Relevance of Belloc & Chesterton
The twentieth century is coming to a close in a way that few Catholics expected. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, most Catholics became accustomed to thinking of Communism as the great global enemy of the Faith. Several popes roundly condemned Communism in principles; the reported apparitions of the Blessed Virgin at Fatima, though never officially treated as revelations, helped alert us to the peril of atheistic Communism; and of course Communism itself quickly showed its true colors with its ferocious persecution of Christians. After World War II, the defense of the Faith seemed to dovetail with the Cold War.
But when Communism collapsed at the beginning of this decade, we Catholics found ourselves in an odd position. We didn’t really feel that we had “won.” Yes, our open enemy was gone; but as we looked around, we found that the society we had thought we were defending had disappeared too.
Western Christians found themselves living in a “post-Christian” society, allegedly democratic, in which state power was centralized as never before, while Christian influence was increasingly banned from public life. Freedom, constricted in most respects, had expanded on only one front: the sexual revolution had relaxed our most basic obligations to our families. Easy divorce, contraception, pornography, homosexual rights, and abortion on demand had changed the very character of our social relations.
This expansion of sexual freedom might seem to be in tension with the general growth of state power. But in fact, the two trends were in harmony; they were two aspects of the same phenomenon, which must be seen together to be understood. The term “sexual revolution” isn’t mere hype. While Catholics were preoccupied with a foreign enemy, they were largely distracted from a true revolution that was going on at home.
The transformation has already been profound. Duties to the family, as embodied in the traditional sexual morality, have been displaced by duties to the state. Ties to spouses, parents, and children have become more and more optional, while obligations to the state (which by definition are never optional) have become more and more comprehensive.
This is why the centralized state— to call it a “federal” government has become a misnomer— has actually promoted the sexual revolution, notably in court decisions banning state and local laws against abortion and pornography. The weaker the family, the stronger the state. The state accordingly joins the attack on the very cells of society.
This new, paganized Western society under the comprehensive state would have come as much less of a surprise to us if we’d paid more attention to the two great English Catholic writers of the pre-Bolshevik period. Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton saw it coming.
In 1912, Belloc predicted the rise of a new form of tyranny, which he called “the Servile State,” neither capitalist nor socialist, in which one part of the population would be forced to support the other. He was not always accurate in detail, but he was right in principle. He saw that the cellular structure of Christian society was under assault.
Chesterton agreed. Together both men resisted modernity in religion, morality, politics, economics, and art. They celebrated the Middle Ages, small private property, and above all Catholicism. In a famous epigram, typically defiant in its simplicity, Belloc proclaimed: “Europe is the Faith, and the Faith is Europe.” The social principle they upheld (it never amounted to a detailed system) was called Distributism— the encouragement of the widest possible ownership of property, so that as few as possible would depend on either the state or the large business corporation for their livelihood. Such property, Belloc and Chesterton believed, was the only sound basis for Christian liberty.
Their defense of property is connected to the Catholic apologetics for which they are better known. But the idea of Distributism never caught on; in fact it has been puzzling even to many who admire Belloc and Chesterton for their defense of the Faith.
This is too bad, because both men were prescient about what we now call “social issues.” Chesterton wrote about them in several books of such wit, charm, and trenchancy that it’s a wonder, as well as a pity, that they aren’t better known: What’s Wrong with the World, The Superstition of Divorce, and Eugenics and Other Evils. Belloc’s many books include The Servile State and The Restoration of Property. Though he lacks Chesterton’s sheer brilliance, he writes with hypnotic power and a challenging vision of the world.
Both men are widely— and fairly— accused of carelessness about historical fact; as partisans of Catholic Europe, they make sweeping assertions that are often sentimental and sometimes flatly wrong. But if they are unreliable about the past, they compensate by having been remarkably reliable about the future. And because they wrote while the Cold War was still far in the future, they have a renewed value for Catholics now that the Cold war is a thing of the past.