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Belloc’s Infamous Phrase Print E-mail
By James V. Schall, S. J.   
Tuesday, 18 October 2011

No phrase by a Catholic has been more excoriated than that of Hilaire Belloc: “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.” (1924) Yet what John Paul II and Benedict XVI say about the origins and meaning of Europe, in contrast to the denials of the European Union, suggest that the faith did found Europe. The faith is the origin of Europe as a coherent unity of various non-civilized tribes seeking to live together in one Church and one Empire, yet retaining their own customs and boundaries.

David Goldman’s book, It’s Not the End of the World: It’s Just the End of You, put it this way:  “Hilaire Belloc’s famous quip – ‘Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe’ – is precisely correct.”

Europe is where Old Testament, New Testament, and Greek and Roman traditions melded with the so-called barbarians coming largely off of the Eurasian continent. This fusion did not happen over-night, but it did happen. Europe’s unity was hammered out in thought from the Fathers of the Church to Aquinas. The Reformation was not so much an argument against this thesis, but about its origins. Luther’s problem with Aristotle was a harbinger of divisions to come. 

Up until recent times, most people, Europeans or otherwise, looking at the continent, saw the obvious fact. Catholic origins united that not-so large landmass under common assumptions about what life, liberty, God, man, and cosmos were about.

In early modernity, some wanted to make a distinction. The “scientific revolution,” in some eyes, was something anti-Christian. Yet the worldwide “conquest” of science was but an aspect of that generalizing and universalizing movement of intelligence that was already in Europe from its classic traditions.

Modern science itself has medieval Christian origins. Without the notion of a real world, itself not God, worth investigating together with the notion of real secondary causes, no science would be possible. Those societies that embraced a voluntarist origin of things never developed science because one cannot investigate what can constantly be otherwise.

But what was especially objectionable for many people about Belloc’s statement was the second part – “the faith is Europe.” This was taken to mean that Christian missionary endeavor was to transform other non-Christian societies into something looking like Europe. As later commentators point out, Belloc was factually correct. While pockets of Christians exist in many parts of the world, the Chinese, Hindu, and Muslim portions of the world remain largely as they were, in terms of numbers of Christians.


       Hilaire Belloc

Many, including Goldman, note the rise of a kind of house-based Christianity in China, which may include as many as one or two hundred million people. Moreover, the Chinese along with Hindus, Koreans, Japanese, and other Asians have rapidly mastered science and technology. This fact might seem to prove the modernist thesis that science needs to be radically separated from religion. But what it better proves is that reason is universal, as Belloc indicated.

The heart of this question today can be found in Benedict XVI’s “Regensburg Lecture.” What was unique about the early Christians, the pope indicated, was that they did not first address their efforts to other religions. Rather, they were first concerned with the philosophers. Paul went over into Macedonia. He did not turn east to India, as tradition reports about the Apostle Thomas.

If we add to this consideration that, already in some of the books of the Old Testament, we had attention to Logos, the famous “I am who am” of the Mosaic definition, we find that Christianity considers itself both to be in a real world, wherein human action makes a difference, but also to be, because of its origins, a faith that addresses itself to reason.

Christianity is sometimes considered to be a Greek “myth” about a suffering God. It conceives itself, however, as the recipient of a revelation of the Trinitarian God who was incarnate as the Logos of His inner life into this world, true God and true man. This happened during the reign of Caesar Augustus.

No doubt, the inner dynamism of Christianity was to “go forth and teach all nations.” It was assumed that reason was common to all men, however much they did or did not recognize it. The purpose of the mission was salvific, to explain the ultimate meaning of each person in the world.

But in the light of this explanation, the Logos also allowed us to discover and to develop the “reason” that was found in each culture. Many things could be retained, some things rejected, but not because they were imposed from outside, but because they were unreasonable. This was what the second element of Belloc’s aphorism meant. Unless it chooses to be so, no culture is in principle immune from reason. No culture is immune from the Logos addressed to it, in order to complete it, to that culture’s own good.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
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written by Mack Hall, October 18, 2011
Well and truly said.

"Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe" is no more controversial than "The sun rises in the east" or "Mexico's western border is the Pacific Ocean." One may disapprove of the fact that the sun rises in the east, but the objective reality remains.
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written by jsmitty, October 18, 2011
As many as 100-200 million Christians in China. Chinese govt. estimates including the underground churches are around 25 million. Granted that their figures are likely to greatly under report the true number, 100-200 million or over 15% of the population, seems a little on the high side, no?

Also, I am sympathetic to your claim that reason is universal. But to date, one would have to concede that the claim is a philosophical a priori one on your part, rather than one empirically demonstrable. We have yet to see the collapse of Islam... or Buddhism or Hinduism for that matter despite the fact that some of the tenets of those religions seem unreasonable. Thus far, all those religions seem to be holding their own despite more and more contacts with the West.

And we do not know enough yet about non-European branches of Christianity to know how many of the assumptions of old Christendom will prove to be really simply outgrowths of Western cultural assumptions and not universal truths that all men embrace. We might be in for a surprise or two on this score, as the center of gravity of the Church continues to shift away from Europe and toward the third world.

You might prove to be right....but I'm not fully convinced yet.
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written by Howard, October 18, 2011
If Aquinas "baptized" Aristotle, I wonder who will "baptize" Confucius -- and what heights Chinese civilization might reach afterwards.

@jsmitty

I'm not sure what you mean about "the assumptions of old Christendom". If you mean things like the idea that the Roman Empire would endure forever, that mistake was noticed long ago. If you mean things like the dogmas about the Holy Trinity and the two natures of Christ, there have always been heretics who have denied them.
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written by TeaPot562, October 18, 2011
In recent centuries, the boundary between Europe and Asia has been taken as several bodies of water - the Aegean and Black Seas and the Caspian, then extending up the Ural Mountains. By no coincidence, the "European" side of this boundary was deemed mostly Christian. Since the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and Napoleon, the Christian content became more cultural and less observed. In Germany and Austria, a minority of the population would be considered regular church-goers, whether Catholic or Lutheran. The imprisonment and murder of clergy in the 1938-1945 period was another factor reducing the observant Christian portion of the population.
Similarly, Russian practice of Christianity, Orthodox and otherwise, was hampered by the Communist rulers of 1918-1990.
If Europe has ceased to accept intellectually the virtues which flow from Christian thought, their culture will be submerged by the children of Muslim immigrants with their much higher (than nominal Christians) birth rates.
TeaPot562
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, October 19, 2011
TeaPot562

I would be more concerned about “the children of Muslim immigrants,” were it not for the extent that those children (especially women) embrace European and, implicitly, Christian values.

The president of the Muslim women’s movement, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Sluts nor Door-mats) Sihen Habchi, in a forceful attack on “multiculturalism” has demanded, “No more justifications of our oppression in the name of the right to be different and of respect toward those who force us to bow our heads”

Rachida Dati, herself a Muslim and former French Minister of Justice told the National Assembly that “The Republic is alone capable of uniting men and women of different origins, colours and religions around the principles of tolerance, liberty, solidarity and laïcité, making the Republic truly one and indivisible.”

Likewise, Fadela Amara, another Muslim and Secretary of State for Urban Policies has declared that
“For this generation, the crucial issues are laïcité, gender equality and gender desegregation, based upon living together in harmony throughout the world, and not only in France.”

Nor are these lonely or isolated voices.
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written by mydogoreo, October 19, 2011
Yes, Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe. Now what? In a time when really the Euro is the faith and the faith is the Euro, who needs God? The self-sufficient Europeans are doing such a great job without Him. With their chins up and their knees stiff, they will march into oblivion with their fists in the air. Unless...
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 19, 2011
To JSmitty, Howard et al:

It is helpful to distinguish that the Church's claim that reason is universal is not a claim about the nature of cultures, but a claim about the nature of Man. In other words, its ontological, not sociological.

