I’ve been reading Hilaire Belloc’s The Great Heresies, published in 1938. The whole book is thought-provoking but I was particularly interested in the chapter on the Reformation. Books in English on this subject tend to have a subtle (or in many cases totally unsubtle) anti-Catholic bias so it was stimulating to read an account written from an avowedly and completely uncompromising Catholic viewpoint.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) was a colourful French-English man of letters who gained immense popularity with his light verse for children although he also made a huge impact as an historian, a Catholic apologist, a literary critic, an essayist and a travel writer. As the years passed his unyielding belief that Catholicism was the mainstay of European civilisation put him more and more out of favour in an increasingly secular world.
The Great Heresies, written in 1938, Belloc deals with the five greatest threats that the Catholic Church has faced in the course of its history. These threats were the Arian heresy, the rise of Islam, the Albigensian heresy, the Reformation and the assault of modernism.
Belloc makes his position on the Reformation crystal clear from the start. While he admits that reform of some sort was desperately required he sees the actual results of the Reformation as an unmitigated disaster for western civilisation. His reasons for taking this view are provocative but rather persuasive.
Belloc believes that the unity of Christendom was essential to western civilisation. The Reformation permanently shattered that unity, with results that could not possibly have been foreseen.
One interesting point he makes is that the original reformers had no intention of splitting the Church or of establishing a separate religion. Their intention was to reform the entire Church, which would remain a single united universal Church. Until well into the seventeenth century both the Protestant and Catholic camps still intended to maintain the unity of the Church which would be either a universal Catholic Church or a universal Protestant Church. It was not until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that both sides accepted that the split was going to be permanent.
Of course the Reformation did not merely split the Church. The Protestant side kept on splitting. In Belloc’s view once you have countless churches all with their own doctrines then you have opened the door to scepticism. People will think to themselves that if there are dozens of churches all of which disagree on crucial questions then they cannot all be correct, which leads naturally to the idea that maybe all of them are wrong. Thus does scepticism gain a foothold. And that of course is exactly what happened. By the mid-18th century scepticism was firmly established as the outlook of a very large proportion of the ruling classes, and almost the entirety of the intellectual class. Once scepticism takes hold the inevitable long-term outcome will be atheism.
Belloc also blames the Reformation for encouraging the growth of capitalism. Belloc was no mere conservative – he was a thorough-going reactionary who despised socialism, liberalism and capitalism. The Protestant churches took a more relaxed view of usury than did the Catholic Church and this stimulated the growth of banking and the accumulation of capital and all the other preconditions necessary for large-scale capitalism. Most mainstream historians writing in English are inclined to see this as a good thing. Even Marxist historians are likely to see this as a positive thing, capitalism being the necessary first step towards socialism. Belloc however sees the rise of capitalism as being entirely a bad thing. He is more inclined to regard feudalism in a positive light, as being less dehumanising than capitalism or socialism. Belloc does not share the modern horror of hierarchical societies.
Belloc also has some very perceptive observations to offer on the nature of reforming zeal and why reforms so rarely end well. He also points out, quite correctly, that the elites of the time were happy to support the Protestant cause since it gave them the opportunity to transfer the wealth of the Church into their own pockets (elites haven’t changed much). The Reformation has been described as a rising of the rich against the poor.
In Belloc’s view the Reformation indirectly led to the fatal weakening of all traditional values and beliefs.
Belloc of course does see all this very much from a Catholic viewpoint but his approach makes a refreshing change from the mainstream of Whig and Marxist historians. Belloc was not merely writing as a Catholic but also as a political and social reactionary, a man who understood that the destruction of traditional beliefs and values and structures will result in a society with no foundation and no moral compass.
Even if like me you’re not a Catholic Belloc is still a remarkably stimulating and provocative writer. He’s very much out of fashion, which is all the more reason to seek out his writings. The Great Heresies is most definitely worth reading.