Perhaps no book is more emblematic of Belloc’s Catholic works, more well-known or more quintessentially Bellocian than Europe and the Faith.
On one level, the book is a history of Christendom, from its origins in the Roman Empire to its tragic sundering after the Reformation.
At another level, it is an argument – an argument that that sundering was leading us to an ever-more slave-like, capitalist, mechanical and decadent civilisation.
Not surprisingly, Europe and the Faith was also a work that became notorious for certain circles – at least in the Protestant Anglosphere.
It is easy to understand. Consider the book’s final bold, declarative lines, whose last two sentences form an epigram for which Belloc became famous or infamous, depending on your perspective:
This our European structure, built upon the noble foundations of classical antiquity, was formed through, exists by, is consonant to, and will stand only in the mold of, the Catholic Church.
Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish.
The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.
On the face of it, this appears to be a ridiculous over-simplification. Belloc, penetrating and profound, was certainly aware of this. Catholicism meant nothing to him, if it were not universal.
Thus, Belloc could never exclude that which lay beyond Europe. Prophetic in his time, he was all-too-aware Europe might altogether lose the Faith, revert to paganism completely and that Catholicism might survive only in remote corners of distant continents.
Indeed, it was precisely these grave forebodings that inspired him to write the book. But if Europe and the Faith never meant to suggest Europe and Catholicism are co-terminous, just what is the author getting at?
We are going to address this matter in considerable depth. For I happen to believe Hilaire Belloc was getting at something very profound, indeed.
To that end, we will review Europe and the Faith in two parts. This, the first of these, covers – naturally enough – the book’s opening acts, devoted to the rise of the Church and Christendom.
The second part, to follow later, will focus on the Reformation and the catastrophic consequences which, Belloc saw, stemmed from it.
But before plunging into Belloc’s quintessential work, let me back up a little and consider the background to the book.
A Citizen of Europe
Belloc wrote this book in 1920 when he was fifty years old.
And, it seems to me, his entire life had prepared him to write it.
His entire life – it is a matter of Providence, I think. For that life ensured that Belloc was ‘deprived’ of the provincial outlook most English people in his day shared.
‘Deprived’, I say, because Belloc, although raised in England, had been born in France of a French father and all his youth he travelled to France, spending long summers there. And, from an early age, he began what would prove to be a lifelong pattern trekking and crisscrossing the face of Europe, everywhere from Spain in the West to Russia and the Baltic in the East (all of which supplied him abundant material for his plentiful European travel books.)
All this, however, served to make Belloc neither English or French. It rendered him one thing, above all: European. For unlike many English of his day, Belloc could always see beyond Britain. He read the French press avidly and was continuously revolted by how the Anglo-American media misreported the affairs of a Catholic Europe, it could never understand.
And yet although Belloc loved France, he never joined the intense nationalism of many French Catholics (exemplified, for example, by those drawn to the super-patriotic Charles Maurras of Action Française).
Indeed, Belloc always decried nationalism, which he saw inextricably linked to the decadence of modern civilisation and the Reformation. But we must cover that controversial point in our second part …
No, Belloc’s great love was Europe – home of Christendom. Indeed, he can be seen as one of England’s first prominent Europhiles.
Today in England, Europhiles are frequently reviled by a growing number of Eurosceptics, who clamour for separation from the EU and delight in the idea of ‘Little England’ – or perhaps an England linked ever more closely connected to America.
Back at the beginning of the last century, Belloc detested this sort of thing. Indeed, he hoped England could be more integrated in Europe – and severed from its hidden masters, which, he located – at least partially -in Wall Street.
Of course, Belloc was detested, in turn, by those who stood Anglo-American capitalism.
At any rate, by the time Belloc entered – and dazzled – Oxford, he was appalled, utterly appalled. For he arrived reading not only French but also Latin and Greek and immediately perceived how skewed its Anglo-centric version of history was. He is referring to this English version of history, when, in Europe and the Faith, he tells us:
There is, again, a conscious or unconscious error … which treats of the religious life of Europe as though it were something quite apart from the general development of our civilization.
