BELLOC-Europe and the Faith
Title: Europe and the Faith "Sine auctoritate nulla vita"
Author: Hilaire Belloc
I say the Catholic "conscience" of history--I say "conscience"--that is,
an intimate knowledge through identity: the intuition of a thing which is
one with the knower--I do not say "The Catholic Aspect of History." This
talk of "aspects" is modern and therefore part of a decline: it is false,
and therefore ephemeral: I will not stoop to it. I will rather do homage
to truth and say that there is no such thing as a Catholic "aspect"
of European history. There is a Protestant aspect, a Jewish aspect, a
Mohammedan aspect, a Japanese aspect, and so forth. For all of these look
on Europe from without. The Catholic sees Europe from within. There is no
more a Catholic "aspect" of European history than there is a man's "aspect"
Sophistry does indeed pretend that there is even a man's "aspect" of
himself. In nothing does false philosophy prove itself more false. For
a man's way of perceiving himself (when he does so honestly and after a
cleansing examination of his mind) is in line with his Creator's, and
therefore with reality: he sees from within.
Let me pursue this metaphor. Man has in him conscience, which is the voice
of God. Not only does he know by this that the outer world is real, but
also that his own personality is real.
When a man, although flattered by the voice of another, yet says within
himself, "I am a mean fellow," he has hold of reality. When a man, though
maligned of the world, says to himself of himself, "My purpose was just,"
he has hold of reality. He knows himself, for he is himself. A man does not
know an infinite amount about himself. But the finite amount he does know
is all in the map; it is all part of what is really there. What he does not
know about himself would, did he know it, fit in with what he does know
about himself. There are indeed "aspects" of a man for all others except
these two, himself and God Who made him. These two, when they regard him,
see him as he is; all other minds have their several views of him; and
these indeed are "aspects," each of which is false, while all differ. But
a man's view of himself is not an "aspect:" it is a comprehension.
Now then, so it is with us who are of the Faith and the great story of
Europe. A Catholic as he reads that story does not grope at it from
without, he understands it from within. He cannot understand it altogether
because he is a finite being; but he is also that which he has to
understand. The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.
The Catholic brings to history (when I say "history" in these pages I mean
the history of Christendom) self-knowledge. As a man in the confessional
accuses himself of what he knows to be true and what other people cannot
judge, so a Catholic, talking of the united European civilization, when he
blames it, blames it for motives and for acts which are his own. He himself
could have done those things in person. He is not relatively right in his
blame, he is absolutely right. As a man can testify to his own motive so
can the Catholic testify to unjust, irrelevant, or ignorant conceptions
of the European story; for he knows why and how it proceeded. Others, not
Catholic, look upon the story of Europe externally as strangers. They
have to deal with something which presents itself to them partially and
disconnectedly, by its phenomena alone: he sees it all from its centre in
its essence, and together.
I say again, renewing the terms, The Church is Europe: and Europe is The
The Catholic conscience of history is not a conscience which begins with
the development of the Church in the basin of the Mediterranean. It
goes back much further than that. The Catholic understands the soil in
which that plant of the Faith arose. In a way that no other man can, he
understands the Roman military effort; why that effort clashed with the
gross Asiatic and merchant empire of Carthage; what we derived from the
light of Athens; what food we found in the Irish and the British, the
Gallic tribes, their dim but awful memories of immortality; what cousinship
we claim with the ritual of false but profound religions, and even how
ancient Israel (the little violent people, before they got poisoned,
while they were yet National in the mountains of Judea) was, in the old
dispensation at least, central and (as we Catholics say) sacred: devoted to
a peculiar mission.
For the Catholic the whole perspective falls into its proper order. The
picture is normal. Nothing is distorted to him. The procession of our great
story is easy, natural, and full. It is also final.
But the modern Catholic, especially if he is confined to the use of
the English tongue, suffers from a deplorable (and it is to be hoped),
a passing accident. No modern book in the English tongue gives him a
conspectus of the past; he is compelled to study violently hostile
authorities, North German (or English copying North German), whose
knowledge is never that of the true and balanced European.
