‘A Catholic in the Room'

Second Thoughts on Hilaire Belloc

On May 18, 1937, Hilaire Belloc completed a series of lectures at Fordham University, published later that year as The Crisis of Civilization. On May 18, 2007, seventy years to the day, if not quite to the minute, I finished reading that book. I had chanced upon it on the shelves of the university library. What, I wondered, did one of the great figures of the twentieth-century Catholic revival have to say at a moment when, all exaggeration aside, civilization truly had faced crisis-faced, in fact, world war and genocide and the extinction of one totalitarianism and the expansion of another and the creation of new forms of mass destruction that continue to cast a chill on our existence.

More than three decades before delivering those lectures, Belloc had published The Path to Rome. It was a book I read and reread, savored and celebrated, as a high-school student. (Long before the name Hilaire Belloc meant anything to me, I was hugely entertained by parental readings from his Cautionary Verses for children. Having an older brother named James, I naturally reveled in the gruesome details of the tale of “Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion.”) What exactly made The Path to Rome so winning to a seriously Catholic adolescent of the late 1950s? Part of it certainly was Belloc’s ardent portrait of Catholicism as a rooted culture, something more deeply implanted even than a set of tenets or a code of conduct. Part of it was the joie de vivre, the irreverent, opinionated, even anarchic spirit that burst out, for instance, in the sudden arguments between “Auctor” and “Lector” that interrupted the narrative, or in the hyperbolic curses or benedictions that Belloc laid upon surly or welcoming villagers. He cheerfully broke or casuistically reinterpreted the vows he had made about conducting his pilgrimage strictly on foot to Rome, indeed attributing to the “voice of the Gods” his decision to cover the last few dozen miles to Milan by railroad. All this was a delightful and salutary challenge to the crabbed moralism then clouding American Catholicism. I probably owe him some important component of whatever healthy mix of piety and humanity that I possess.

Over the years, I have collected other books by Belloc, less to read them, I realize in retrospect, than as souvenirs of my early enthusiasm and as homage to this looming character in recent Catholic intellectual history-stories about memorable Belloc descents on Commonweal’s office were still recounted there in the mid-1960s, decades after they had occurred. More recently, Belloc has become one of the canonical literary fixtures around which some conservative Catholics have been striving to construct a Catholic cultural identity. He has even provided a pedigree for a revival of a form of triumphal, aggressive Catholicism that could properly be called neo-Bellocian. “We sometimes hear of the ‘triumphalism’ of the preconciliar church,” philosopher and novelist Ralph McInerny wrote in the National Catholic Register in 1994. “Often, this means mostly the grateful confidence that one holds the true faith. On this basis, Belloc could be the patron of triumphalists. Alas, it’s a dwindling band.”

“When Belloc was present one always knew there was a Catholic in the room,” McInerny added. References to Belloc’s directness are inevitably advanced in contrast to the supposed pusillanimity of today’s leading Catholics.

These were all reasons for my interest in The Crisis of Civilization. To be sure, I had not remained innocent of the ugly spots in Belloc’s outlook-the idiosyncratic but indelible strain of anti-Semitism and the growing sympathy for fascism (but never Nazism) that disfigured his economic radicalism. I suspected that his 1937 lectures might be found wanting.

They were. The thesis was standard Belloc. Catholic Christianity has made European civilization-“formed the nature of the white world,” Belloc was not too self-conscious to say. Catholicism had given that world the strength to resist both the passing barbarian assaults in the north and the persistent pressure of Islam on its south and east. That civilization peaked in the high Middle Ages, from 1000 to 1300, “perhaps the highest point in the history of our race.” The thirteenth century not only left marvels of intellectual and visual beauty but, despite its inevitable subjection to original sin and its “one great blunder” in which the Fourth Crusade’s violent capture of Constantinople rendered irreversible the division between Eastern and Western Christianity, “came nearer to the rule of justice on earth than anything effected before or since.”

All society arranged by status, every man in his place and knowing his place, wealth rendered less odious and even noble by stability and long succession, the well- divided property of the now almost free peasantry and fully free craftsman of the town guaranteed by guild and village customs, a hierarchy of functions strictly bound in one feudal scheme satisfactory to the political conscience of man, and all that ordered social body guaranteed by the vigorous faith whose officials, the clergy, came from every source in society, enjoyed a moral authority they were not later to know, and performed their mighty function adequately and in full order.