There are innumerable text-books in which a man may read the whole history of his own, a European, country, from, say, the fifth to the sixteenth century, and never hear of the Blessed Sacrament: which is as though a man were to write of England in the nineteenth century without daring to speak of newspapers and limited companies.
Warped by such historical enormities, the reader is at a loss to understand the ordinary motives of his ancestors.
Not only do the great crises in the history of the Church obviously escape him, but much more do the great crises in civil history escape him [Italics added].
For Belloc saw there was a reason why matters such as the Blessed Sacrament were mysteriously omitted from English history. He saw concerted effort – not always entirely consciously – to minimise or even expunge everything Catholic and Roman from English history and to paint English origins purely in terms of the Anglo-Saxons who arrived after the period of Roman Britain, ignoring the enormous Roman (and Catholic) influence that still persisted throughout the Middle Ages.
Thus, Belloc writes of English scholars who:
make out a despicable Roman Empire [as having fallen] before the advent of numerous and vigorous barbarians (Germans, of course) possessing all manner of splendid pagan qualities–which usually turn out to be nineteenth century Protestant qualities.
These are contrasted against the diseased Catholic body of the Roman Empire, which they are pictured as attacking.
Others … treat the Empire and its institutions as dead after a certain date, and discuss the rise of a new society without considering its Catholic and Imperial origins.
Nothing is commoner, for instance (in English schools), than for boys to be taught that the pirate raids and settlements of the fifth century in this Island were the ‘coming of the English,’ and the complicated history of Britain is simplified for them into a story of how certain bold seafaring pagans (full of all the virtues we ascribe to ourselves today) first devastated, then occupied, and at last, of their sole genius, developed a land which Roman civilization had proved inadequate to hold [Italics added].
Whilst all this no doubt expresses the revulsion the young Belloc felt at Oxford, it tell us still more. It expresses, as we have indicated, a major theme of Belloc’s life. For again Belloc knew Europe in a way English people, including Oxford Dons, rarely did in his day (or indeed ours).
And his lifetime immersion in the things of Catholic Europe, convinced him that a remedy existed, therein, for the capitalist, materialist decadence he perceived in England.
And so, after the catastrophe of World War I – a catastrophe of nationalist and capitalist competition – Belloc set out to pen a corrective to all the bad history he had suffered in England for nearly half a century – and which he believed his English compatriots might continue to suffer, generation after generation, unless a broader perspective were extended to them.
That corrective, of course, is Europe and the Faith.
It is a book that Belloc intended to be relatively short, easily accessible and popular. And yet what depths it contains, even hermetic depths! I am on my third reading now and seeing more and more …
At any rate, in this two-part review, we will ‘go to town’ with Europe and the Faith. That is, I hope to write less of a review and more of a little guide to the book’s key themes – with very long extracts indeed. (Happily, the book is now out of copyright.)
Now, there are reasons for ‘going to town’ like this. Some of them are quite personal. As I wrote recently in my weblog:
I … see, more and more, [my] work is to do with BELLOC. I devour one book after another by the man – and am ever more astonished by how capacious the man’s mind – and heart – really were.
A lot has been done to conceal Hilaire Belloc by emphasising his admitted faults.
Chesterton lacked some of those faults and his legacy is more digestible and enduring as a result.
But so much of the original inspiration and power behind Chesterton was Belloc. As is often remarked, one can imagine Belloc without Chesterton, but one cannot imagine Chesterton without Belloc – however brilliant and lovely a man Chesterton undoubtedly was.
Indeed, it has even been said (by who, I forget): Belloc invented English Catholicism.
It’s an exaggeration, of course – but not without a grain of truth. English Catholicism was like a corpse, at least – and Belloc had a great deal to do with her resurrection.
At any rate, it’s high-time Belloc’s vision is rescued and the rest of my life will be dedicated to that.
