The Catholic Thing
The Chesterbelloc Thing Print E-mail
By Ralph McInerny   
Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Hilaire Belloc and Gilbert Keith Chesterton were indefatigable advocates of Catholicism and recognized its centrality to the controversies of their time. For them, Catholicism was the THING, the universal reference point, the elephant in the room, the unavoidable topic. Much of what they had to say of the various overt and covert attacks on the faith retain their relevance; it is all too easy to find analogues for their targets today.

Dean Inge, the Red Dean of Canterbury, provided an inexhaustible source of witty put-downs by Chesterton. Let him stand for the meltdown of Protestantism, something Joseph Bottum discussed with reference to the United States in a recent article in First Things. Chesterton and Belloc saw the Reformation as an historical disaster. The path from Rome has led down some strange paths, with fundamental tenets of Christianity jettisoned along the way. What would the two men have made of the current chaos in the Anglican church? I think that, like Newman, the last thing they would have felt is surprise. Women bishops, homosexual prelates, the trashing of the Creed, all stemming no doubt from the infamous Lambeth acceptance of artificial birth control. Doubtless the two men would have been astonished by events over the last half century in the Catholic Church, but would have been able to invoke the distinction between the bumptious post-conciliar naysayers and the Magisterium.

The Catholic Thing is not limited in its centrality to the disintegration of Protestantism. The attacks on Pius XII are an implicit recognition of the global importance of Catholicism. Can anyone image getting stirred up by the World Council of Churches or pre-1945 American Zionism? No other faith is conceded the gravitas of Catholicism.

So too the new atheism, as it might be called, is aimed perforce at the Catholic Church. The steel of the agnostic or atheist can only truly be tested by Catholicism. The now pandemic attacks on Catholicism in films, on television, in the media would have found Chesterton and Belloc buckling on their armor and going into battle with the rapiers of their wit

It would be wrong, however, to equate the Chesterbelloc THING with polemics and apologetics. That is merely the flip side of its overwhelming universal importance. Chesterton loved to argue that the deliverances of common sense find their sanction in Revelation. Sometimes, as in Orthodoxy, he may seem almost to equate the two. What is clear, is that Belloc and Chesterton accepted the faith as the only reasonable key to the mystery of human existence.

If Catholicism is true, the central event of human history is the Incarnation, God become man in order to save men from their sins and reconcile them with God. Our destiny is eternal union with God, and earthly life takes on added significance from that fact. It is here in the Vale of Tears that we must live the great decision for or against Christ. Every other criterion of human history is secondary to this. The Catholic Church is the continuation in time of the salvific work of Christ, Who is not some dim figure in the past but a continuing presence among us, in the Mass, in the sacraments, in the guidance of the Church. Not for the Chesterbelloc the privitatization of religion, treating the faith as if it were some private quirk about which the less said publicly the better.

Recently, the continuing love of Belloc was dismissed as triumphalism. The dismissal may be ignored, but the charge seems just. Belloc and Chesterton were loudly proud of the faith and sought out opportunities to commend and defend it. What is the opposite of “trumphalism”? Perhaps filing one’s beliefs away from public view, suggesting that they have no broad social relevance, apologizing for Catholicism’s claim to be the one, true church, tailoring Catholic teachings to the zeitgeist so that they are indistinguishable from secular assumptions. Anyone holding one or all of these will of course be made uneasy by the Chesterbelloc.

Heretics all, whoever you be,
In Tarbes or Nimes, or over the sea,
You never shall have good words from me.
Caritas non conturbat me.

But Catholic men that live upon wine
Are deep in the water, and frank, and fine;
Wherever I travel I find it so,
Benedicamus Domino.

Both Belloc and Chesterton were laymen and no one could accuse them of asceticism. And both were poets. Chesterton’s Lepanto is a poem the young should memorize. Belloc’s verse is often rollicking. His A Bad Child’s Book of Beasts and Cautionary Tales for Children and A Moral Alphabet should be in every home.

Here is the briefest entry from the last, which I cite and take to heart.

E stands for Egg.
The moral of this verse,
Is applicable to the Young. Be terse.
Ralph McInerny is writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who has taught for many years at Notre Dame.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Megs, October 01, 2008
One of the best posts yet. I really think "The Catholic Thing" is at its best when it touches on the Church and avoids the election. I can go to a host of other sites for politics. Articles like this are why I come to this site.
written by Lee Gilbert, October 01, 2008
Re \"privatization\" We need to confess the faith much more. One way to do that is to stop hiding our rosaries in our fists as we walk from here to there. Our Lord wants us to avoid praying in order to be seen, but letting ourselves be seen is a different matter. This is hardly the modern day equivalent of piously blowing a trumpet on a street corner. Somewhere I read that the early Christians were known for two things, hissing at idols and making the sign of the cross frequently.
written by Raymond Barry, October 01, 2008
Belloc also wrote accounts of his travels. In a Salvation Army thrift store I found The Path to Rome. \"It was in the very beginning of June, at evening, but not yet sunset, that I set out from Toul by the Nancy gate...\" and walked to Rome. The year was 1901, before cars, radio, and the convulsions soon to take place, and he swerved neither right nor left, but in a typically Bellocian manner went across the grain of the terrain. Gateway Editions, with his own line drawings. Delightful.
written by Benedict Kiely, October 02, 2008
The "Red Dean" was Hewlett Johnson, not Dean Inge - Inge was known as the "gloomy Dean."
written by Liz Kayne, October 02, 2008
I am reading this at 4:30 a.m. after having a long discussion with my young (26) married daughter about her Fundamentalist in-laws, among other things. She has been the "victim" of much Catholic-bashing and has had the courage to stand firm in her faith to all. I will make sure she receives the above referenced books (for my granddaughter also) and I thank you for this great article. It made my soul sing.

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