He comes perpetually across phrases which he sees at once to be absurd,
either in their limitations or in the contradictions they connote. But
unless he has the leisure for an extended study, he cannot put his finger
upon the precise mark of the absurdity. In the books he reads--if they
are in the English language at least--he finds things lacking which his
instinct for Europe tells him should be there; but he cannot supply their
place because the man who wrote those books was himself ignorant of such
things, or rather could not conceive them.
I will take two examples to show what I mean. The one is the present
battlefield of Europe: a large affair not yet cleared, concerning all
nations and concerning them apparently upon matters quite indifferent to
the Faith. It is a thing which any stranger might analyze (one would think)
and which yet no historian explains.
The second I deliberately choose as an example particular and narrow: an
especially doctrinal story. I mean the story of St. Thomas of Canterbury,
of which the modern historian makes nothing but an incomprehensible
contradiction; but which is to a Catholic a sharp revelation of the
half-way house between the Empire and modern nationalities.
As to the first of these two examples: Here is at last the Great War in
Europe: clearly an issue--things come to a head. How came it? Why these two
camps? What was this curious grouping of the West holding out in desperate
Alliance against the hordes that Prussia drove to a victory apparently
inevitable after the breakdown of the Orthodox Russian shell? Where lay the
roots of so singular a contempt for our old order, chivalry and morals, as
Berlin then displayed? Who shall explain the position of the Papacy, the
question of Ireland, the aloofness of old Spain?
It is all a welter if we try to order it by modern, external--especially
by any materialist or even skeptical--analysis. It was not climate against
climate--that facile materialist contrast of "environment," which is the
crudest and stupidest explanation of human affairs. It was not race--if
indeed any races can still be distinguished in European blood save broad
and confused appearances, such as Easterner and Westerner, short and tall,
dark and fair. It was not--as another foolish academic theory (popular some
years ago) would pretend--an economic affair. There was here no revolt of
rich against poor, no pressure of undeveloped barbarians against developed
lands, no plan of exploitation, nor of men organized, attempting to seize
the soil of less fruitful owners.
How came these two opponents into being, the potential antagonism of which
was so strong that millions willingly suffered their utmost for the sake of
That man who would explain the tremendous judgment on the superficial test
of religious differences among modern "sects" must be bewildered indeed!
I have seen the attempt made in more than one journal and book, enemy and
Allied. The results are lamentable!
Prussia indeed, the protagonist, was atheist. But her subject provinces
supported her exultantly, Catholic Cologne and the Rhine and tamely
Catholic Bavaria. Her main support--without which she could not have
challenged Europe--was that very power whose sole reason for being was
Catholicism: the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine which, from Vienna, controlled
and consolidated the Catholic against the Orthodox Slav: the House of
Hapsburg-Lorraine was the champion of Catholic organization in Eastern
The Catholic Irish largely stood apart.
Spain, not devout at all, but hating things not Catholic because those
things are foreign, was more than apart. Britain had long forgotten the
unity of Europe. France, a protagonist, was notoriously divided within
herself over the religious principle of that unity. No modern religious
analysis such as men draw up who think of religion as Opinion will
make anything of all this. Then why was there a fight? People who
talk of "Democracy" as the issue of the Great War may be neglected:
Democracy--one noble, ideal, but rare and perilous, form of human
government--was not at stake. No historian can talk thus. The essentially
aristocratic policy of England now turned to a plutocracy, the despotism
of Russia and Prussia, the immense complex of all other great modern
states gives such nonsense the lie.
People who talk of "A struggle for supremacy between the two Teutonic
champions Germany and England" are less respectable still. England is not
Teutonic, and was not protagonist. The English Cabinet decided by but
the smallest possible majority (a majority of one) to enter the war. The
Prussian Government never dreamt it would have to meet England at all.
There is no question of so single an issue. The world was at war. Why? No
man is an historian who cannot answer from the past. All who can answer
from the past, and are historians, see that it is the historical depth of
the European faith, not its present surface, which explains all.
The struggle was against Prussia.
Why did Prussia arise? Because the imperfect Byzantine evangelization of
the Eastern Slavonic Plains just failed to meet, there in Prussia, the
western flood of living tradition welling up from Rome. Prussia was an
hiatus. In that small neglected area neither half cultivated from the
Byzantine East nor fully from the Roman West rose a strong garden of weeds.