Is there anything else to say before proceeding? Just this: Belloc uses plentiful italics in the book. We will place these in bold italics – in contrast to my own emphasis in normal italics. We are also breaking down his dense paragraphs into shorter ones for easier reading from a screen.
Belloc on the Nature of the Roman Empire
In Europe and the Faith, Belloc attempts to show that neither England, nor anything in modern Europe, can be understood separately from its Roman and Catholic roots. So it is that he reminds us:
In all by which we Europeans differ from the rest of mankind there is nothing which was not originally peculiar to the Roman Empire, or is not demonstrably derived from something peculiar to it.
In material objects the whole of our wheeled traffic, our building materials, brick, glass, mortar, cut-stone, our cooking, our staple food and drink; in forms, the arch, the column, the bridge, the tower, the well, the road, the canal; in expression, the alphabet, the very words of most of our numerous dialects and polite languages, the order of still more, the logical sequence of our thought – all spring from that one source.
So with implements: the saw, the hammer, the plane, the chisel, the file, the spade, the plough, the rake, the sickle, the ladder; all these we have from that same origin. Of our institutions it is the same story.
The divisions and the sub-divisions of Europe, the parish, the county, the province, the fixed national traditions with their boundaries, the emplacement of the great European cities, the routes of communication between them, the universities, the Parliaments, the Courts of Law, and their jurisprudence, all these derive entirely from the old Roman Empire, our well-spring.
And bearing such things in mind, Belloc begins his work by setting out the nature of Roman civilisation:
The Roman Empire was a united civilization, the prime characteristic of which was the acceptation, absolute and unconditional, of one common mode of life by all those who dwelt within its boundaries.
It is an idea very difficult for the modern man to seize, accustomed as he is to a number of sovereign countries more or less sharply differentiated, and each separately colored, as it were, by different customs, a different language, and often a different religion.
Thus the modern man sees France, French speaking, with an architecture, manners, laws of its own, etc.; he saw (till yesterday) North Germany under the Prussian hegemony, German speaking, with yet another set of institutions, and so forth.
When he thinks, therefore, of any great conflict of opinion, such as the discussion between aristocracy and democracy today, he thinks in terms of different countries. Ireland, for instance, is Democratic, England is Aristocratic–and so forth.
Again, the modern man thinks of a community, however united, as something bounded by, and in contrast with, other communities. When he writes or thinks of France he does not think of France only, but of the points in which France contrasts with England, North Germany, South Germany, Italy, etc.
Now the men living in the Roman Empire regarded civic life in a totally different way. All conceivable antagonisms (and they were violent) were antagonisms within one State. No differentiation of State against State was conceivable or was attempted.
From the Euphrates to the Scottish Highlands, from the North Sea to the Sahara and the Middle Nile, all was one State.
The world outside the Roman Empire was, in the eyes of the Imperial citizen, a sort of waste. It was not thickly populated, it had no appreciable arts or sciences, it was barbaric. That outside waste of sparse and very inferior tribes was something of a menace upon the frontiers, or, to speak more accurately, something of an irritation. But that menace or irritation was never conceived of as we conceive of the menace of a foreign power.
It was merely the trouble of preventing a fringe of imperfect, predatory, and small barbaric communities outside the boundaries from doing harm to a vast, rich, thickly populated, and highly organized State within.
One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church …
Belloc describes this Roman Empire in vivid detail. But the old pagan, Roman Empire, is, of course, not his central point. The point Belloc is making is that something new emerged, amidst this pagan empire: the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Later in the book, he will show how that Church transformed the Roman Empire and, still later, conserved Roman civilisation when the Dark Ages came – preserving it from the barbarian conquests.
But first, Belloc means to ensure that the reader understands the real nature of the Church. For he is concerned that the Protestant Anglosphere of his time has lost this understanding. Thus, in Europe and the Faith, considerable attention is paid to helping the reader see how the clear outlines of the Church were already visible long ago. Let us listen:
So far I have attempted to answer the question, “What Was the Roman Empire?” We have seen that it was an institution of such and such a character, but to this we had to add that it was an institution affected from its origin, and at last permeated by, another institution. This other institution had (and has) for its name “The Catholic Church.”