The Reformation spoiled everything. Rooted in the declining medieval culture of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Reformation not only sapped European civilization’s powers of resistance; worse, the Reformation had spawned capitalism, an economic pathology that in turn produced communism, the ultimate negation “of all by which we have lived.”

This apocalyptic image of a struggle to the death between Catholicism and communism, the final spasm of the poisoning that began with Luther and Calvin, was hardly unfamiliar to me. It was a staple of my cold-war childhood, a world in which the other totalitarianism had already been defeated but Stalinism had extended its grip over a strip of Europe from the Baltic to the Balkans as well as over working-class parties in Italy and France. Both East and West were caught in a precarious balance of nuclear terror.

In 1957 or even in 1947, such an image of the world was dangerously oversimplified. It ignored the material and spiritual forces at work, for example, in Europe’s postwar recovery, on the one hand, or in the philosophic and literary vogue of existentialism, on the other. It ignored the world-changing momentum of anticolonialism in Asia and Africa. But an analysis of civilization’s peril as of 1937 that was constructed entirely around this single Catholicism-communism axis testified mightily to the power of ideology.

In the years preceding Belloc’s 1937 lectures, Hitler’s Germany had broken with the conditions of the Versailles Treaty, begun rearming, and seized the strategic momentum by reoccupying the Rhineland. In the very months Belloc was lecturing at Fordham, Europe felt its future played out in a Spain racked by civil war and foreign interventions. Just before the lectures began, Franco’s nationalists and their Italian allies committed atrocities on Malaga that whipped Georges Bernanos, despite his traditionalism, to the moral fury of Les grandès cimetierès sous la lune. On April 27, just before Belloc’s lectures ended, Guernica was bombed. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was being bled by Stalin’s purges and trials; India was shaken by Congress Party demands for independence; China, mired in civil conflict, was facing Japanese invasion; and the League of Nations was gutted as diplomacy attained new levels of prevarication and hypocrisy.

The Crisis of Civilization does refer, very briefly, to Spain-more about that later-but scarcely to fascism or Nazism or the shifting international landscape. Belloc was not uninterested in such things and even prided himself on his expertise in political, international, and military matters. But they were apparently too small-bore to factor as sources of the crisis, which all went back to the decline of medieval Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, and its bastard materialisms, capitalism and communism.

Belloc’s lectures were not without some appeal. Once a prize student in history, he had made a living grinding out popular histories. He had always been a brilliant speaker. Here, he swept over centuries. Here, he summoned tribes and dynasties, kingdoms and religious movements onto the map of Europe and sent them reeling about. Here, he boldly asserted causes and consequences that university lectures are nowadays apt to be more fastidious about demonstrating.

His elevation of the spiritual forces in history over the material also seems admirable, at least at first glance. But where does his minimizing of the material gains of modernity leave the premodern peasant victims of hunger, plague, and infant mortality? And exactly what does he mean by the spiritual? The forces he hails are unity, organization, hierarchy, strength, energy. There is little mention of Christian impulses like charity, kindness, humility, and forgiveness. At least in these lectures, Belloc’s celebration of Roman Catholicism is far more Roman than Catholic.

Although the Reformation remains the root of all evil, Belloc voices a grudging respect for Calvin because he, too, exhibits some of these Roman virtues. But there is no feel for the undeniably spiritual, even if not Catholic, forces that gave birth to the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the economic and technological revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Capitalism was germinated by the Reformation-inspired depredations of church properties and Protestant rejection of religious qualms about buying and selling. Industrialization, born of technology as well as finance, is not recognized as an independent development.

Belloc sums up the nineteenth century with profiles of Darwin and Marx (duly noting the latter’s Jewishness). “Neither of these writers is of the first class”; they were not creative or original but rather “tedious and dull,” mere symptoms of “the common Materialism...which was to sweep over the cultivated mind of Europe.” All the efforts to ameliorate capitalism, Catholic ones excepted, were by nature fated to end in militant communism. Belloc does not explain why, nor why communism had atheism as its “driving power.”

