Having blogged here recently about Jim Malia’s engaging account of his walk to Rome, In Belloc’s Steps, I have just received through the post the latest copy of The Defendant, the newsletter of the Australian Chesterton Society (Vol 23. No. 1, Summer 2016, Issue No. 88). It is edited by Karl Schmude and is the kind of publication – only eight pages – that you immediately sit down and read from cover to cover.
This particular issue focuses on Hilaire Belloc and “the enduring value of his neglected achievements”. Given the lively debate over Belloc’s reputation that followed my blog, I think it is worth drawing attention to some of these – especially since the first thing I discovered, from an article on page 5, entitled “My Path to Belloc” by Tony Evans, founding editor of The Defendant, was that Belloc died on 16th July 1953 in the same Franciscan nursing home, Mount Alvernia, in Guildford, Surrey, where I had been born a few years earlier. To my mind, this gives me a subliminal link with him.
I was also struck by a statement by Schmude in his introductory article. He writes of Belloc that “his sense of religion was deeply – and inescapably – cultural. He saw that the extension of the Incarnation in time and history was the result of a Church – a body, not merely a spirit or a belief; an institution, not only a faith – and he believed that he dismemberment of the Church and the dissolution of a Catholic people, centred on a recognisable community of believers, would bring about the re-paganisation of society – and a new night of despair.”
All of us who regard the Church in the same light as Belloc would wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Of course there should be a separation between Church and state; but this does not mean that the Church should therefore exist on the sidelines of society or that faith should be merely a private matter. It is because her vision of man and society is so noble, so exalted and so rich that the Church ought to engage with society at every level – most especially that of culture.
It is a temptation to keep one’s head down, keep out of the public eye and stick to one’s devotions, but Catholics are called to more than that. We must combat the “re-paganisation” of society that we see all around us with a truer, brighter and better vision. For instance, I recently read an article in the Telegraph – supposedly a broadsheet for educated readers – that crudely mocked Catholic practices such as Confession and devotion to Our Lady.
I have since kicked myself for not immediately writing a letter to the Editor, pointing out that if Catholicism is so risible and childish a faith it is very curious why so many great creative artists, thinkers and saints, such as Dante, Shakespeare, SS Benedict and Teresa of Avila, to name just a few of the thousands of men and women of faith who have enriched the culture of their time during the last 2,000 years, bothered to give it the time of day.
Belloc, as all who love him would testify, was not without his faults. Tony Evans lists them as “his belligerence, his intransigence, and his bullish dismissal of those who did not agree with him.” However, he quickly adds, “But I forgive him all these for his poetry, his fearlessness, his defence of the Faith and the clarity and elegance of his prose….he never wrote a bad sentence.”
Karl Schmude has a concluding section in the Newsletter concerning Belloc’s prophetic insights. You don’t have to be a Catholic to be prophetic, obviously: Orwell and Aldous Huxley could be thus described. But having a comprehensive sense of history allied to a deep personal faith does help. So it was a shock to be reminded of what Belloc wrote about Islam in The Great Heresies (1938), a passage I have read before but which is worth reprinting here: “It has always seemed to me possible, and even probable, that there would be a resurrection of Islam and that our sons or our grandsons would see the renewal of that tremendous struggle between the Christian culture and what has been for more than a thousand years its greatest opponent…I cannot but believe that a main expected thing of the future is the return of Islam.
“Since religion is at the root of all political movements and changes, and since we have here a very great religion physically paralysed but morally intensely alive, we are in the presence of an unstable equilibrium which cannot remain permanently unstable…”
Belloc continued: “In Islam there has been no such dissolution of ancestral doctrine – or, at any rate, nothing corresponding to the universal break-up of religion in Europe…The final fruit of this tenacity, the second period of Islamic power, may be delayed: but I doubt whether it can be permanently postponed.”
Looking at our western and European world today, further comment on Belloc’s uncanny prescience seems unnecessary – though Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Regensburg’s Address, the failure of multiculturalism, the rise of Islamist terrorism and the demographic collapse of the native populations of Europe all come to mind. Were Belloc alive today he would not be surprised by any of these developments. And he would also know that the only successful way to combat the resurgence of Islam would be the rediscovery and resurrection of Christianity.
Counter-terrorism and talk of “democratic values” won’t do it. By the Cross, and only by the Cross, will we conquer.