And weeds sow themselves. Prussia, that is, this patch of weeds, could not
extend until the West weakened through schism. It had to wait till the
battle of the Reformation died down. But it waited. And at last, when there
was opportunity, it grew prodigiously. The weed patch over-ran first Poland
and the Germanies, then half Europe. When it challenged all civilization at
last it was master of a hundred and fifty million souls.
What are the tests of this war? In their vastly different fashions they
are Poland and Ireland--the extreme islands of tenacious tradition: the
conservators of the Past through a national passion for the Faith.
The Great War was a clash between an uneasy New Thing which desired to live
its own distorted life anew and separate from Europe, and the old Christian
rock. This New Thing is, in its morals, in the morals spread upon it by
Prussia, the effect of that great storm wherein three hundred years ago
Europe made shipwreck and was split into two. This war was the largest, yet
no more than the recurrent, example of that unceasing wrestle: the outer,
the unstable, the untraditional--which is barbarism--pressing blindly
upon the inner, the traditional, the strong--which is Ourselves: which is
Christendom: which is Europe.
Small wonder that the Cabinet at Westminster hesitated!
We used to say during the war that if Prussia conquered civilization
failed, but that if the Allies conquered civilization was
reestablished--What did we mean? We meant, not that the New Barbarians
could not handle a machine: They can. But we meant that they had learnt all
from us. We meant that they cannot continue of themselves; and that we
can. We meant that they have no roots.
When we say that Vienna was the tool of Berlin, that Madrid should be
ashamed, what do we mean? It has no meaning save that civilization is
one and we its family: That which challenged us, though it controlled
so much which should have aided us and was really our own, was external
to civilization and did not lose that character by the momentary use of
When we said that "the Slav" failed us, what did we mean? It was not a
statement of race. Poland is Slav, so is Serbia: they were two vastly
differing states and yet both with us. It meant that the Byzantine
influence was never sufficient to inform a true European state or to teach
Russia a national discipline; because the Byzantine Empire, the tutor of
Russia, was cut off from us, the Europeans, the Catholics, the heirs, who
are the conservators of the world.
The Catholic Conscience of Europe grasped this war--with apologies where
it was in the train of Prussia, with affirmation where it was free. It
saw what was toward. It weighed, judged, decided upon the future--the two
alternative futures which lie before the world.
All other judgments of the war made nonsense: You had, on the Allied side,
the most vulgar professional politicians and their rich paymasters shouting
for "Democracy;" pedants mumbling about "Race." On the side of Prussia (the
negation of nationality) you have the use of some vague national mission of
conquest divinely given to the very various Germans and the least competent
to govern. You would come at last (if you listened to such varied cries)
to see the Great War as a mere folly, a thing without motive, such as the
emptiest internationals conceive the thing to have been.
So much for the example of the war. It is explicable as a challenge to the
tradition of Europe. It is inexplicable on any other ground. The Catholic
alone is in possession of the tradition of Europe: he alone can see and
judge in this matter.
From so recent and universal an example I turn to one local, distant,
precise, in which this same Catholic Conscience of European history may be
Consider the particular (and clerical) example of Thomas à Becket: the
story of St. Thomas of Canterbury. I defy any man to read the story of
Thomas a Becket in Stubbs, or in Green, or in Bright, or in any other of
our provincial Protestant handbooks, and to make head or tail of it.
Here is a well-defined and limited subject of study. It concerns only a
few years. A great deal is known about it, for there are many contemporary
accounts. Its comprehension is of vast interest to history. The Catholic
may well ask: "How it is I cannot understand the story as told by these
Protestant writers? Why does it not make sense?"
The story is briefly this: A certain prelate, the Primate of England at the
time, was asked to admit certain changes in the status of the clergy. The
chief of these changes was that men attached to the Church in any way even
by minor orders (not necessarily priests) should, if they committed a crime
amenable to temporal jurisdiction, be brought before the ordinary courts of
the country instead of left, as they had been for centuries, to their own
courts. The claim was, at the time, a novel one. The Primate of England
resisted that claim. In connection with his resistance he was subjected to
many indignities, many things outrageous to custom were done against him;
but the Pope doubted whether his resistance was justified, and he was
finally reconciled with the civil authority. On returning to his See at
Canterbury he became at once the author of further action and the subject
of further outrage, and within a short time he was murdered by his
His death raised a vast public outcry. His monarch did penance for it.
