Hilaire Belloc’s book, The Great Heresies, has an uncompromising title. First published in 1938 and now republished by Ignatius Press, the very word “heresy” is a reminder that the Church used to guard and defend the Faith in a robust fashion: a “heretic” was someone who left out or altered a dogmatic belief taught by the Church and who thus promulgated “heresy.” Even by 1938, as Belloc writes in his Introduction, the word had come to connote “something odd and old-fashioned.” If you called someone a heretic today they would be completely mystified.
The heresies in the Church’s history that Belloc has selected are Arianism, Islam, the Albigensians, Protestantism and the “Modern Phase.” Of these, the two that are of particular interest just now are Islam (Belloc calls it Mohammedanism) because it is enjoying a renewed impetus, and Protestantism as we have just passed the 500th anniversary of Luther’s historic challenge.
In his article in the Herald for 11 August, Richard Ingrams is right in remarking that Belloc is little read today. He was hardly a disciplined and scholarly historian, more a restless man of letters, whose intellectual interests were eclectic and whose opinions were argued with passion and pugnacity. An anti-Semite, he also believed in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Yet as Ingrams notes, he remained a “devoted and belligerent Catholic all his life”. It is from this stance that he wrote The Great Heresies.
On Islam, Belloc argued that it began as a Christian heresy and only later evolved into a quite distinct religion. He pointed out the “numerous affinities” between Islam and the Protestant Reformers, such as their joint aversion to images, the sacrifice of the Mass and the celibacy of the priesthood. He remarked on how hard it was to convert Muslims and, with an extraordinary prescience, he reminded readers that, far from falling into permanent decline in the 20th century as had seemed likely, Islam “is the most formidable and persistent enemy which our civilization has had, and may at any moment become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.” Indeed, he predicted that “our sons and grandsons would see a renewal of that tremendous struggle…”
Belloc is famous for stating that “the Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.” Historically this was essentially true. Nonetheless, by 1938 he could read the signs of the times, lamenting presciently, that Europe, “the very civilization which [the Church] created…is now generally abandoning her.”
As for the Reformation, Belloc would have had little time for ecumenical gestures towards Lutherans or joint statements on the theology of justification. Accepting that the Church needed deep-rooted reform, he described the Reformers’ trajectory: from the genuine demand for change to rebellion against the Church’s spiritual authority. The result, as he saw it, was that “the old moral unity which came of our universal Catholicism was ruined.” Who would argue with that today?
Yet rather than conclude with Belloc’s pessimism I prefer to draw attention to an article by George Weigel in the autumn edition of the Plough, a Bruderhof publication. Entitled “Re-forming the Church”, it suggests that what is needed at this “quincentenary of Wittenberg is a re-formed Church of saints… men and women on fire with missionary zeal, because they have been embraced by the love of Christ and are passionate to share that love with others.”