Hilaire Belloc and the Catholic Cultural Revival

Hilaire Belloc helped lead a Catholic revival in England that was hugely influential in the growth of the Catholic presence in the wider culture.

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There was a time, two centuries ago, when the Catholic Church was woefully weak in the Anglophone world. The British Empire was beginning to straddle the globe, spreading its creed of Enlightenment philosophy and utilitarianism. In the relatively young United States of America, the new nation was stamped with the Puritanism of many of its founders. It was the age of the WASP ascendency, the seeming triumph of the English Reformation on a global scale. As for England herself, the beleaguered English Catholics had been on the receiving end of relentless persecution for three whole centuries. Only a small remnant of recusant families remained, thinly spread across the land.

The skeptic and the pessimist would have believed that Catholicism had been vanquished from those parts of the world in which British influence was dominant. As the Empire waxed, so would Catholicism wane.

How wrong would history prove the skeptics and the pessimists to be!

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By the time of Catholic emancipation in England in 1829, the new spirit of Romanticism had given birth to manifestations of neo-medievalism, including the Gothic Revival in architecture, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in art, and the Oxford Movement within the Church of England. This heralded the beginning of a phenomenal Catholic revival beginning in England and then spreading throughout the English-speaking world. 

Although there were many factors influencing this revival, including the spread of the Irish Catholic diaspora following the famine of the 1840s, there is no doubt that the reception of John Henry Newman into the Church in 1845 was a defining moment in the Catholic cultural and literary revival that followed. If, however, Newman’s giant presence presided over the revival in the nineteenth century, the continuation of the revival in the twentieth century was led by two literary giants, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, both of whom were hugely influential in the growth of the Catholic presence in the wider culture. Although much could and should be said about Chesterton, we will focus on Belloc.

Hilaire Belloc was born in La Celle-Saint-Coud, a village about ten miles from Paris which has now been engulfed by the spreading Parisian conurbation. The year of his birth, 1870, was marked by the Franco-Prussian War, which forced his family to flee to England, his mother’s native land, as refugees. He would remain in England for the rest of his life, except for a brief time serving with the French army.

Belloc burst onto the literary scene at the end of the nineteenth century with the publication of several very successful volumes of children’s poetry. It was, however, at the dawn of the new century that he would emerge as a Catholic controversialist with the publication in 1902 of The Path to Rome. In 1906 he wrote An Open Letter on the Decay of Faith, and two years later his lecture on “The Catholic Church and Historical Truth” was published. Other works in which Belloc emerges as a champion of the Faith include The Church and Socialism and Europe and the Faith

It was, however, for three books published later in his life that his reputation as a Catholic apologist chiefly rests. In Survivals and New Arrivals (1929) and The Great Heresies (1938), he masterfully covers the intellectual landscape of history, dissecting historical error and heresy with the pinpoint sharpness of a mind in tune with the doctrines and traditions of the Church, which, as Chesterton reminds us, is the one continuous institution that’s been thinking about thinking for two thousand years. The third volume in this trio of Catholic classics, Essays of a Catholic, originally published in 1931 and now published in a fine new edition by the Cenacle Press, courtesy of the good monks of Silverstream Priory, differs from the other two insofar as it showcases Belloc’s brilliance as an essayist. 

Belloc and Chesterton were two of the finest essayists in a period which might be considered a golden age of the essay. This literary form, somewhat out of fashion today, facilitates the flourishing of the art of rhetoric, thereby enabling the writer to maximize the impact of his words, each of which can be wielded as a weapon in the war of words. Chesterton wields his pen with the swiftness of a swashbuckling sword, dazzling the reader with his wit, wisdom, and the adroitness of his paradoxes. Belloc, on the other hand, is ruthlessly and relentlessly systematic in his approach, trundling across the landscape of ideas like a tank on the battlefield, crushing every error it finds in its path. As much as we might enjoy Chesterton’s wordsmanship as swordsmanship, who would not want to ride Belloc’s unstoppable and irreversible tank? Belloc is ruthlessly and relentlessly systematic in his approach, trundling across the landscape of ideas like a tank on the battlefield, crushing every error it finds in its path. Tweet This

Let’s conclude this brief survey and appreciation of Belloc’s genius by speaking of his many other works of considerable merit.

As with Chesterton, the other half of the dynamic duo which presided over the Catholic literary revival, Hilaire Belloc was a true man of letters; this is to say that he did not restrict himself to one particular genre but excelled in many. We have focused on his importance as a Catholic controversialist, apologist, and polemicist; but we would be remiss to neglect his importance as a historian.

Although he wrote on French history and military history, he is best remembered and most justly celebrated as a historian of the Reformation, correcting the bias and inaccuracy of what he called the “enormous mountain of ignorant wickedness” that constituted “tom-fool Protestant history.” Apart from his seminal historical works, How the Reformation Happened and Characters of the Reformation, he also wrote biographies of many key figures of the English Reformation, including Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cranmer, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, and James II.

We will conclude with the employment of poetic license by celebrating Belloc as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. We will do so by ending with the lines from the poem with which Belloc ended his book The Path to Rome:

In these boots and with this staff
Two hundred leaguers and a half
Walked I, went I, paced I, tripped I,
Marched I, held I, skelped I, slipped I,
Pushed I, panted, swung and dashed I;
Picked I, forded, swam and splashed I,
Strolled I, climbed I, crawled and scrambled,
Dropped and dipped I, ranged and rambled;
Plodded I, hobbled I, trudged and tramped I…
Across the valley and the high-land,
With all the world on either hand
Drinking when I had a mind to,
Singing when I felt inclined to;
Nor ever turned my face to home
Till I had slaked my heart at Rome.

This essay is adapted from the foreword to the newly published Cenacle Press edition of Belloc’s Essays of a Catholic.


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