My next task must, therefore, be an attempt to answer the question, “What was the Church in the Roman Empire?” for that I have not yet touched.
In order to answer this question we shall do well to put ourselves in the place of a man living in a particular period, from whose standpoint the nature of the connection between the Church and the Empire can best be observed.
And that standpoint in time is the generation which lived through the close of the second century and on into the latter half of the third century: say from A.D. 190 to A.D. 270.
It is the first moment in which we can perceive the Church as a developed organism now apparent to all.
If we take an earlier date we find ourselves in a world where the growing Church was still but slightly known and by most people unheard of. We can get no earlier view of it as part of the society around it. It is from about this time also that many documents survive. I shall show that the appearance of the Church at this time, from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and forty years after the Crucifixion, is ample evidence of her original constitution.
In Old Lugdunum …
To this end, Belloc imagines – as he indicates above – the viewpoint of an educated, pagan Roman citizen living in old Lugdunum – that great provincial city of the Empire now known as Lyons in France.
Such an observer, the author notes ‘would have lived at the turn of the tide: a witness to the emergence, apparent to all Society, of the Catholic Church.’
Belloc goes on to build up a picture of this citizen as the:
head of a Senatorial family … He would then find himself one of a comparatively small class of very wealthy men to whom was confined the municipal government of the city. Beneath him he would be accustomed to a large class of citizens, free men but not senatorial; beneath these again his society reposed upon a very large body of slaves.
Let us imagine such a man going through the streets of Lyons of a morning to attend a meeting of the Curia. He would salute, and be saluted, as he passed, by many men of the various classes I have described. Some, though slaves, he would greet familiarly; others, though nominally free and belonging to his own following or to that of some friend, he would regard with less attention …
As he passes through the streets he notes the temples dedicated to a variety of services. No creed dominated the city; even the local gods were now but a confused memory; a religious ritual of the official type was to greet him upon his entry to the Assembly, but in the public life of the city no fixed philosophy, no general faith, appeared.
Among the many buildings so dedicated, two perhaps would have struck his attention: … the great … synagogue where the local Jews met upon their Sabbath, the other a small Christian Church. The first of these he would look on as one looks today upon the mark of an alien colony in some great modern city. He knew it to be the symbol of a small, reserved, unsympathetic but wealthy race scattered throughout the Empire. The Empire had had trouble with it in the past, but that trouble was long forgotten …
The Church: Like a State Within a State …
Belloc, of course, is concerned not with synagogue, but the appearance of the Church at this point in the Empire’s history (a point at which She was not openly persecuted). Thus, he builds up a rich picture of how the Church would have been perceived by the outsider. It is worth quoting in depth:
With the Christian Church it would be otherwise. He would know as an administrator … that this Church was endowed; that it was possessed of property more or less legally guaranteed.
It had a very definite position of its own among the congregations and corporations of the city, peculiar, and yet well secured. He would further know as an administrator … that to this building and the corporation of which it was a symbol were attached an appreciable number of his fellow citizens; a small minority, of course, in any town [at that time], but a minority most appreciable and most worthy of his concern from three very definite characteristics.
In the first place it was certainly growing; in the second place it was certainly, even after so many generations of growth, a phenomenon perpetually novel; in the third place (and this was the capital point) it represented a true political organism– the only subsidiary organism which had risen within the general body of the Empire.
If the reader will retain no other one of the points I am making … let him retain this point: it is, from the historical point of view, the explanation of all that was to follow.
The Catholic Church in Lyons would have been for that Senator a distinct organism; with its own officers, its own peculiar spirit, its own type of vitality, which, if he were a wise man, he would know was certain to endure and to grow, and which even if he were but a superficial and unintelligent spectator, he would recognize as unique.