Where cultures have long-ago (Islam) or more recently (The West) rejected reason, per Pope Benedict's assessment in his Regensburg Lecture, etc, etc, then the missionary command becomes one of penetrating through the cultural shell to the Human Heart. Hence, the dynamics of Shusaku Endo's must-read book "Silence," about trying to convert souls trapped in a suffocating conformance-driven culture.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 19, 2011
To mydogoreo et al:

Precisely right about the "Euro" versus "Europe." The Catholic moment now is whether Catholics in Europe and the U.S. will listen and obey Jesus and evangelize their own contryman, or whether we will shrink when faced with the conformist leviathan, and nestle into our comfy, customized post-V2 shells, and kid ourselves that we are obeying Jesus by simply holding on to the seed of faith we have. "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?"
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written by drpence, October 20, 2011
Fr Schall is a great Catholic and classicist. But his Athenian bias is showing. Europe was founded on Christianity but Christianity is not of the "West". From Plato to NATO by David Gress is an excellent corrective of the "Grand Narrative" which has overplayed the role of Greek philosophers and intellectuals in the story of even European civilization. Gress asserts that Roman piety and military order,as well as the Germanic contribution of military vigor and liberty are lost in the story of the West told by post WWI and WWII college intellectuals. Gress doesn't explore the the even more startling blindness to Catholic Spain displayed by so many atheist philosophers of a "Western story". Fr Schall is no atheist but his speech rises from a lifelong dialogue in the faculty room. Neither Christ nor Jerusalem can be seen as one among many of the heroic men and great cities providing the building blocks of the WEST. The God of nature and history is obfuscated in the praise of a direction(the West) as surely as He is diminished in the praise or animus toward a time segment(modernity). God created Adam(and all of humanity) and sent his Son as the second Adam who through the Church and the nations would complete the story of world history in the categories of salvation history. The Church and the nations are the public communal categories which tell this tale the best. We treat Belloc with the piety that is his due if we do not ask of his most time bound sayings an eternal significance. Catholic political thinkers especially must escape such formless spatiotemporal references to portray an order of men, nations, the Church and Divine Providence. That is a much more realistic set of categories which correspond better with Fr Schall's lifelong insistence that political philosophy by Catholics be marked by realism.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 20, 2011
To drpence:

While it is certainly true that Catholicism transcends space and time, it seems contradictory to say that seeing the Church through its Hellenic lens is a "formless spatio-temporal reference." In fact, whether one prefers or not the western manifestation of The Church, it seems an undisputable fact, and has been so, that the primary form of the Church manifested on earth has been in the spatial-temporal footprint of The Roman Empire, i.e., THE WEST.

Father Schall did not assert, as you imply, that Jesus is a man formed by THE WEST. Rather, Schall, like other Catholic intellectuals, see the West, and other parts of the World, as being IMPACTED by CHRIST.

That the west is formed by The Church, and then, by tradition, that the universal Church is formed by the western manifestation of the Church, seems simply to acknowledge the incarnational nature of the Church in history.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 20, 2011
It also seems plain wrong to assert that Christianity is not "of the West." Ancient Greece is part of The West, and it is a plain fact that the Church expanded first and foremost throughout the Greek part of the Roman Empire, and that the theology of the Church was aided immensely by the access and application of Aristotle's philosophy, which was part of the Greek endowment to the Church. And The New Testament tells us that The Lord directed Paul's missionary expedition into the west, versus the east, and with faith in the Word, we can only conclude that this was part of The Divine Plan.

Therefore we should be extremely careful about how we assess the Hellenic legacy of The Church, because her very survival depended on her incubation there, and the apex of her cultural expression is found in the west, and the intellectual equipment to grapple with heresy comes from the west.

So while the west is not the horizon of the Church, it is the place where The Church grew from infancy to adulthood. The Church may travel and flourish beyond those bounds, but it can not and should not deny its own heritage.
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written by Chris in Maryland, October 20, 2011
Finally, the Catholic faith always requires profound refusal to conform to the un-Christian culture where it is preached, whether this be 1st century Judea, pagan Greece, pagan Europe, pagan Africa, pagan Japan, and now, the neo-pagan West.
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written by Gabriel Austin, October 26, 2011
Fr. Dulles also fretted about this phrase of Belloc's. Yet one cannot escape the FACT that Our Lord appeared in a particular country at a particular time and spoke a particular language.
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written by Catholic Composing, February 26, 2014
I found this article very helpful when considering what this phrase by Belloc actually means. Many thanks. I did, however, find the Eurocentrism of the author's argument and of some of the comments (especially from Chris in Maryland) very difficult to stomach given the fact that Christianity is simply not European in origin nor in given the contemporary shift in the centre of the church.

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