But all the points on which he had resisted were in practice waived by
the Church at last. The civil state's original claim was in practice
recognized at last. Today it appears to be plain justice. The chief of St.
Thomas' contentions, for instance, that men in orders should be exempt from
the ordinary courts, seems as remote as chain armors.
So far, so good. The opponent of the Faith will say, and has said in a
hundred studies--that this resistance was nothing more than that always
offered by an old organization to a new development.
Of course it was! It is equally true to say of a man who objects to an
aëroplane smashing in the top of his studio that it is the resistance of an
old organization to a new development. But such a phrase in no way explains
the business; and when the Catholic begins to examine the particular case
of St. Thomas, he finds a great many things to wonder at and to think
about, upon which his less European opponents are helpless and silent.
I say "helpless" because in their attitude they give up trying to explain.
They record these things, but they are bewildered by them. They can explain
St. Thomas' particular action simply enough: too simply. He was (they
say) a man living in the past. But when they are asked to explain the
vast consequences that followed his martyrdom, they have to fall back
upon the most inhuman and impossible hypotheses; that "the masses were
ignorant"--that is as compared with other periods in human history (what,
more ignorant than today?) that "the Papacy engineered an outburst of
popular enthusiasm." As though the Papacy were a secret society like modern
Freemasonry, with some hidden machinery for "engineering" such things. As
though the type of enthusiasm produced by the martyrdom was the wretched
mechanical thing produced now by caucus or newspaper "engineering!" As
though nothing besides such interferences was there to arouse the whole
populace of Europe to such a pitch!
As to the miracles which undoubtedly took place at St. Thomas' tomb, the
historian who hates or ignores the Faith had (and has) three ways of
denying them. The first is to say nothing about them. It is the easiest way
of telling a lie. The second is to say that they were the result of a vast
conspiracy which the priests directed and the feeble acquiescence of the
maim, the halt and the blind supported. The third (and for the moment most
popular) is to give them modern journalistic names, sham Latin and Greek
confused, which, it is hoped, will get rid of the miraculous character;
notably do such people talk of "auto-suggestion."
Now the Catholic approaching this wonderful story, when he has read all the
original documents, understands it easily enough from within.
He sees that the stand made by St. Thomas was not very important in
its special claims, and was probably (taken as an isolated action)
unreasonable. But he soon gets to see, as he reads and as he notes the
rapid and profound transformation of all civilization which was taking
place in that generation, that St. Thomas was standing out for a
principle, ill clothed in his particular plea, but absolute in its general
appreciation: the freedom of the Church. He stood out in particular for
what had been the concrete symbols of the Church's liberty in the past.
The direction of his actions was everything, whether his symbol was well
or ill chosen. The particular customs might go. But to challenge the new
claims of civil power at that moment was to save the Church. A movement
was afoot which might have then everywhere accomplished what was only
accomplished in parts of Europe four hundred years later, to wit, a
dissolution of the unity and the discipline of Christendom.
St. Thomas had to fight on ground chosen by the enemy; he fought and he
resisted in the spirit dictated by the Church. He fought for no dogmatic
point, he fought for no point to which the Church of five hundred years
earlier or five hundred years later would have attached importance. He
fought for things which were purely temporal arrangements; which had indeed
until quite recently been the guarantee of the Church's liberty, but which
were in his time upon the turn of becoming negligible. But the spirit
in which he fought was a determination that the Church should never be
controlled by the civil power, and the spirit against which he fought
was the spirit which either openly or secretly believes the Church to be
an institution merely human, and therefore naturally subjected, as an
inferior, to the processes of the monarch's (or, worse, the politician's)
A Catholic sees, as he reads the story, that St. Thomas was obviously and
necessarily to lose, in the long run, every concrete point on which he had
stood out, and yet he saved throughout Europe the ideal thing for which he
was standing out. A Catholic perceives clearly why the enthusiasm of the
populace rose: the guarantee of the plain man's healthy and moral existence
against the threat of the wealthy, and the power of the State--the
self-government of the general Church, had been defended by a champion
up to the point of death. For the morals enforced by the Church are the
guarantee of freedom.