Like a sort of little State the Catholic Church included all classes and kinds of men, and like the Empire itself, within which it was growing, it regarded all classes of its own members as subject to it within its own sphere. The senator, the tenant, the freed man, the slave, the soldier, in so far as they were members of this corporation, were equally bound to certain observances.
Did they neglect these observances, the corporation would expel them or subject them to penalties of its own.
He knew that though misunderstandings and fables existed with regard to this body, there was no social class in which its members had not propagated a knowledge of its customs.
He knew (and it would disturb him to know) that its organization, though in no way admitted by law, and purely what we should call “voluntary,” was strict and very formidable.
Here in Lyons as elsewhere, it was under a monarchical head called by the Greek name of Episcopos. Greek was a language which the cultured knew and used throughout the western or Latin part of the Empire to which he belonged; the title would not, therefore, seem to him alien any more than would be the Greek title of Presbyter – he name of the official priests acting under this monarchical head of the organization–or than would the Greek title Diaconos, which title was attached to an order, just below the priests, which was comprised of the inferior officials of the clerical body.
He knew that this particular cult, like the innumerable others that were represented by the various sacred buildings of the city, had its mysteries, its solemn ritual, and so forth, in which these, the officials of its body, might alone engage, and which the mass of the local “Christians”–for such was their popular name–attended as a congregation.
But he would further know that this scheme of worship differed wholly from any other of the many observances round it by a certain fixity of definition.
The Catholic Church was not an opinion, nor a fashion, nor a philosophy; it was not a theory nor a habit; it was a clearly delineated body corporate based on numerous exact doctrines, extremely jealous of its unity and of its precise definitions, and filled, as was no other body of men at that time, with passionate conviction.
By this I do not mean that the Senator so walking to his official duties could not have recalled from among his own friends more than one who was attached to the Christian body in a negligent sort of way, perhaps by the influence of his wife, perhaps by a tradition inherited from his father: he would guess, and justly guess, that this rapidly growing body counted very many members who were indifferent and some, perhaps, who were ignorant of its full doctrine.
But the body as a whole, in its general spirit, and especially in the disciplined organisation of its hierarchy, did differ from everything round it in this double character of precision and conviction.
There was no certitude left and no definite spirit or mental aim, no “dogma” (as we should say today) taken for granted in the Lyons of his time, save among the Christians.
The pagan masses were attached, without definite religion, to a number of customs. In social morals they were guided by certain institutions, at the foundation of which were the Roman ideas of property in men, land and goods; patriotism, the bond of smaller societies, had long ago merged in the conception of a universal empire.
This Christian Church alone represented a complete theory of life, to which men were attached, as they had hundreds of years before been attached to their local city, with its local gods and intense corporate local life.
Without any doubt the presence of that Church and of what it stood for would have concerned our Senator. It was no longer negligible nor a thing to be only occasionally observed. It was a permanent force and, what is more, a State within the State.
If he were like most of his kind in that generation the Catholic Church would have affected him as an irritant; its existence interfered with the general routine of public affairs. If he were, as a small minority even of the rich already were, in sympathy with it though not of it, it would still have concerned him. It was the only exceptional organism of his uniform time: and it was growing.
Christianity: Not a Theory, but a Thing – an Organism …
With this last reference to the Church as an organism, we arrive at a key point to the whole book:
The Church is neither a theory, nor a philosophy, but a being: the Mystical Body of Christ.
In the Protestant England in which Belloc wrote, this idea, of course, had long been obscured. The problem, it seems to me, is even worse today: People speak about Christianity being a ‘belief-system’.
Alas, long before I discovered Belloc, this appeared to me one of the more dire consequences of the Reformation, with its emphasis on preaching over the Sacraments. The mystical side of the Church was lost thereby.
Belloc was keenly aware of this, and, as a consequence took to blunt language as a corrective. Often, he referred to the Church simply as ‘The Thing’ (which later inspired Chesterton to write his book of the same title).
In Europe and the Faith, Belloc draws all this out, whilst considering the ‘acute spasmodic friction breaking out between the Imperial power and this separate voluntary organism, the Catholic Church.’
