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The Chesterbelloc Thing

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 was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.