The Catholic Thing
A Prophet for Our Times Print E-mail
By William Saunders   
Thursday, 24 March 2011

Let me say a word on behalf of a book by some good friends. You’ll be glad I did, if you get it, since the subject is the inestimable Hilaire Belloc, the second but equal part of that great beast, the Chesterbelloc. He was also the co-creator of the concept “the Catholic thing” (as the late, great Ralph McInerny, one of the founders of this site, reminded us on this page in September 2008).

The book is The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times. It consists entirely (save for the general introduction, preface, and chapter intros) a collection of the writings and sayings of Belloc. My friends – Scott Bloch, Brian Robertson, and Father C. J. McCloskey – are the editors, not authors.

I did not come of age in a Catholic household, and having absorbed the prejudices of my culture, I thought of Belloc, if I thought of him at all, as I thought of Chesterton, that is, as a curmudgeon. This was a prejudice, rather than an opinion formed by reading him.  But I imagine it is still widespread in an American youth-culture, even among Catholics – when they have even heard of Belloc – not overly concerned with the four last things. At any rate, I came to him late, after years of practicing and teaching law in Washington, D. C.


The occasion was likely (I am not certain) a dinner put on by the Belloc Society of Washington, a miraculous thing all by itself, but also a club where men could smoke and drink. The founder of the society was, I believe, Scott Bloch, one of the editors. I came not having read Belloc much, if at all, but for the fellowship and the drink and the cigar-smoking, little knowing that this was a very Bellocian thing to do.

At any rate, imagine my astonishment when perhaps the greatest American Catholic essayist of our time, Father Jim Schall, came up to me at this dinner and said, “Belloc is the greatest essayist in English ever.” (Fr. Schall explains and amplifies this point and others in his preface to The Essential Belloc.) Then and there, I determined to read Belloc.

And I have, though I freely confess I haven’t read all he has written (he must have published well over sixty books), but what I did read arrested me. 

Belloc was a historian with a concrete grasp of details. For the first time in my life, I understood how the geography of the Crusades (that is, the actual lay of the land) made it possible for a relatively small group of knights to hold Palestine and beyond (by controlling the key chokepoints of the ravines that ran down from the great highlands to the sea).   No one else had ever explained it as he did; such was the evocative power of his language that one could almost see it. 

   Hilaire Belloc: What man was ever more fully Catholic?

I also read his books The Great Heretics (not perhaps a happy term in these ecumenical days), and grasped, for the first time, that the intellectual vigor of Protestantism stems chiefly from John Calvin. Belloc’s treatment of Calvin was typical of him. He was generous in his evaluation of the greatness of the man, while he lamented that such greatness outside the Catholic Church inevitably lead to great error, and – this is the astonishing thing – he predicted that the entire dynamic future of Protestantism lay with the spiritual heirs of Calvin, as it has proven to be. 

Likewise, at the height of European imperialism, when all thought Islam spent, Belloc, a wise student of history, knew the opposite was true. He saw that its spiritual power was not spent and that Islam’s subjugation to the West at that historical moment was entirely due to the West’s material superiority. He saw – and he said – that Islam would rise again, and, of course, he was right.

What man was ever more fully Catholic? As he said, the Church is “hearth and home” and “outside all is night.” But he also lamented, as do we all from time to time, “the Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine, but for unbelievers, here is proof of its divinity, that no merely human institution run with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.” A bit harsh perhaps, but capturing the bewilderment of the faithful Catholic in Belloc’s age, and ours; a formulation that is, to put it mildly, memorable.

All this and more awaits you in The Essential Belloc. As the subtitle suggests, he is very much a man for our times. For those who have exhausted the corpus of his works (if any such hardy persons exist), they will find their favorite quotations and passages (for the book is not simply bon mots, but has many extended passages from his works). Those new to Belloc will meet a remarkable man, combative, yes, but in love with life and friendship and the whole Catholic thing.