It was as the most recent “flare-up of militant communism” that Belloc mentions the civil war taking place in Spain “during the months wherein the present book is being written, and the series of lectures upon which it is based delivered.” A few days after Guernica, he expressed to a friend his dismay that the Basques were “ranged with murderous atheists and the Jewish International.” In Spain as in Russia earlier, this flare-up was marked by “massacre, arson, despotic control, and the rest of it,” but with the fortunate difference that in Spain the forces of faith and nation preemptively “took the initiative before things had gone very far.” To be sure, they were “as ruthless in their counteraction as the revolutionaries had been in theirs.” In what reads like his own preemptive strike against the charges made against Franco’s forces, Belloc acknowledges the “strange alliances” and “mixed motives” and “basest and most abominable of temptations” marking this “muddled and confused” chapter in the “universal struggle”-which should nonetheless not conceal the two contending spirits: “Christ and anti-Christ.”

The great gap in Belloc’s history is the story of political liberty. Early and repeatedly he stresses the movement in Christian Europe from slavery to serfdom to freedom and suggests its religious origins. But of modern civil and political rights-freedom of speech and religion, constitutional accountability, independent judiciaries, democratic suffrage, and so on-he says nothing. In part, he takes them for granted. In part, he considers them illusory. It would be a tale that he could not have told without shining a different, more favorable light on Protestantism, the nineteenth century, and the great absentee from his account, liberalism.

The Crisis of Civilization deteriorates into a blueprint of the taxes, subsidies, legal restrictions, and occupational guilds that were Belloc’s pet mechanisms for redistributing property, restricting competition, and combating usury and monopoly. Yet not even these devices would work, he insists, unless civilization was reconverted to the “general spirit” or the “culture” or the “framework” or the “standpoint” of Catholicism. (Belloc stopped short of demanding a conversion of individuals to actual practice.) And to achieve that conversion he spelled out practical recommendations for Catholic publications and programs. Attractive as some of his recommendations may be (“contributors must be paid on a high scale”; no program, not even his, should be identified with the church in a way implying that other Catholics might not have reasonable alternatives), they fall woefully short of addressing a crisis of civilization.

The pathos of these lectures made me turn to Belloc’s biography and the pathos of his life. While I knew, originally from The Path to Rome, of his French and English heritage and his swaggering, maverick, and evidently riveting personality, I learned now of his dramatic courtship of the American Elodie Hogan and the crushing blow delivered by her death in 1914, followed by the death of a son in the Great War. There is a tender, vulnerable side to Belloc that his public persona can easily mask.

Both this vulnerability and the carapace of opinion and bluster encasing it are much in evidence in the records of his 1937 trip to the United States. A. N. Wilson’s biography reports that while Belloc was traveling to New York, the Weekly Review, of which Belloc was ostensibly editor, “was publishing articles by such fascists as A. K. Chesterton (G. K.’s cousin) urging the British government to form an alliance with Franco and Hitler against the Soviet Union.” Of his trans-Atlantic voyage, Belloc wrote to a friend about “the swarm of Yids on board” and mused, “Wouldn’t it be amusing if this next outburst of blind rage against the poor old Jews were to blow up in New York?... If or when the New Yorkites rise against the Jews there will be a pogrom; for the Americans yield to none in promiscuous violence and bloodletting.” On the ship home after the lectures, he noted the “nigger jazz band with the niggers making loud animal barks and yelps.” How much allowance can be made for the British genre of humor-by-hyperbole in letter writing?

His stay in New York was wearing. Unwilling to reside with the Jesuits (“the moment you stay with a community in the United States they fasten on to you from the first hour of day until bedtime”) and unable to sleep at the hotel he tried as an alternative, he ended commuting from Long Island to the Fordham campus in the Bronx. He was soon complaining that the “Jesuits for whom I work sweat me to death,” but also that “I am working myself to death” with other speaking engagements, including one in Washington speaking “for the right side in Spain.” He was busy churning out about two thousand words every day. The lectures exhausted him and several times he almost stopped midlecture.

