From The Point for August, 1958
Last month’s issue will have driven home the fact that The Point does not care for the writings of Monsignor Ronald Arbuthnott Knox. But it might also have raised a question: Whose writings does The Point care for? Who is a Catholic — of our own day, not the Middle Ages — of whom The Point would say, “There is an authentic voice. There is a man with the Faith.”
This summer marks the fifth anniversary of the death of one such man: Monsignor Knox’s compatriot and contemporary, Hilaire Belloc.
From his first entrance into the public arena, Belloc made it clear where his allegiance lay. Standing for election to Parliament in 1906, he opened his campaign by announcing to the mainly Protestant voters: “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible I go to Mass every day. This 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.”
Belloc was elected, and re-elected in 1910. But when a cabinet crisis necessitated an additional balloting that year, Belloc decided to leave Parliament for more fruitful fields. He had learned some valuable lessons during his four years as a legislator, and left a memorial of his stay in the form of a Sonnet Written in Dejection in the House of Commons . It concludes with the following sextet:
No question, issue, principle, or right;
No wit, no argument, nor no disdain:
No hearty quarrel: morning, noon and night
The old, dead, vulgar fossil drags its train;
The while three journalists and twenty Jews
Do with the country anything they choose.
Hilaire Belloc, in his role of defender of the Faith, had one genius in particular. It was his full, piercing realization of what it means to be a Catholic: of having fellowship not just with those who knelt beside him in his parish church but, equally, with Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas More and Charlemagne and the Crusaders. He saw the great sweep from Saint Peter to the present; the Church overriding the centuries; besieged but invincible; supreme; the mother of civilization; the Bride of Christ. “The fiction that the Catholic Church is a sect,” he wrote, “like any of the various bodies around it in nations of Protestant culture, or the Baptists, or the Quakers, is nourished by a score of conventions; by that false phrase ‘the Churches’; by the offensive adjunct, ‘Roman’ — as though the Faith were but one fashion in a hundred Catholicisms, or as if Catholicism were a thing split into numerous factions, of Rome, Canterbury, Boston, and Timbuktu! Yet the falsehood is so firmly fixed and so long established here that it has recently begun to affect the Catholic body itself. The position is half accepted by them, though in their hearts they know it is a lie. For the line of cleavage does not fall between the various groups, Catholic, Agnostic, Evangelical, or what not, but between the Catholic Church and all else. She is unique, and at issue with the world.”
Yet for all his sense of unity with the Catholic past, Belloc was no remorse figure, withdrawn in dreams of lost triumphs. He was in the thick of the present, with interests as large as Christendom itself. The topics dealt with in his more than 150 published books give an idea of his range: history, travel, warfare, poetry, road-building, wine-making, farming, sailing. He knew every peak and plain of Europe almost as well as he knew his beloved southern England. He had journeyed on foot through Spain and France and Italy, across the Pyrenees and the Alps, visiting shrines and battlefields. When he was twenty-one he had trekked from Philadelphia to San Francisco, making sketches of the American countryside as he went and exchanged these for his meals and nights’ lodging. In college days he had been president of the Oxford Union, almost legendary for his brilliance as a speaker; and though Oxford had assailed his Faith, as he mournfully owned, it had not entirely crushed it (once he had infuriated the dons giving him an examination by placing prominently on his desk a statue of Our Lady). Later, with the encouragement of Elodie Hogan, the California girl who became his bride, he regained his Catholic loyalties full strength, and never lost them again. He was radically Catholic and incorrigibly human; ardent and enthusiastic; with strong enmities and fierce loves. (After Elodie died in 1914, he wore black for the rest of his life, never let her room be used again, and always traced a Sign of the cross upon her door when he passed it.)
Belloc wrote with the swaggering confidence of a man who knows he is on the right side. His way of championing the Church was to stay on the offensive. “Thus, if you wish to undermine the false authority of false history,” he wrote, “it is not enough to expose particular misconceptions which have arisen from some ignorance of detail in the matter of Faith; if the man is an enemy of the Faith, then let his whole body of work be battered. Let him be fallen upon. Let it be argued from his bad judgment in particular affairs that his judgment in the main affair is also bad. If there is a lack of good faith in his method let that be proved, not only by examples pertinent to religion, but also by examples which have nothing to do with the main quarrel in themselves, but which are pertinent to the general thesis that the enemies of the chief truth are the enemies of all truth . . .”
Belloc had no romantic conception of the task he had set for himself. His “method” was a fighting one, and could lead only to headlong collisions. “we must expose the confusion of thought in the opposing camp,” he wrote, “its ignorance of the world and of the past, its absurd idols. And in doing so we must face, not only ideas — which is easy — but men, the defenders of those ideas — which is difficult . . . You will be despised or disapproved if you practice your religion quietly with no effort to oppose its organized enemies, but if you overtly attack these enemies you will get something much worse than disapproval.”
Writing to a priest friend in Ireland, Elodie Belloc put the case even more straightforwardly: “It is almost impossible for anyone to whom God has not given it to suffer, to know what it is for two militant and convinced Catholics to live in our world in England.”
Nonetheless, the Bellocs’ seventeen years of married life were far from gloomy and resigned ones. Both of them were heartily capable of laughing the whole world off — as Belloc often did in verses like:
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.
Benedicamus Domino .
Inevitably, Hilaire Belloc’s published preoccupations with the enemies of the Church led beyond the heretics to the Jews. He summarized: “Wherever the Catholic Church is powerful, and in proportion as it is powerful, the traditional principles of the civilization of which it is the soul and guardian will always be upheld. One of these principles is the sharp distinction between the Jews and ourselves . . . The Catholic Church is the conservator of an age-long European tradition, and that tradition will never compromise with the fiction that a Jew can be other than a Jew. Wherever the Catholic Church has power, and in proportion to its power, the Jewish problem will be recognized to the full.”