William Saunders
is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Bill, March 24, 2011
Thank you for a very timely tip, Mr. Saunders. I was searching about for good Lenten reading and this book sounds ideal. Belloc's quote about "knavish imbecility" in the Church reminds me of a quote from a Cardinal (I apologize, I cannot recall his name) just after Vatican II-It is well the Church is divine, otherwise this Council would have destroyed it.
written by Dennis Larkin, March 24, 2011
I've been reading Belloc for forty-five years since I saw him praised on the back of a dust jacket, comparing him to Wm F Buckley and to Cobbett. Every return to Belloc delights. I would make a course in Belloc a requirement in every Catholic college and university in the land. His detractors try to dismiss him as anti-Semite or even, if you can believe it, a precursor of the Nazis. He has no peer as a master of English prose, nor any peer for the breadth and depth of his learning, and his humor. Be a man. Read Belloc.
written by Jacob R, March 24, 2011
Wonderful! I've always wanted to read him myself!

(Unfortunately at UCSB we were too busy reading about union heroes like Walter Reuther and disparaging rapacious colonialist missionaries like Father Damien and Mother Teresa!)
written by AGS, March 24, 2011
Auden thought Belloc failed to be read to the same popular extent as Chesterton because he was the greater anti-Semite.
I would love someone to post etext editions of his work on the web. It has been done for Newman, why not for Belloc? His work is so hard to come by.
written by Brad Miner, March 24, 2011
AGS: Project Gutenberg (texts) and Librivox (audio) have good selections of Belloc available. (And, as with Chesterton's, there is anti-Semitism in Belloc's work. One can't help thinking that in the cases of both great writers it was a kind of an inherited, cultural blindness . . . but it is there.)
written by Louise, March 24, 2011
Dear AGS.

Belloc's "The Great Heresies" can be found, free of charge, on the web. Search "Belloc: the Great Heresies" and it should bring you to his Contents page. Chapter 7 could have been published next week.

I am reading "How the Reformation Happened" for the second time. When I read it the first time several years ago, I was able to understand what happened to our nation at the hands of the Baby Boomers. I had always thought that the Baby Boomers would grow up and grow out of their snit about not being given a perfect world (when they had been given everything else they ever wanted from their war-weary parents). I discovered, after reading Belloc, that Clinton and his Baby Boom generation were never going to grow up, but, instead, were trying mightily to bring to fulfillment what their young-adult, college-inspired experience of sit-ins and marches told them would be the ideal world. They were the ones that the world was waiting for. Of course they had no idea what the ideal world looked like or how they were going to build it out of the rubble, but they did their best to tear it down, anyway, and worry about the details later.

Just the other evening, I heard the chaos of our present world described by very intelligent persons as being akin to 1914--a chaotic time that led to a horrific war. And then I came upon these words from Belloc yesterday: " . . . it was Revolution: one more in the list of those foaming fits and seizures which fall at intervals upon mankind." (p. 42) I think we can add 2011 to the list of those years: 1517, 1914, 2011, and I'm sure that there are many, many others. Understanding that we are living through one of those fits and seizures doesn't make it any less frightening.
written by Yezhov, March 24, 2011
If you want to know how to undermine the Catholic Church, read Belloc's "Cranmer". Written long before the post Vatican II tenebrae descended on the Church, the book anticipates the tactics of the post Vatican II pseudo-reformers thereby again proving the Devil has little imagination.
written by William Z, March 24, 2011
To AGS and Brad Miner:

Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man:
“…the world owes God to the Jews… [T]hrough all their wanderings… they did indeed carry the fate of the world in that wooden tabernacle…The more we really understand of the ancient conditions that contributed to the final culture of the Faith, the more we shall have a real and even a realistic reverence for the greatness of the Prophets of Israel. [W]hile the whole world melted into this mass of confused mythology, this Deity who is called tribal and narrow, precisely because he was what is called tribal and narrow, preserved the primary religion of all mankind. He was tribal enough to be universal. He was as narrow as the universe…”
These are hardly the words of anti-Semite.
written by Brad Miner, March 24, 2011
William Z: London's Weiner Library, which archives examples of anti-Semitism, says of GKC: "he was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on." And that's true. But it's also true that in Chesterton's Weekly there were anti-Semitic columns published (not by GKC, but under his editorship), and true too that he considered Jews foreign, even so Disraeli, which is why he was a kind of Zionist. But he was a good and great man, and his anti-Semitism was, at worst, of the "country-club" sort. Still, it was there.
written by Father Benedict, March 25, 2011
There is nothing wrong with being a curmudgeon.

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