"Belloc Would Not Have Been Surprised at Sept. 11"

Father James Schall on the Essayist's Thoughts on Europe and Islam

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WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 10, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Fifty years after his death, Hilaire Belloc's views on the role of Christianity in Europe and the underlying mission of Islam still hold much relevance today.



Father James Schall, an expert on the Catholic essayist and historian, shared with ZENIT some of Belloc's thoughts that shed light on the European Union's refusal to acknowledge its Christian roots and the theological outlook of Islam.

Father Schall, author of numerous books, is a professor in the department of government at Georgetown University.

Q: Could you explain something of who Hilaire Belloc was, and the times in which he wrote?

Father Schall: Belloc died in 1953. He was an Englishman, in that his mother was English, but his father was French and his wife was an American. One of his sons was killed in World War I, and a second in World War II.

Belloc had attended Newman's Oratory school in Birmingham. He went to Oxford and was a Member of Parliament for a brief time. He was a man of all sorts -- a sailor, a poet, a historian, a controversialist, a philosopher, a born Catholic.

I think he was the finest essayist in the English language. Someone remarked that in reading his detailed historical and geographical writings, one would think that, to do so, he was born in every country in Europe since he knew them so well.

Q: Belloc once stated that Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe. What did he mean, and what relevance does that statement have today?

Father Schall: This is one of the most refuted statements in all historiography. There are those who purport to think that Europe came from every background but Christianity. The zeal with which the Holy See is pursuing its insistence that the new European Constitution contain a reference to Christianity seems to suggest Belloc was on track, in spite of the denials.

The fact is that without Christianity, Europe is not Europe. In fact, with the rapid decline of its birthrates, with large-scale Muslim immigration and with a secularized Euro-elite, it is rapidly becoming something else.

What perhaps might have surprised Belloc, though I doubt it, is that many Europeans want to rid Europe of any reference to its Christian origins. What will take its place will be something less than Europe as Belloc knew it, something neither Christian nor human.

Q: How can Belloc's discussion of Islam in his books "The Great Heresies" and "The Crusades" shine new light on our current world affairs?"

Father Schall: The accepted doctrine today is that Islam itself is not a problem. As such, Islam is said to have no relation to world events that result in the need for defense in the West.

There are, however, something called "terrorists" who cause all the problems. Even though they have Muslim names and claim the legitimacy of what they do to be found in their religion, their origins are said to be elsewhere -- where, no one is quite sure. Western ideology forbids it to take Islam's notion of itself seriously.

Belloc understood that Islam has a defined theological outlook and goal: Everyone should be Muslim. Force was useful in this goal. Belloc expected, if it ever acquired power again, that Islam would take up right where it left off after its last great territorial conquests.

He would not have been in the least surprised at Sept. 11. Nor would he be astonished to find out that the Christians in the West are quite unprepared to understand the zeal for religion and conquest that Islam had and has in its faith. Not a few Muslim leaders of today both desire and see possible, on a worldwide scale, the return to aggressive and active proselytism.

Q: How can Belloc clarify what our social sciences may prevent us from understanding, particularly the spiritual forces for good or ill?

Father Schall: Belloc was quite clear that it was spiritual forces that ultimately moved the world. The social sciences never understand such sources and have to rely on a reductionist methodology that invariably excludes such forces as they cannot be measured by their methods.

Belloc was a historian who did not think that history had to happen the way it did. He knows how it did happen. He did not think the English Reformation needed to have happened or to have happened the way it did. History is not "determined."

Probably the great fruit of Belloc's sense of history is the fact that the events that appear on the record of history are filled with human choices and indeed human sins. The effect of this approach is to make us attentive to the spiritual forces that cause men to act or not to act the way they do.

Q: Belloc was famous for popularizing an economic vision known as distributism. Is the distributist solution of well-distributed property a cure to the economic problems of today?

Father Schall: People such as Wendell Berry and Allan Carlson speak in terms of property, work and ownership in a way that Belloc did. Chesterton once remarked that the electric motor was a factor that fostered small enterprise. One suspects that the personal computer has developed this emphasis in a new even more graphic manner.

Perhaps Belloc's most famous book was "The Servile State." He was probably wrong in seeing the corporation, not the state, as the major problem that would reduce the people to a kind of happy servitude wherein they were taken care of in exchange for allowing the state to define all the conditions of their lives.

But he certainly understood that this "all-caring" atmosphere was the main character of the future. He thought, with Dostoyevsky, that men would give up their freedom in exchange for bread, or better in exchange for comfort.

Q: One of Belloc's concerns was to invigorate a Catholic culture that would help overcome the loss of traditions common in a modern industrial society. Are any of his recommendations in this area valid today?

Father Schall: Things of truth do not become valid or invalid because of the time in which they are enunciated. A thing true on Monday, as Chesterton said, does not become untrue on Tuesday.

Belloc's main concern about the Catholic culture was that it remain itself. This system of principle, insight and truth was what alone could invigorate a culture. The real problem is not the "adaptation" of Catholicism to modern culture, but the judgment of modern culture by a Catholicism that remains itself, that remains what was handed down to it to keep present in the world.

Q: Belloc has been criticized for his inclination toward an authoritarian style of politics and for his criticism of some groups of Jews. How can we adapt his writings to avoid some of these tendencies that were a product of the times in which he wrote?

Father Schall: If it is not possible to criticize "some groups of Jews" or any one else for controvertible opinions, it is not possible to have a free society. We can only "adapt his writings to avoid some of these tendencies that were a product of the times in which he wrote" if we assume that truth is pretty much relative to time.

The better approach is to face the issues as issues and try to understand the point Belloc was making. His book on the Jews was an attempt to point out that the Jews should be allowed to be Jews with their own homeland. What would have probably surprised him was the number of Jews who did not seem to want to return to the Jewish homeland. He assumed that the principle of "Europe is the faith" also applied, analogously, to a Jewish nation.

Q: What is Belloc's legacy?

Father Schall: Two of Belloc's most provocative statements are: that the greatest spiritual invention is the 20-minute Mass; and that as we get older, we worry about the human structure of the supernatural Church. In both cases, he was being both amusing and incisive.

That the main concern today is precisely the human side of the supernatural Church seems almost prophetic. If Belloc thought that Islam would rise again, it is probably only because he thought large numbers of Christians would be unfaithful to themselves and that Europeans would reject their heritage.

Nonetheless, the great legacy of Belloc is his essays. He wrote, and wrote well, on just about everything under the sun, everything on land or sea. He was jovial and solemn, funny and philosophical, ribald and pious -- a man of the world and a man of home. Our kind has produced few, if any, like him.