reasonably be expected if 'modern thought' was prolonged far enough.

Once Hugh accepted the Catholic faith, he also accepted the authority of the Church in its entirety, and was most sensitive to anything which could hurt that Church which he loved with all his being. Thus, he was quick to perceive the trend to Modernism within the Church, and the danger it posed to the whole supernatural fabric of religion.

Pope Pius X signed Pascendi Gregis - probably the longest encyclical ever written - on 8 September 1907. Hugh actually finished writing his book, Lord of the World, two months before that date, although it was not published until 1908. In view of the state of confusion in the Church today, it would be an enlightening study to read these publications and compare them.

Julien Felsenburgh, who in Lord of the World represents 'Anti-Christ', is the quintessence of natural perfection, while Percy Franklin, who is the representative of Christianity, bears such a strong resemblance to Felsenburgh that they could be taken quite easily for one another. Hugh draws a remarkable true picture of the world today, both from a religious point of view, and also with regard to the inventions of science. He graphically describes the problem of all the priests leaving the Church and saying "I can no longer believe."

At one point there is an interview between Fr. Percy Franklin and a priest who has come to tell him that he had lost his faith.

"It is hard to know where blame could be assigned; yet Percy's faith told him that there was blame due. The alliance of psychology and materialism did indeed seem, looked at from one angle, to account for everything. In ages of faith, a very inadequate grasp religion would pass muster; in these searching days, it needed a robust supernatural perception to understand their practical inadequacy."

In Hugh's book, Lord of the World, Protestantism no longer exists; it is a drawn battle between the forces of supernatural religion - personified by the Catholic Church - on the one hand, and the worship of man and nature on the other.

Hugh, however, makes the issue quite plain, while Pope Pius X drew attention to the fact that the chief policy of the Modernists is to create confusion so that "there are Catholics and priests who, we would fain believe, abhor such enormities [Modernist doctrines], yet act as if they fully approved of them" (Pascendi Gregis). And it is this atmosphere of confusion within the Church which has enabled the Modernists in our time to achieve their aim - the obliteration of the supernatural.

What caused Robert Hugh Benson to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church was his strong realisation of the divinity of Christ, and his firm conviction of the divine origin of the Church which he founded. This implied the need for a teaching Church to preserve and interpret the teachings of Christ to each succeeding generation.

It was in expressing the beauty of Catholic doctrine that Hugh's talents were able to find expression to the best advantage. The Catholic Church seems to have satisfied his aspirations, and he found in her the ideal he was seeking. In the light which her teachings spread across his life, his dormant powers awoke.

Hugh puts before us, in very simple and clear language, the principal truths of Christ's teaching. If we study the doctrine of Christ which is clearly proclaimed in his writings, we will be prepared to defend the Church in spite of all those who seek to deceive us.

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