Apparently the Pope has read and frequently refers to Robert Hughes Benson's novel Lord Of The World. Or so says George Weigel in two articles about President Obama's visit to the Vatican, here and here. Mr. Weigel claims (perhaps facetiously) that it is not great literature. I am no judge of literature--I only know if I enjoy reading the book. I did enjoy reading this one.
The book, written in 1907, is a novel about the distant future a century hence, i.e., about 2007. On one level it can be read as science fiction--a prediction about what the modern world will be like. Father Benson (for he was a priest) was not especially interested in technology and that certainly is not his focus. Still, it figures into the plot.
A primary mode of transport is the volor, which modern readers will recognize as an airplane. A volor ascended to 500 feet and could occasionally top 150 miles per hour. Inside, however, they were outfitted like railway carriages, with compartments and a dining car, staffed by a conductor and piloted by a "steersman." They were unheated--passengers packed coats and blankets for the relatively arduous journey over the Alps. There are no automobiles, computers or telephones, though radio telegraphs exist at the margin. It's the world of Sherlock Holmes with airplanes.
Fr. Benson anticipates George Orwell's 1984. His world is divided among three empires: Asia (everything east of the Urals), Europe (west of the Urals, and including Africa), and the Americas. The threat is war between Asia and Europe, which if it happened would be unimaginably destructive. Both sides possess the new "Benninschein explosives," which "...if tales were true, entire towns could be destroyed with a single shell." War had not happened in Europe in living memory, and needs to be avoided at all costs.
Salvation comes in the form of the Antichrist (Mr. Weigel's term, not used in the novel), who by dint of charisma and intelligence unites Europe and Asia under his presidency. This is met with near universal acclaim, and even Catholics acknowledge that the new leader had accomplished good things. Like Hitler, he made the trains run on time.
The struggle is between the supernatural and the natural, humanist world. In the latter humanity is raised to divine status. Religious holidays are replaced by four secular ones: Maternity, Life, Sustenance, and Paternity. The fearless leader has the status of a Nietzschean hero, and is worshiped accordingly.
In opposition is the small remnant of the Catholic Church, the last group of rebellious Christians who have managed to resist both material temptation and violent persecution. Protestant denominations have long since yielded. Catholics believe in the supernatural, and that God will intervene in history and redeem his people. The value of that faith is the matter of this novel.
I don't know about the supernatural, but I agree with Fr. Benson, George Weigel, and (apparently) the Pope that humanism makes for a very poor religion. Where it has been tried--from the French Revolution to Stalin to Hitler to Kim Jong-un--it has failed miserably. For humanism denies the one great empirical fact underlying all religion: all normal people perceive themselves as sinners, unworthy of the moral demands placed upon them. The boundary between Good and Evil runs through the middle of every human heart.
Who knows why people feel that way. I'm sure evolutionary psychologists will have something to say about it. But apart from psychopaths and small children it appears to be a human universal. Humans are simply not divine. Humanism as a religion elides or denies this great fact, and assumes that people can raise themselves up by their own bootstraps to escape from sin. They can't. It simply is not part of our nature.
So religions are both more demanding and more tolerant. Religions believe God's law is absolute, and violation is a sin. At the same time they understand that no real person can obey God's law, and that's where forgiveness comes in. In the religious world view, you can be a sinner and still be a child of God. Sometimes the "sinners," (e.g., gays) find religious forgiveness (e.g., Phil Robertson) to be intolerably arrogant and patronizing. But all religions have as a goal to separate the sin from the sinner--to condemn the sin while forgiving the sinner.
Humanism can't do that. Humanism aspires to create a socialist Man, or a master Race, or (in the case of Fr. Benson's book) a humane Society. Sin must be ruthlessly punished and the sinners killed. Stalin murdered Kulaks and counter-revolutionaries. Hitler murdered Jews and Gypsies. Kim Jong-un murders just about anybody. At least at the beginning all of this murder is for a worthy cause: to expunge sin from the world. But sin is unexpungeable, and soon enough murder just becomes murder, no matter what the intention was.
Humanism is incapable of tolerance.
So I don't know precisely what sin is. In particular, I'm less convinced than Phil Robertson that homosexuality is a sin. It's more likely to be a handicap, if not just an alternative lifestyle. I don't know if using contraception is a sin, though it does seem to me to be horribly counterproductive. Why would you want to purposely impair your own fertility? People who use contraception will not determine the future. Abortion is undoubtedly a sin, but it still has to be legal, as are many other sins.
But this much is certain: no truly religious person will advocate the murder of any of those sinners, if sinners they be. Humanists can make no such distinction--why even today some environmentalists are advocating criminal charges against those who disagree with them on global warming.
So I enjoyed Fr. Benson's book. It's a rousing good tale. I skimmed through some of the longer religious passages about the adoration of the Sacred Host, etc. I understand Catholic thought better than I did before, but I am no closer to believing in the supernatural. I admire and envy their faith, but unfortunately I can't really share it. But of this I am convinced--the Catholic Church represents on balance a positive good in the world. I wish Godspeed and all the best to Pope Francis and his army of believers.