And on specific aspects of the Jewish problem, Belloc was equally outspoken: “As for anyone who does not know that the present revolutionary Bolshevist movement in Russia is Jewish, I can only say that he must be a man who is taken in by the suppressions of our deplorable Press.”
Belloc’s battling years, roughly the first forty of our century, did not see the full flower of the organized Interfaith conspiracy as we know it now. But his writings anticipated it, and sternly provided against it. On the singularity of the Catholic Church, he says: “Her corporate unity is not one of which others are tolerant, or which is itself tolerant of others. She has not borderland of partial agreement with error, nor is there a flux or common meeting place between Herself and things more or less similar, more or less neighborly. She has frontiers rigidly defined: not only in Her doctrine and its claim to divinity but in Her very stuff and savor. Within Her walls all is of one kind; without, all is of another.”
One would hesitate to judge that Belloc’s prolific militancy was entirely wasted on an unmoved, unaroused Catholic body. Belloc’s courage, in example as well as utterance, no doubt begot lesser courage in uncountable places. But the program which he outlined for himself — indeed, for the Church in his time — has, with tragic consequences, gone unrealized. He had defined the program that this: “. . .to arrest, if it still be possible, the decline of civilization, to revive culture, to form of the Catholic body an army of leaders in the preservation and possibly the extension of our old glories, now so grievously imperiled. We are the true heirs and guardians of civilization in the modern race to barbarism, and to reverse the current should be our privilege as well as our duty.”
No one is likely to suggest Hilaire Belloc as a subject for canonization, not even those who admire him most. His writing, taken in whole, certainly falls short of that singleness and integrity that makes Doctors of the Church. He had regrettable unfamiliarities with Holy Scripture; he perhaps never learned the significance of the Old Testament. The miracle is that, alone, virtually unsupported either by laity or by clergy, he should have achieved as much as he did.
He was impatient that the Faith be more talked about — more thrust in people’s faces, if need be. Writing to his close friend, John Phillimore, Belloc complains that ” . . . though there is not the least chance yet England’s conversion — many disasters must come upon her first — still the immediate future is going to be chaos of opinion, and in that chaos the order, the civility of the Faith will make a deep impression if it is presented, but it has to be presented. The difficulty just now is that English Catholics do not present it at all. They fiddle about with unimportant things of detail or fill the air with their hymns of praise of Protestants for being allowed to live.”
It is another letter, to this same John Phillimore, that Belloc’s aloneness, and realization of it, is most poignantly brought out. Writing from France shortly after Elodie Belloc’s death, Belloc asks for prayers and Masses, explaining, “I write you this brief line because I know no one else intimately on earth who is fully possessed of the Faith.”
What sustained Belloc? He himself would be the last to make explicit broadcast of it, but we may well conclude that a soldierly love for Our Blessed Lady figured predominantly in all that he tried to do for the Faith. He once wrote of Our Lady to Gilbert Chesterton: “She never fails us. She has never failed me in any demand.” And in one of his poems addressed to Our Lady, he says:
Help of the half-defeated, House of Gold,
Shrine of the Sword, and Tower of Ivory;
Splendor apart, supreme and aureoled,
The Battler’s vision and the world’s reply.
You shall restore me, O my last Ally,
To vengeance and the glories of the bold.
This is the faith that I have held and hold,
And this is that in which I mean to die.
When death did come in 1953 it was not like sudden night to a brilliant career. There has been a long twilight. There was a note of divine favor about the last years of Hilaire Belloc — as though this battling public man, this prosecuting attorney for Christendom, had been granted a well-earned leave of absence. In the care of a devoted daughter and son-in-law, in the air of Sussex, up from the sea, Belloc’s boundless energies settled to the pace of country gardens and a chair by the fire.
It was on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, five years ago last month, that the Catholic soul of Hilaire Belloc passed to the Particular Judgment. The funeral Mass in the village Church of Our Lady of Consolation was, in detail, that kind of rooted Catholic thing that was Belloc himself. His ordinary, the Bishop of Southwark, was the celebrant. The ancient tones of the Requiem were chanted by monks. And seated in the midst of the choir, in the habit of a Benedictine novice, was Hilaire Belloc’s grandson.
The anti-climax came within a month, when an “official” Requiem was sung at Westminster Cathedral, during which a panegyric was dutifully preached. The preacher, selected not because of his known love for Belloc, but for the sake of his own well-known name, was, ironically, Ronald Knox.
Monsignor Knox had of course been acquainted with Belloc. They had both been notable Oxford men; they were both prominent English Catholics. They had some interests that were mutual, and some friends. But it would be impossible to imagine two twentieth-century Englishmen more separated in their approach, their witness, and their devotion to the things of the Faith.
If new verses may now be put, with propriety, into Hilaire Belloc’s mouth and manner, there is a species of refreshment for the sympathetic reader in the following rough parody of Belloc’s Lines to a Don — that boisterous piece in which be obliterated an Oxford professor “that dared attack my Chesterton.” These would be, perhaps, Lines to a Monsignor :
And then there’s Knox, R. Arbuthnott,
The drudge, the poky scholar;
The chap you’d like to stick with pins
Until you make him holler.
Knox nauseating, know-it-all,
Knox nosy, nebulous, inane,
Knox nasty and sarcastic.
Knox wily, sneaky, weak and soft,
Knox never on the level.
Knox so unlike those good hard knocks
Saint Michael gives the devil.
Chaotic Knox, Knox noxious, Knox
Unorthodox and saucy.
And toxic Knox, Knox noctis, Knox
Impossible and bossy.
O blear-eyed Knox, Knox bent of nose,
With hair like uncombed shoddy,
You preached my eulogy, but it
Was over my dead body!