‘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...

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About the Author

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.