It would be wrong and certainly not my intention to make these lectures and the book that resulted the one balance on which to weigh Belloc’s career and achievement. By 1937, he was a sixty-seven-year-old widower, still the self-styled warrior but in fact repeating himself out of habit and necessity. He had a few more battles ahead of him-and another great loss when World War II took the life of another son-but most of his work was in the past. Today one hears occasional praise of his skills as a historian; but whenever I have dipped into these writings, they come across as fatally biased, and neither in my graduate studies in history nor in all my reading and teaching history since do I recall even once coming across a footnote to Belloc, which may show only that at least some of his major interests, especially military history, did not much coincide with mine.

What continues to resonate more is Belloc’s moral outrage at the economic immiseration that accompanied capitalism and the creation of a proletariat stripped of property and of the dignity that comes with independence. These sentiments, amply displayed in The Crisis of Civilization, remind one that his consuming anticommunism was rooted not in a defense of capitalism but in a rage against the injustices it had spawned, communism being the chief of them. Reading his full-throated assaults on capitalism (because, of course, in his view it destroyed private ownership) can be exhilarating, provoking wistfulness for a time when one could issue such passionate protests without regard to the dampening effects of economic theory, statistical evidence, comparative experiences, and so on.

Here, too, second thoughts intrude. Belloc, like many middle-class individuals with a taste and physique for adventure, had personally felt the bite of going without food or shelter-The Path to Rome illustrated that. But his examples of economic deprivation in The Crisis of Civilization revealed how much his sympathies were with the shopkeepers, skilled workers, and small farmers that capitalism had been dispossessing, rather than with the industrial working class, coal miners, day laborers, or truly impoverished that it had created. His anticapitalism converged with an antiindustrialism or even antimodernity, in the line of nineteenth-century literary prophets like Carlyle and Ruskin. As for the likes of John Maynard Keynes, the two inhabited alternate universes.

Again, my aim is not a balance sheet on the strengths and weaknesses of Belloc’s (and Chesterton’s) economic “distributism,” or on his historical studies or his personal essays or his apologetics or his comic verse or his lyric poems or his political career, but only on where they brought him in 1937. Obviously, if his accomplishments and public role had not been considerable, his views in 1937 would be of no interest.

And in 1937, it should also be remembered, Belloc was far from alone in letting deeply embedded beliefs blur his analysis of the world’s situation. There were pacifists no less convinced than fascist sympathizers that Hitler had only reasonable demands that could be reasonably negotiated. There were left-wing thinkers confident that rearmament and military resistance were pointless because they would certainly transform democracies into regimes every bit as totalitarian as Nazism. There were, more understandably, thoroughly assimilated German Jews still clinging to the hope that Nazi persecution was a passing setback but nothing more.

So should Belloc’s myopic and skewed views be quietly left to gather dust on the Fordham library bookshelves? That might well be the case were it not for the current temptation to shore up a sagging sense of Catholic identity with the bellicose, pseudo-swashbuckling, in-your-face style that was Belloc’s signature and that, alas, only looks pitiful and self-deceiving in today’s imitators. One encounters again from prominent Catholic figures wrong-turn interpretations of Western history, sometimes fixated like Belloc’s on the Reformation. One witnesses again an inability to admit the political and economic achievements of modernity, especially of liberalism and pluralism, as though to do so would invalidate all possibility of fervently protesting some of their consequences. One hears again the sneers and sweeping indictments, although now more apt to be directed at the condition of the culture than at the nature of the economy. One observes the romanticizing celebration of the Catholic past, the reflexive counterattacks on criticism of the church, unless of course it is conservative Catholic criticism of the postconciliar church. One continues to read and hear an almost cultish invocation of Catholic social teaching as though it had all the answers to socioeconomic ills and need not be engaged in conversation with the social sciences. Above all, one feels again the tow of Grand Dichotomies and Big Ideas, filtering out all the immediate or urgent or complicating events and developments that might qualify or contradict the bold theory.

Belloc is a major figure in the remarkable Catholic literary and intellectual revivals of the century past. Those revivals continue to hold out a hope and a model for a resurgent Catholic presence in the twenty-first century. But Catholics, including myself, are tempted to look only at the finest moments of these revivals, loyally and nostalgically veiling their less happy aspects. Pragmatically, we need to ask why, in the long run, these revivals petered out. Morally, we need to ask, with unblinking eyes, whether they responded adequately to the brewing crisis of civilization and if not, why not.

Published in the 2007-10-26 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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