Belloc’s Infamous Phrase

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. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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