The Church’s partial secrecy, its high vitality, its claim to independent administration, were the superficial causes of this [friction].
Speaking as Catholics, we know that the ultimate causes were more profound.
The conflict was a conflict between Jesus Christ with His great foundation on the one hand, and what Jesus Christ Himself had called ‘the world.’
But it is unhistorical to think of a ‘Pagan’ world opposed to a ‘Christian’ world at that time. The very conception of ‘a Pagan world’ requires some external manifest Christian civilization against which to contrast it. There was none such, of course, for Rome in the first generation of the third century …
[Nevertheless] the great antithesis between the Church and her surroundings [can be seen]. It is an antithesis which has been revived today.
Today, outside the Catholic Church, there is no distinction between opinion and faith nor any idea that man is other than sufficient to himself.
The Church did not, and does not, believe man to be sufficient to himself, nor naturally in possession of those keys which would open the doors to full knowledge or full social content. It proposed (and proposes) its doctrines to be held not as opinions but as a body of faith.
It differed from–or was more solid than–all around it in this: that it proposed statement instead of hypothesis, affirmed concrete historical facts instead of suggesting myths, and treated its ritual of “mysteries” as realities instead of symbols…
The Christian religion (then as now) was a thing, not a theory. It was expressed in what I have called an organism, and that organism was the Catholic Church.
On the Doctrine, Tradition and Unity
Hopefully, dear Reader, I am managing with these brief extracts to show how Belloc manages to portray the nature of the Church – this Thing set apart from the rest from human constructions. This is the heart of Europe and the Faith, wherein Belloc carefully considers both arguments and counter-arguments to his theme. We can only include a little here:
The reader may here object: “But surely there was heresy after heresy and thousands of men were at any moment claiming the name of Christian whom the orthodox Church rejected. Nay, some suffered martyrdom rather than relinquish the name.”
True; but the very existence of such sects should be enough to prove the point at issue.
These sects arose precisely because within the Catholic Church
(1) exact doctrine,
(2) unbroken tradition, and
(3) absolute unity,
were, all three, regarded as the necessary marks of the institution.
Of course, Belloc will elaborate this and here we may quote him at length:
Well, then, what was this body of doctrine held by common tradition and present everywhere in the first years of the third century?
Let me briefly set down what we know, as a matter of historical and documentary evidence, the Church of this period to have held.
What we know is a very different matter from what we can guess. We may amplify it from our conceptions of the probable according to our knowledge of that society – as, for instance, when we say that there was probably a bishop at Marseilles before the middle of the second century. Or we may amplify it by guesswork, and suppose, in the absence of evidence, some just possible but exceedingly improbable thing: as, that an important canonical Gospel has been lost. There is an infinite range for guesswork, both orthodox and heretical.
But the plain and known facts which repose upon historical and documentary evidence, and which have no corresponding documentary evidence against them, are both few and certain.
Let us take such a writer as Tertullian and set down what was certainly true of his time.
Tertullian was a man of about forty in the year 200. The Church then taught as an unbroken tradition that a Man who had been put to death about 170 years before in Palestine – only 130 years before Tertullian’s birth–had risen again on the third day. This Man was a known and real person with whom numbers had conversed.
In Tertullian’s childhood men still lived who had met eye witnesses of the thing asserted.
This Man (the Church said) was also the supreme Creator God. There you have an apparent contradiction in terms, at any rate a mystery, fruitful in opportunities for theory, and as a fact destined to lead to three centuries of more and more particular definition.
This Man, Who also was God Himself, had, through chosen companions called Apostles, founded a strict and disciplined society called the Church. The doctrines the Church taught professed to be His doctrines. They included the immortality of the human soul, its redemption, its alternative of salvation and damnation.
Initiation into the Church was by way of baptism with water in the name of The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Before His death this Man Who was also God had instituted a certain rite and Mystery called the Eucharist.
He took bread and wine and changed them into His Body and Blood.
He ordered this rite to be continued.
