Updated: Oct 12, 2022
Saint Cardinal Newman often overshadowed what the future was to come. One such individual to have been overshadowed is Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.
Robert Hugh Benson (1871–1914)
Within many Anglo-speaking countries, when we think of a good love story to the road to communion with Rome, we often cite Saint Cardinal Newman as the only symbol of Anglican/Protestant clerics in the English-speaking world to have given such testimony of Sanctification to the true faith. Saint Cardinal Newman argued “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”, and further summarized the Anglican position as “untenable". The jump to Rome in an Anti-Catholic Victorian England in the 1840s was a decision which definitely supports claims of Saint Cardinal Newman to be rightfully considered “The Darling of Protestant Conversions to Rome”, such like the nickname given to Michael Portillo MP as the “Darling of the Right”.
However, what Saint Cardinal Newman often overshadows is what the future was to come. One such individual to have been overshadowed is Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson.
Completely alien to outside Catholic circles and sadly neglected even among many Catholics alike. His conversion, although a Century ago, Benson has become the dark horse of the Catholic revival within the Anglosphere.
Born on 18 November 1871, Benson was the youngest son of E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was head of the Anglican Church of England, the upholder and the spine of the Protestant establishment in England. Like Father and Son, as he continued his studies and started writing he became an Anglican priest. However, he became more and more uneasy along with his doctrinal views. On 11 September 1903, he was received into the Catholic Church. Benson was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1904, this Unorthodox rupture caused a sensation. Not since Saint Cardinal Newman’s conversion, almost 60 years earlier, had the reception of a convert into the Church caused such a commotion. Frighten shudders of shock shook the Anglican Old Guard Elites, whereas many Catholics rejoiced at the news of such a high-profile concession with unrestrained triumphalism.
There is little doubt that the new convert belonged to a noteworthy set of family members. Apart from his father’s rise to ecclesiastical prominence as head of the Church of England, both of Benson’s brothers became leading members of the Edwardian literati. A.C. Benson, his eldest brother, was master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and built a reputation as a fine biographer, diarist, and literary critic. The other brother, E.F. Benson, wrote prolifically and is best known to posterity for his satirical Mapp and Lucia novels which have been successfully adapted for television.
Yet Robert Benson was not to be outshone by his older siblings. Before his untimely death in 1914 at the age of 43, he would write 15 highly successful novels.
The first of Benson’s novels, and just the one written while he was still an Anglican, was published in 1903 and written when he was within the midst of the convulsive throes of spiritual conversion. The book is awash with a veritable confusion of emotive mysticism — a confession of religious fidelity amidst the confusion of doubt. Once he had gained the clarity of Catholic perception, Benson looked upon his first novel with a degree of skepticism.
The world depicted in Lord of the World is one where creeping secularism and Godless humanism have triumphed over religion and traditional morality. It’s a world where philosophical relativism has triumphed over objectivity; a world where, in the name of tolerance, religious doctrine is not tolerated. It is a world where euthanasia is practiced widely and religion hardly practiced at all. The lord of this nightmare world is a benign-looking politician intent on power in the name of “peace,” and intent on the destruction of religion in the name of “truth.” In such a world, only a small and shrinking Church stands resolutely against the demonic “Lord of the World.” In 1912, he commented that its subsequent popularity appeared to be determined by the religious denomination of those who read it. It was “rather significant” that it was popular among Anglicans whereas Catholics appreciated it to “a very much lesser degree”: “most Catholics, and myself among them, think that Richard Raynal, Solitary is very much better written and very much more religious.”
A book contrary to his first was The Dawn of All (1911). Benson imagined an opposite future to Lord of the World in which the Catholic Church has emerged victorious in England (sort of a Cardinal Newman second spring!) and worldwide after Germany and Austria won the “Emperor War” of 1914. This book was to convey the principle to readers that of The Dawn of All shouldn’t be the ideal frame world — Benson presents Dawn of All as the dream of a real world.
However, some would say the peak of Benson’s writings was in Come Rack! Come Rope!, possibly the most enticing of Benson’s historical novels. The Entire period of the Reformation is delivered to blood-lusting life. With a meticulous approach to period detail, Come Rack! Come Rope! leaps from the page with historical realism. The reader is transported to the time of persecution in England when priests were put to a slow and tortuous death. The fear and tension of the story grips the reader as tightly because it grips the leading characters who courageously witness to their faith in a hostile and deadly environment. Few novels have so successfully brought the past so potently to life.
Aside from his excellent novellas with many dashes of gripping pills of truth, like with Cardinal Newman they were both out-going Apologists for the Roman Catholic faith. While another blog could be dedicated to Saint Cardinal Newman's and Monsignor Benson Apologetics, I have compromised the best takes from The Monsignor from accumulative lectures, books, studies etc.
The State of Religion in England- Article by Monsignor Benson
“While the Catholic Church has always lived on the lines that our Lord laid down, and has explicitly recognized them to consist, as regards her continuous life, of two principles namely the immutability of her doctrine and the development of its expression — other bodies [Anglican/Protestants] that have seceded from her have no such safeguard against the inroads of criticism and historical discovery..”
