Father James Schall on the Essayist's Thoughts on Europe and Islam
WASHINGTON, D.C., 10 OCT. 2003 (ZENIT).
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 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
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
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. ZE03101024