By Robert Beaurivage
We live in times where the idea that ‘everything is relative’ has trumped all. Catholics in the West are now routinely admonished by our neighbors, politicians, academia and the media that our Faith is merely a matter of opinion, just one among many. Moreover, Catholicism is an opinion that some of our fellow men find particularly inconvenient.
Small wonder that today Catholics seem like a defeated people, befuddled by politics and economics. Gone is the conviction of Jesus’s first disciples when they went forth to “teach all nations.”
As a result of our befuddlement, Catholics now stand in danger of losing our patrimony, our inheritance, and our way through this Valley to the longed-for Paradise in the next. We also stand to lose everything that can make our way through this life so delightful –‘the Good, the Beautiful and the True’ elements of a Catholic society.
What can shake us out of our doldrums? Well, a large dose of ‘the Good, the Beautiful and the True’ would help. Luckily, we have the work of the great early 20th century Anglo-French writer and historian, Hilaire Belloc, to help us in this, our time of great need.
Vigour and humour
After being educated at John Henry Newman’s Oratory School (see article), Joseph Hilaire Pierre René Belloc served his term of military service as a French citizen, with an artillery regiment. He then studied at Balliol College, Oxford, as a History scholar, where he obtained first-class honors.
One of the “Big Four” of Edwardian letters, Belloc’s appreciation for what made the Faith great is second to none. A Catholic historian with an understanding and love for the Catholic underpinnings that made Western Civilization great, Belloc had the heart of a poet — and the ability to entertain.
This was a great asset, as Belloc publically debated the major figures of his day. H.G. Wells remarked that “debating Mr. Belloc is like arguing with a hailstorm.” Belloc’s review of Outline of History famously observed that Wells’ book was a powerful and well-written volume, “up until the appearance of Man, that is, somewhere around page seven.” Wells’ riposte was a small book, Mr. Belloc Objects. Not to be outdone, Belloc responded with Mr. Belloc Still Objects.
Alas for the humourless and the politically-correct, Belloc wrote some of the most hilarious children’s verse of all time. Among his best-remembered poems are ‘Jim, who ran away from his nurse, and was eaten by a lion’ and ‘Matilda, who told lies and was burnt to death.’
Belloc was powerfully built, a vigorous man given to long bouts of walking wherever he wanted to go. For example, in the days before online dating he walked from the Midwest to California to woo his San Francisco bride, Elodie. She accepted him, and theirs was a deeply happy marriage blessed with five children until her untimely death from influenza in 1914.
What Would Belloc Say?
Catholics today need to remember the other side of the coin. Despite all our many faults and scandals, we have the Truth. This is no credit to us, nor a measure of our superiority. The Truth is a gift, a trust given to us by God to pass on to others.
From Hilaire Belloc: Letter to an Anglo-Catholic
“IS there a God? Yes.
Is He personal? Yes.
Has He revealed Himself to men? Yes.
Has He done so through a corporation—a thing not a theory? Has He created an organism by which He may continue to be known to mankind for the fulfillment of the great drama of the Incarnation? Yes.
“Where shall that organism be found? There is only one body on earth which makes such a claim: it is the Catholic Roman Apostolic Church. That claim we of the Faith accept. The consequences of that acceptation are innumerable, satisfactory and complete. We are at home. No one else of the human race is at home.”
On Belloc and Drinking Songs
It will be young Catholics who will be charged with the noble cause of restoring society. To do this, they must understand our patrimony, that great gift. They must understand what we are, doctrinally as well as culturally. This is a tall order, to say the least. For example, in the long history of the Faith, the plethora of ancient heresies can result in confusing Arians with Donatists or Manicheans. But you will never forget what a Pelagian is if you have read Belloc’s The Pelagian Drinking Song.
Pelagius lived at Kardanoel
And taught a doctrine there
How, whether you went to heaven or to hell
It was your own affair.
It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,
But was your own affair.
No, he didn’t believe
In Adam and Eve
He put no faith therein!
His doubts began
With the Fall of Man
And he laughed at Original Sin.
With my row-ti-tow
He laughed at original sin.
On a more sober note, Hilaire Belloc can teach us courage. When Belloc ran for Parliament, his campaign adviser sternly warned him not to speak about his Catholic Faith. Belloc took this as a challenge, and at the first opportunity addressed a political rally thus:
“I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This (taking a rosary out of his pocket) is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!”
There was stunned silence — followed by applause, and to the everlasting credit of his Anglican constituency, they elected Hilaire Belloc to Parliament.
Belloc’s boldness in the defense of the truth did not always lead to adulation and (worldly) success, however. Though one of the brilliant writers of his age, Belloc lived a life of frequent material want due to his lack of acceptance in the literary establishment — which he wore as a badge of honor. The brilliant English scholar and theologian Msgr. Ronald Knox said it best in his panegyric at Belloc’s funeral:
“He was such a man as saw what he took to be the evils of our time in a clear light, and with a steady hatred; that he found, or thought he had found, a common root in them and traced them back to their origins in history.
A prophet… is one who speaks out. He must not wrap up his meaning; he must not expect success. ‘To brazen-faced folk and hard-hearted thy errand is, and still from the Lord god a message thou must deliver, hear they, or deny thee a hearing; rebels all, at least they shall know that they have had a prophet in their midst.’ There is the double tragedy of the prophet; he must speak out, so that he makes men dislike him, and he must be content to believe that he is making no impression whatever.”
Belloc: Prophet and Catholic Muse
Belloc put many of the issues we struggle with today into a Catholic perspective.
He refused to view science as the modern dispenser of infallible doctrine. In his essay on Science as the Enemy of Truth, he opines on the “Modern Scientific Spirit” — not to be confused with the Scientific Method.
“It adds together numerically a comparatively small number of ascertained truths with regard to any object and then propounds its conclusion, as though by possession of these few gross certainties it had a sufficient basis for that conclusion. What is more, it very impudently puts forward such a conclusion against the sound conclusion arrived at by the powers of integration present in the common man.”
He also predicted the rise of Islam in his book The Great Heresies, and understood the malaise that was coming and what its effects would be.
As a historian, Belloc explodes the historical myths that the English-speaking world grew up with. To this day, his writings point out the folly of Western Civilization in deviating from those Catholic and Natural Law principles — our patrimony, which has come down to our times. He regales us with stories of good food, wine, and the real-life characters he meets along the way. He educates, informs and entertains.
Hilaire Belloc loved Life, but he loved two things best of all: his wife and his Church. For each he walked many miles on foot in search of his goal. In his delightful book, The Path to Rome, Belloc describes the journey he made to “see all of Europe, which the Christian Faith had saved.” He walked from southern France to Rome, to be present at Mass for the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul. Exhausted, Belloc traversed the last few miles of the Appian Way on a mule-driven cart– with feet dragging so his vow would not be broken.
Stout adventurer, brilliant teacher, great entertainer and fascinating muse — what more can we ask of a writer as we make our way down our own path of pilgrimage, under the banner of Faith, to our heavenly home?
About the author: Robert Beaurivage obtained a law degree in San Diego, and practiced there for awhile before returning back to his home state of Maine. He has an interest in current events, Catholic theology, and liturgy.