Further the Catholic reader is not content, as is the non-Catholic, with a
blind, irrational assertion that the miracles could not take place. He is
not wholly possessed of a firm, and lasting faith that no marvelous events
ever take place. He reads the evidence. He cannot believe that there was
a conspiracy of falsehood (in the lack of all proof of such conspiracy).
He is moved to a conviction that events so minutely recorded and so amply
testified, happened. Here again is the European, the chiefly reasonable
man, the Catholic, pitted against the barbarian skeptic with his empty,
unproved, mechanical dogmas of material sequence.
And these miracles, for a Catholic reader, are but the extreme points
fitting in with the whole scheme. He knows what European civilization
was before the twelfth century. He knows what it was to become after the
sixteenth. He knows why and how the Church would stand out against a
certain itch for change. He appreciates why and how a character like that
of St. Thomas would resist. He is in no way perplexed to find that the
resistance failed on its technical side. He sees that it succeeded so
thoroughly in its spirit as to prevent, in a moment when its occurrence
would have been far more dangerous and general than in the sixteenth
century, the overturning of the connection between Church and State.
The enthusiasm of the populace he particularly comprehends. He grasps the
connection between that enthusiasm and the miracles which attended St.
Thomas' intercession; not because the miracles were fantasies, but because
a popular recognition of deserved sanctity is the later accompaniment and
the recipient of miraculous power.
It is the details of history which require the closest analysis. I have,
therefore, chosen a significant detail with which to exemplify my case.
Just as a man who thoroughly understands the character of the English
squires and of their position in the English countrysides would have to
explain at some length (and with difficulty) to a foreigner how and why the
evils of the English large estates were, though evils, national; just as
a particular landlord case of peculiar complexity or violent might afford
him a special test; so the martyrdom of St. Thomas makes, for the Catholic
who is viewing Europe, a very good example whereby he can show how well
he understands what is to other men not understandable, and how simple is
to him, and how human, a process which, to men not Catholic, can only be
explained by the most grotesque assumptions; as that universal contemporary
testimony must be ignored; that men are ready to die for things in which
they do not believe; that the philosophy of a society does not permeate
that society; or that a popular enthusiasm ubiquitous and unchallenged, is
mechanically produced to the order of some centre of government! All these
absurdities are connoted in the non-Catholic view of the great quarrel, nor
is there any but the Catholic conscience of Europe that explains it.
The Catholic sees that the whole of the à Becket business was like the
struggle of a man who is fighting for his liberty and is compelled to
maintain it (such being the battleground chosen by his opponents) upon
a privilege inherited from the past. The non-Catholic simply cannot
understand it and does not pretend to understand it.
Now let us turn from this second example, highly definite and limited, to a
third quite different from either of the other two and the widest of all.
Let us turn to the general aspect of all European history. We can here make
a list of the great lines on which the Catholic can appreciate what other
men only puzzle at, and can determine and know those things upon which
other men make no more than a guess.
The Catholic Faith spreads over the Roman world, not because the Jews were
widely dispersed, but because the intellect of antiquity, and especially
the Roman intellect, accepted it in its maturity.
The material decline of the Empire is not co-relative with, nor parallel
to, the growth of the Catholic Church; it is the counterpart of that
growth. You have been told "Christianity (a word, by the way, quite
unhistorical) crept into Rome as she declined, and hastened that decline."
That is bad history. Rather accept this phrase and retain it: "The Faith is
that which Rome accepted in her maturity; nor was the Faith the cause of
her decline, but rather the conservator of all that could be conserved."
