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 uncompromising belief that Catholicism was the mainstay of European civilisation put him more and more out of favour in an increasingly secular world.
In 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 considers all five menaces to be Catholic heresies. This might seem questionable, especially in the case of Islam, but if you accept Belloc’s definition of heresy then it has to be admitted that he makes a reasonably convincing case.
Belloc regards a heresy as being a movement that eliminates one significant part of a system of religion or philosophy and leaves the rest of the system in place. The elimination of the one vital part changes the nature of the belief system in a radical (and sometimes unanticipated) way, and can destroy the belief system completely. In the case of Catholicism the success of any of these heresies would have resulted in a different kind of religion and this in turn would have changed the nature of our civilisation.
The Arian heresy, dating to the fourth century AD, was essentially a denial of the mystery of the Incarnation which obviously meant a denial of the doctrine of the trinity. The Arian heresy did not exactly deny the divinity of Christ altogether but it denied the fullness of his divinity. There were many heresies that in various ways denied the Orthodox interpretation of the Incarnation but Belloc sees them all as variants of Arianism. At times during the fourth century it seemed possible that Arianism would displace the Orthodox Catholic doctrine completely but it was not to be.
Belloc then turns to Islam. His claim is that Islam is essentially a simplified form of Catholic doctrine but like Arianism it denies the divinity of Christ. What distinguishes Islam most of all from other heresies is its lasting success. Although the expansion of Islam into Europe had been halted by the 18th century Islam was far from dead. From Belloc’s perspective, writing in 1938, Islam in fact seemed to be in much better shape than Christianity. Belloc believed that a resurgence of Islam was highly likely. While he saw Islam as a deadly threat it was not a belief system that could be dismissed with the kind of derision that he heaps upon the heads of the Arians. He might not have liked Islam but its history of success could not be argued with. Nor does Belloc dismiss Islam as a religion of savages. He accepts Islam’s claim to be regarded as a genuine civilisation. It is the fact that Islam represents an alternative civilisation with a track record of success that makes it such a deadly foe.
The Albigensian Heresy was so thoroughly crushed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries that it’s scarcely remembered now but it was at the time a particularly dangerous and malevolent heresy. It was a dualist heresy. It solved the problem of the existence of suffering and evil by assuming the existence of a good god and an evil god. The physical world was created by the evil god and therefore everything in that world is evil and worthless. Dualist heresies are dangerous because they tend to lead to an acceptance of evil. The Albigensians were dangerous because they took the rejection of the physical world so far that they were prepared to commit collective suicide by refusing to marry and have children.
The next heresy Belloc deals with, the Reformation, is more controversial. Belloc certainly admits that the Church needed to be reformed but he 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 they gave them the opportunity to transfer the wealth of the Church into their own pockets (elites haven’t changed much).
Belloc has no doubt that modernism is by far the most dangerous of all heresies, and the one most likely to prove fatal.
Belloc makes his biases crystal clear from the start. He believes that the unity of Christendom was essential to western civilisation and that the Reformation, as it turned out in practice, was little short of a disaster. He argues that the scepticism that began undermining our civilisation in the 18th century was a product of the Protestant Reformation. Belloc despised capitalism as much as he despised socialism and liberalism. He was no great fan of nationalism and his arguments for the advantages of the unity of Christendom are persuasive. I get the feeling that Belloc would have preferred to see feudalism preserved and perhaps he had a point. Belloc was a great believer in tradition and also in keeping power as decentralised as possible, hence his sympathy for feudal society.
The Great Heresies is Belloc at his provocative best. A must-read for anyone with any kind of traditionalist leanings.