Hilaire Belloc: Prophet for Our Times

Father C. John McCloskey on Rediscovering a Warrior for the Faith

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By Annamarie Adkins

WASHINGTON, D.C., MARCH 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There's always laughter and good red wine / At least I've always found it so / Benedicamus Domino!"

Immortal quotes such as this one have kept readers returning again and again to the voluminous works of Hilaire Belloc, not only for his sharp wit and scathing social and cultural critiques, but also for spiritual consolation and biographical portraits of the great figures of modernity.

Knowing that Belloc has many things to tell us today, Father C. John McCloskey, Scott Bloch and Brian Robertson have compiled some of his best quotes and put them into a new book, "The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times" (St. Benedict Press).

ZENIT spoke with Father McCloskey about why it is important to introduce a whole new generation of readers to the writings of this great apologist of the Faith. Father McCloskey is a priest of Opus Dei and currently serves as Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, D.C..

ZENIT: Folks as diverse as Belloc biographer A.N. Wilson and Jesuit Father James V. Schall have stated that Belloc was one of the greatest essayists of the English language. If so, why is he neglected today?

Father McCloskey: He is neglected precisely because what he foresaw has happened -- the decline, if not the fall, of the West. Belloc opined without apology in defense of the Catholic Faith and the West as the progenitors of Western Culture. There was no mistaking his meaning.

We all have gotten tired of the phrase "politically correct," but still, there is no one less "PC" than Hilaire Belloc.

He is neglected in our time because our failing culture does not know how to handle such a fearless man and communicator. They would prefer to ignore him. On the other hand, our book and its success is a sign that he is now beginning to be recognized as a "prophet for our times."

He may be ignored in some places, but his fame is resurrecting. Look at how many of his books are still in print, some of them over 100 years old!

Belloc was a man who wrote the cleanest limpid English, even admired by Ernest Hemingway, who clearly imitated him.

Remember, Belloc lived a very long life, from 1870 to 1953. He was a student of Blessed John Henry Newman, a friend of Winston Churchill, a Member of Parliament, and a novelist, poet, war historian, biographer, journalist, commentator, explorer, debater and BBC Radio commentator. Had he been born 10 years later no doubt he would have used television as a medium to get his messages out to the public.

ZENIT: Many commentators have remarked there is a crisis of manliness in the culture, and what we really have are just "guys." There is no doubt Belloc was a man -- four men, actually -- a true renaissance man. What sort of formation allows one man to become, among other things, a poet, faithful father, seafaring adventurer, historian, essayist, and politician all rolled into one? What lessons can young Catholic boys and their fathers learn from Belloc about true manhood?

Father McCloskey: Hilary, as he was referred to by his friends, was a man's man.

Young men and their fathers can see him as a true Christian knight and warrior, who at the same time was a great family man with dozens of friends ... and a layman! And certainly in today's culture, we need men of true heroism. Belloc is a great role model in so many ways.

He was not only a Catholic with deep faith, but also a man of deep Eucharistic and Marian piety as seen in his pilgrimages and frequent daily Mass-going.

He was also a man who knew how to love and love deeply, including his American wife whom he pursued from England over the Atlantic, making his way to California to ask her hand.  I am surprised that someone has not yet made a biopic of his life.

ZENIT: For all the criticism of his many historical works for not using footnotes, you state that Belloc was far ahead of his time by using primary sources and actually visiting the places he wrote about. How did Belloc discuss Providence and the work of the Holy Spirit in his renderings of the most dramatic events of modern history?

Father McCloskey: Again and again, Belloc's historical works and poetry make reference to the "Invisible World" -- a phrase he borrowed from Cardinal Newman -- to stress that the struggle between St. Michael and Satan continues in the invisible world, and that battles in the invisible world play out in mysterious ways in the action of historical men in this world -- rises and falls of countries, heresies, battles and wars.

For such an active man, Belloc was nonetheless a man both of vision and of contemplation. He was so often alone in his sailing, pilgrimages, travels and mountain climbing. He saw God and his works in everything and everywhere.

Take, for example, this quote:

"I, for my part, incline to believe that wills other than
those of mortals were in combat for the soul of Europe, as
they are in combat daily for the souls of individual men,
and that in spiritual battle, fought over our heads perpetually,
some accident of the struggle turned it against
us for a time."

ZENIT: At his funeral Mass, homilist Monsignor Ronald Knox observed, "No man of his time fought so hard for the good things." What were the primary objects of his defense, and what specific threats to these "good things" did Belloc believe needed to be defeated most?

Father McCloskey: Belloc loved and extolled the Catholic things: worship, devotion, chivalry, love of family, the sacraments, wine and bread and their Eucharistic counterparts, God's creation in nature, devotion to womanhood in the real person of the Virgin, and a willingness to both live and die for one's faith.

Belloc knew that it would always be a battle to defend the good things: "But if I be asked what sign we may look for to show that the advance of the faith is at hand I would answer by a word the modern world has forgotten: Persecution. When that shall once more be at work it will be morning."

ZENIT: You note in the book that Belloc was one of the very few people who predicted a resurgent Islam, and devote a whole chapter to his commentary on the subject. Why did Belloc think Islam would again become a challenge to the West?

Father McCloskey: Because it was a Christian heresy and history had shown that its appeal was in its simplicity and its success only in aggressive warfare and forced conversions.

Hence, Belloc thought they would continue to come back again with the fanatical belief that they would only win through military aggression and imposition of Sharia law.  

ZENIT: Besides his views on Islam, why else do you call Belloc, "A Prophet for Our Times"? Are we living in the “Servile State” Belloc predicted, where true economic freedom is replaced by wage slavery and the welfare state?

Father McCloskey: We most certainly are living in a servile state. One only has to look at the boom and bust economies we have lived through even in the last years to see something is fundamentally wrong in our political economy.

Belloc argued that wealth needed to be widely distributed, hence his theory of "Distributism," which he and G. K. Chesterton advocated. It stressed the importance of well-distributed private property as the key to a healthy society that would ensure that families would not be dominated and exploited by Big Government or Big Business.

Belloc abhorred both Big Government and Big Business and looked to Pope Leo XIII's seminal papal encyclical "Rerum Novarum" as his guide. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement were in deep agreement with the Distributists.

Belloc was a man of strong and well-constructed beliefs. Much like the Gospel, he brings truths that some do not want to hear. As he put it: "One thing in this world is different from all other. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized, and (when recognized) most violently loved or hated. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the night."

My co-editors and I put together this book to introduce Belloc's ideas to a larger public in the hope we continue to build the culture of life and undertake the new evangelization called for by Pope John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI.

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On the Net:

"The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times": www.saintbenedictpress.com/Catholic-Classics/The-Essential-Belloc.cfm?ID=15520