There was no strengthening of us by the advent of barbaric blood; there was
a serious imperilling of civilization in its old age by some small (and
mainly servile) infiltration of barbaric blood; if civilization so attacked
did not permanently fail through old age we owe that happy rescue to the
In the next period--the Dark Ages--the Catholic proceeds to see Europe
saved against a universal attack of the Mohammedan, the Hun, the
Scandinavian: he notes that the fierceness of the attack was such that
anything save something divinely instituted would have broken down. The
Mohammedan came within three days' march of Tours, the Mongol was seen from
the walls of Tournus on the Sâone: right in France. The Scandinavian savage
poured into the mouths of all the rivers of Gaul, and almost overwhelmed
the whole island of Britain. There was nothing left of Europe but a central
Nevertheless Europe survived. In the refloresence which followed that dark
time--in the Middle Ages--the Catholic notes not hypotheses but documents
and facts; he sees the Parliaments arising not from some imaginary
"Teutonic" root--a figment of the academies--but from the very real and
present great monastic orders, in Spain, in Britain, in Gaul--never outside
the old limits of Christendom. He sees the Gothic architecture spring high,
spontaneous and autochthonic, first in the territory of Paris and thence
spread outwards in a ring to the Scotch Highlands and to the Rhine. He sees
the new Universities, a product of the soul of Europe, re-awakened--he
sees the marvelous new civilization of the Middle Ages rising as a
transformation of the old Roman society, a transformation wholly from
within, and motived by the Faith.
The trouble, the religious terror, the madnesses of the fifteenth century,
are to him the diseases of one body--Europe--in need of medicine.
The medicine was too long delayed. There comes the disruption of the
European body at the Reformation.
It ought to be death; but since the Church is not subject to mortal law it
is not death. Of those populations which break away from religion and from
civilization none (he perceives) were of the ancient Roman stock--save
Britain. The Catholic, reading his history, watches in that struggle
England: not the effect of the struggle on the fringes of Europe, on
Holland, North Germany and the rest. He is anxious to see whether Britain
will fail the mass of civilization in its ordeal.
He notes the keenness of the fight in England and its long endurance; how
all the forces of wealth--especially the old families such as the Howards
and the merchants of the City of London--are enlisted upon the treasonable
side; how in spite of this a tenacious tradition prevents any sudden
transformation of the British polity or its sharp severance from the
continuity of Europe. He sees the whole of North England rising, cities in
the South standing siege. Ultimately he sees the great nobles and merchants
victorious, and the people cut off, apparently forever, from the life by
which they had lived, the food upon which they had fed.
Side by side with all this he notes that, next to Britain, one land only
that was never Roman land, by an accident inexplicable or miraculous,
preserves the Faith, and, as Britain is lost, he sees side by side with
that loss the preservation of Ireland.
To the Catholic reader of history (though he has no Catholic history to
read) there is no danger of the foolish bias against civilization which
has haunted so many contemporary writers, and which has led them to frame
fantastic origins for institutions the growth of which are as plain as an
historical fact can be. He does not see in the pirate raids which desolated
the eastern and southeastern coasts of England in the sixth century the
origin of the English people. He perceives that the success of these small
eastern settlements upon the eastern shores, and the spread of their
language westward over the island dated from their acceptance of Roman
discipline, organization and law, from which the majority, the Welsh to
the West, were cut off. He sees that the ultimate hegemony of Winchester
over Britain all grew from this early picking up of communications with
the Continent and the cutting off of everything in this island save the
South and East from the common life of Europe. He knows that Christian
parliaments are not dimly and possibly barbaric, but certainly and plainly
monastic in their origin; he is not surprised to learn that they arose
first in the Pyrenean valleys during the struggle against the Mohammedans;
he sees how probable or necessary was such an origin just when the chief
effort of Europe was at work in the Reconquista.
In general, the history of Europe and of England develops naturally before
the Catholic reader; he is not tempted to that succession of theories,
self-contradicting and often put forward for the sake of novelty, which
has confused and warped modern reconstructions of the past. Above all, he
does not commit the prime historical error of "reading history backwards."
He does not think of the past as a groping towards our own perfection of
today. He has in his own nature the nature of its career: he feels the fall
and the rise: the rhythm of a life which is his own.
The Europeans are of his flesh. He can converse with the first century or
the fifteenth; shrines are not odd to him nor oracles; and if he is the
supplanter, he is also the heir of the gods.
BELLOC-Europe and the Faith