The Conversion of England- Article for The Ecclesiastical Review
“It is the utmost endeavour of these men to hinder their followers from dis- covering the truth, and to keep back souls from the Catholic Church by offering them a substitute for Catholicism that sufficiently resembles the real thing to deceive the simple, or those willing to be deceived. With unparalleled effrontery they adopt, and adapt to their purposes, all that is good, beautiful and desirable in the Catholic Church : her doctrines, her devotions, the writings of her saints and mystics, the very sermons of her greatest preachers of all times and countries."
(Continue) The Conversion of England- Article for The Ecclesiastical Review
“Imitation is the sincerest flattery (we have heard that before). No doubt, but it is not always a pleasing form of flattery. The descendant of a hundred earls would certainly not be pleased if some worthy but grandfatherless nouveau riche adopted his coat-of-arms, excusing himself for doing so on the plea that he had obtained possession of a portion of the family estates. It is, I believe, illegal to imitate and wear the uniform of soldiers and sailors ; and something disagreeable would probably occur were undecorated individuals He says that imitation is the sincerest flattery (we have heard that before). Why then should not Catholics object to have their vestments, and the distinctive dress of their priests (the Roman collar for instance), appropriated and worn by those who have no right to do so ?”
“The tragic warning is that unless Rome climbs down and recognizes Anglican claims, England will one day awake Catholic, but emphatically nor Roman Catholic”
Non-Catholic Denominations, book by Monsignor Benson
This position, therefore, still hotly claimed by High Churchmen, has a real historical basis, and is not nearly so intolerable, even to Catholic eyes, as what has be come the situation in practical politics
Moderate High Churchism is largely degenerate from its parent. It retains indeed the quietness, the hesitation, and the refinement; but it has lost to a large extent the fine rigidity, the asceticism, the stern ; orthodoxy as well as the profound learning of the Oxford divines. Its loss of orthodoxy ; is shown to a great extent in its attitude towards the State.
Paradoxes of Catholicism, book by Monsignor Benson
The words of Christ, This is My Body. Now the words as they stand may certainly be supposed to mean what you say they mean; yet, interpreted by Reason, they cannot possibly mean any- thing of the kind. Did not Christ Himself sit in bodily form at the table as He spoke them? How then could He hold Himself in His hand? Did He not speak in metaphors and images continually? Did He not call Himself a Door and a Vine? Using Reason, then, to interpret these words, it is evident that He meant no more than that He was instituting a memorial feast, in which the bread should symbolize His Body and the wine His Blood. So too with many other distinctively Catholic doctrines — with the Petrine claims, with the authority ‘to bind and loose/ and the rest. Catholic belief on these points exhibits not faith properly so- called — that is, Faith tested by Reason — but mere credulity. God gave us all Reason! Then in His Name let us use it!
The book in particular, Paradoxes of Catholicism, can illustrate why Benson was so popular as a preacher, attracting large audiences, laity and Non-Catholic alike, wherever he spoke. Particularly remarkable is Benson’s masterly Confessions of a Convert which stands beside John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita as a timeless classic in the literature of conversion to the True Faith.
Later Life and Early Sadness
As we know, he grew into an international figure in Catholic Anglo circles and even had a reputation for some form of holiness. Thus in 1911, Pope Saint Pius X recognized Benson, naming him a personal chamberlain, bearing the title “Monsignor.”
At the beginning of WW1, he offered his services to the War Office as an Army chaplain. The surprising thing was that there was nothing more Sickening to him, or terrifying, than having to face the horrors of the battlefield for Monsignor Benson. “ I had a beastly day,” Benson wrote.
“I volunteered, heard nothing, then suddenly had a wire asking me where I was, and where a letter would find me ; and I was convinced it was from the War Office. Well, it was ; but it wasn’t about that. But for twenty- four hours I was terrified, made my last testament, wrote letters. But I didn’t really mind, because I willed to go.”
However, his life was struck early as Benson died of pneumonia in 1914 in Salford, where he had been preaching a mission. He was 42. He was buried in the orchard of the Hare Street house, his former home in the Hertfordshire village of Hare Street. A chapel, dedicated to St Hugh, was built over the site, in living memory of him.
Sadly no other visible public legacy was ever presented to preserve the image of Monsignor Robert Benson.
Special Commissioned Portrait of Monsignor Benson
In Spiritual Aeneid, Robert Knox, Another converted cleric, confessed that Benson’s Works and deeds was key to his own road to Rome: “I always looked on him as the guide who had led me to Catholic truth — I did not know then that he used to pray for my conversion.”
In light of the spread of Modernism and progressive heresy, which our recent popes and secular leaders have been struggling to counter, the world needs the tough and crystal clean thought and moral conviction of Robert Hugh Benson in our time. His novels and apologetics can flourish today, as when they were scribed, to encourage Catholics to live their faith in an increasingly Anti-Western and Anti-Catholic Agenda, or better yet to show the universal richness and beauty of Catholicism to other misguided Christians who have yet to discover it.