The central act of worship of the Christian Church was therefore a consecration of bread and wine by priests in the presence of the initiated and baptised Christian body of the locality. The bread and wine so consecrated were certainly called (universally) the Body of the Lord.
The faithful also certainly communicated, that is, eat the Bread and drank the Wine thus changed in the Mystery.
It was the central rite of the Church thus to take the Body of the Lord.
There was certainly at the head of each Christian community a bishop: regarded as directly the successor of the Apostles, the chief agent of the ritual and the guardian of doctrine.
The whole increasing body of local communities kept in touch through their bishops, held one doctrine and practiced what was substantially one ritual …
The numerical proportion of the Church in the city of Carthage, where Tertullian wrote, was certainly large enough for its general suppression to be impossible.
One might argue from one of his phrases that it was a tenth of the population. Equally certainly did the unity of the Christian Church and its bishops teach the institution of the Eucharist, the Resurrection, the authority of the Apostles, and their power of tradition through the bishops.
A very large number of converts were to be noted and (to go back to Tertullian) the majority of his time, by his testimony, were recruited by conversion, and were not born Christians.
Such is known to have been, in a very brief outline, the manner of the Catholic Church in these early years of the third century.
Such was the undisputed manner of the Church, as a Christian or an inquiring pagan would have been acquainted with it in the years 160-200 and onwards.
I have purposely chosen this moment, because it is the moment in which Christian evidence first emerges upon any considerable scale. Many of the points I have set down are, of course, demonstrably anterior to the third century. I mean by “demonstrably” anterior, proved in earlier documentary testimony.
That ritual and doctrine firmly fixed are long anterior to the time in which you find them rooted is obvious to common sense. But there are documents as well …
By the year 200 the Church was – everywhere, manifestly and in ample evidence throughout the Roman world – what I have described, and taught the doctrines I have just enumerated: but it stretches back one hundred and seventy years before that date and it has evidence to its title throughout that era of youth.
To see that the state of affairs everywhere widely apparent in A.D. 200 was rooted in the very origins of the institution one hundred and seventy years before, to see that all this mass of ritual, doctrine and discipline starts with the first third of the first century, and the Church was from its birth the Church, the reader must consider the dates.
Belloc goes into this in more depth than we can offer here. Although the book is easily found online and the interested reader can pursue the matter there, as to why Belloc continues:
I have taken the early third century as the moment in which we can first take a full historical view of the Catholic Church in being, and this picture is full of evidence to the state of the Church in its origins three generations before.
So much for the Catholic Church in the early third century when first we have a mass of evidence upon it. It is a highly disciplined, powerful growing body, intent on unity, ruled by bishops, having for its central doctrine the Incarnation of God in an historical Person, Jesus Christ, and for its central rite a Mystery, the transformation of Bread and Wine by priests into the Body and Blood which the faithful consume.
This “State within the State” by the year 200 already had affected the Empire: in the next generation it permeated the Empire; it was already transforming European civilization. By the year 200 the thing was done.
As the Empire declined, the Catholic Church caught and preserved it.
The Non-Fall of Roman Civilisation
‘As the Empire declined, the Catholic Church caught and preserved it.’ – here, in one short sentence, is the premise Belloc will develop at great length in Europe and the Faith. I encourage the interested reader to turn to it, for, like the rest of the book, it is a rich, erudite feast.
For now, we simply summate what is of the essence.
By the 300s Rome had become a Christian empire, looking to the Church governed by the Pope. But although the Empire declined and, in the popular reading of history, finally ‘fell’ with the last Western Emperor in 476 AD, Belloc will argue that Roman civilisation never really fell in most of Europe (apart from England) but struggled onwards without the Emperor.
Now, however, this continued civilisation in the West developed under the auspices of the Roman Church. Moreover, the Church having converted the Empire, saved and transformed what was best in the Empire – as a way of carrying it out to the rest of the world starting with the barbaric tribes of Europe. Rather than Roman civilisation being conquered by barbarians, Belloc will stress how the Christianised Roman civilisation could now conquer the hearts of the barbarians.
There was thus transition, but reports of a fall of Roman civilisation, according to Belloc, are greatly exaggerated. Here is how he describes this transition:
That state of society which I have just described, the ordered and united society of the Roman Empire, passed into another and very different state of society: the society of what are called “The Dark Ages.”
From these again rose, after another 600 years of adventures and perils, the great harvest of mediæval civilization.
Hardly had the Roman Empire turned in its maturity to accept the fruit of its long development (I mean the Catholic Church), when it began to grow old and was clearly about to suffer some great transition.
But that transition, which threatened to be death, proved in the issue not death at all, but a mixture of Vision and Change …
[Because] it has been the singular fortune of our European civilization that an end did not come.
Dissolution was in some strange way checked. Death was averted.
And the more closely one looks into the unique history of that salvation–the salvation of all that could be saved in a most ancient and fatigued society–the more one sees that this salvation was effected by no agency save that of the Catholic Church. …
There is no parallel to this survival in all the history of mankind. Every other great civilization has, after many centuries of development, either fallen into a fixed and sterile sameness or died and disappeared. There is nothing left of Egypt, there is nothing left of Assyria. The Eastern civilizations remain, but remain immovable; or if they change can only vulgarly copy external models.
But the civilization of Europe–the civilization, that is, of Rome and of the Empire – had a third fortune differing both from death and from sterility: it survived to a resurrection. Its essential seeds were preserved for a Second Spring.
For five or six hundred years men carved less well, wrote verse less well, let roads fall slowly into ruin, lost or rather coarsened the machinery of government, forgot or neglected much in letters and in the arts and in the sciences.
But there was preserved, right through that long period, not only so much of letters and of the arts as would suffice to bridge the great gulf between the fifth century and the eleventh, but also so much of what was really vital in the mind of Europe as would permit that mind to blossom again after its repose. And the agency, I repeat, which effected this conservation of the seeds, was the Catholic Church.
In Our Next Part: Rise and Decline of the West
In the next part, we shall continue with this, of course, as Belloc turns to Charlemagne, the Crusades and the rise of the High Middle Ages.
However, our accent will not be on these things, as indeed Belloc’s is not. For as we mentioned at the outset, what Belloc is really concerned with is the Reformation – and the sundering of Christendom.
Herein, for Belloc, lies the origin of many evils – not only nationalism and capitalism as we have mentioned – but materialism, paganism and a new self-centredness.
Thus will Belloc speak in terms of the disaster of the Reformation:
Its spiritual result – an isolation of the soul; its political result, a consequence of the spiritual – the prodigious release of energy, the consequent advance of special knowledge, the domination of the few under a competition left unrestrained, the subjection of the many, the ruin of happiness, the final threat of chaos.
Needless to say, the second part will hardly be ‘politically correct’. However, my readers should not infer that I agree with absolutely everything Belloc writes. Some of it is, I think, at times, put too extremely.
That said, it is not often I read a book for the third time.
The fact that I am doing so now, not only indicates the profound, indeed hermetic, insight I find in it, it also testifies to the future direction of this website.
As mentioned above, the book can be found online easily in numerous formats. For those who prefer paper books, there are numerous editions. However, I warn against many modern editions which have not been typeset, but rather based on a poor photocopying of the original edition.
Or if you are in Europe, you can order the same from Amazon here.
By doing so, you will not only support a good Catholic publisher, but also this website.
(Again, may I thank readers for ANY purchases at all – from toothbrushes to computers – made by going through Amazon by our links. They all help us.)
Hopefully, the second part will not be long in coming.
[UPDATE 14th September 2015: The second part was unexpectedly delayed when a torrent of inspiration hit me and instead of working on this website, I wrote a book in ten weeks, which is soon to be published by Angelico Press. Details of that book, which is most definitely deeply indebted to Hilaire Belloc, can be found here. Although I am now caught up in numerous other projects, I do mean to complete this review.]