Pope St Pius X and Hilaire Belloc
by Michael Hennessy
It is often remarked that when Pope St Pius X died shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, it was from a broken heart. This should not be surprising; a Pope who had fought continuously, with tremendous energy and courage, to "restore all things in Christ" during his eleven year Papacy found himself confronted in his last days by a war whose eventual quasi-apocalyptic qualities were already adumbrated at its onset by the ferocity of the German onslaught: "all things were to be destroyed in Man."
Just a few months before he died, and before the War began, the saintly Pope was visited by a man who likewise saw that the world, always a battleground between God and Satan, between the Church and the non-Catholic powers of the day, was balanced upon a knife-edge. And indeed, the man concerned, Hilaire Belloc, was himself also in his personal life standing upon a very precipice of desperate unhappiness. On February 2nd 1914, the feast of the Purification, Elodie, his American wife of nearly 18 years, had died. In the immediate aftermath of that death, Belloc later claimed that he had only been kept from utter despair by the ministrations of the remarkable Dominican, Father Vincent McNabb. In his barely mitigated misery, he had then decided to set off for the Eternal City, a city Elodie had loved but which they had never visited together. Belloc's state of mind was still critical, as he wrote the month of his journey to Rome to a close friend, John Phillimore "I am in peril of my intelligence and perhaps of my conduct and therefore of my soul. I am like a man shot in the stomach and through the spine."
In Rome, Belloc managed to obtain an audience with the Holy Father. It was not his first with this Pope. Some years earlier, in April 1906, he had been sent on behalf of the English episcopacy to explain to the Vatican the difficult situation in his country with regard to Catholic education. At that time, Belloc had just become a Liberal Member of Parliament and was directly engaged in visibly opposing his own Party in the matter of the provision of confessional education. The Pope then, very interested as he was in attempts by secular powers across Europe to reduce or neutralize the influence of the Church, was keen to hear of how secularization in education was being pushed in England, and Belloc was seen as the man who better than anyone else could explain the nature of this political combat. The audience in 1914 was obviously of a very different sort. It was brief, if also to use Belloc's word "splendid". The Holy Father blessed several medals for the Belloc children. Belloc later remarked, perhaps surprisingly, that "the Pope is looking older but less unhappy than when I saw him eight years ago." This audience seems to have represented something of a turning point in Belloc's psychological indeed spiritual recovery. He always carried the sadness of Elodie's death with him, and the outward signs of his permanent mourning were always there clearly to see. But he was no longer faced by the black gulf of incomprehension that had threatened to swallow him up.
Belloc always set great store on the corporate, visible nature of the Church, and on Her Visible Head on Earth. Belloc revered Pope St Pius X's predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, as "the greatest Pope since the Reformation," and was always keen to meet future Popes in person, which he managed with regard to Popes Benedict XIV, Pius XI and Pius XII, as well as Pope St Pius X. Meeting the Vicar of Christ was ever a great consolation and inspiration for Belloc, who in his constant struggle against his natural spirit of pagan scepticism required some tangible sight and presence to sustain the Act of Will which, under God, preserved his Faith.
It is unsurprising that the Pope's death a few months later came as a shock to Belloc as indeed it did to the whole Catholic world. Some short time after that death, Belloc wrote an article on the Pope for "The British Review" (it was reprinted in "The Tablet" in 1951, from whence I have it). In it, after lamenting the general failure amongst non-Catholics in England to see the Pope's demise as the significant political event it indeed was, he assesses the comparatively short reign of St. Pius X. Two things he considered of most vital importance: one was the Pope's refusal to cede the rights of the Church in France to the French government, which led to the confiscation of French ecclesiastical property by the secular authorities and the other was the Pope's combat against modernism. One represented the Church's fight against the enemy without, against the political forces generated since 1789 in support of "the Rights of Man" and in defiance of the Rights of God. The second represented the Church's fight against the enemy within, against a spiritual malaise, born of the intellectual anarchy of the Reformation, weaned by the Enlightenment, and brought to its coming of age by the Revolution. One was a fight for the Church's practical powers and privileges, for her temporal survival; the other was a fight for the very Truth which animated Her.
Of these two struggles, Belloc thought the former was of greater moment. There were a number of reasons for this, principal amongst which was Belloc's underestimate of the guile, contagiousness and serpentine durability of that heresy of heresies, Modernism. But this particular point we shall touch upon when we come to consider Belloc and Modernism. Another reason why Belloc considered the political battle in which the Church was engaged to be of principal importance was no doubt connected with the manner in which he would downplay his own private, personal Faith. He was, by his own admission, one with which all who knew him would happily have concurred, an instinctive, natural sceptic. His belief in the Church found strongest expression in his belief in Her as a force, a personality, an institution acting upon history and upon men. His life was spent in the service of the hierarchical, civilizing Church. The political and cultural attachments of the Church he was in many respects more cognizant of and sensitive to than Her theology or mysticism. The affair in France struck him as a symptom of the eternal conflict between the Church and the World, and the Pope's solution to it struck him as a sign of the Church's eternal strength in its willingness to sacrifice wealth, worldly, temporal success, respectability and good standing for the Immutable Principles of Her own Divine Constitution.
In short, the situation in France was this (to quote Belloc): "From a series of historical accidents..., certain of the strongest political emotions in the French people, half their memories of the struggle for national independence, and nearly all their passionate attachment to a democratic form of government had become associated with a quarrel between Church and State; with a quarrel, that is, between the Democratic State and the hierarchic organization of the Catholic Church.... In such a circumstance, all that are the organized enemies of the Church, the wealthy Huguenot and the ubiquitous Freemason, the Jewish newspaper owner and financier, combined in a strict alliance and delivered their assault upon the Catholic position.... [The enemy] held out to the Church what was morally the property of the Church as a bribe. If the Church would accept a form of administration in this property which was not Catholic at all but presbyterian, then the property should be set free, and the Church should have the material means whereby to live. If she would not so put on her enemies' uniform, her resources should be taken from her and she would die."
The Pope remained steadfast before this bribe. "He resolutely refused anything whatsoever save the full and exact admission of the Church's rights, and since these were denied he sacrificed against much strong advice from good and devout men, and against all the results of immediate calculation, the bread and meat of the Church in Gaul." Belloc considered this action to be as prophetic as it was symbolic.
In singling out as also vital Pope St Pius X's struggle against Modernism, Belloc was not quite so foresighted. For Belloc thought, when he penned this article late in 1914, that the Pope had killed Modernism. Belloc, hard-headed, not given to vague thinking or mystical feeling, or that duplicitous hybrid of the two that wormed its way even into the hearts and minds of good and devout men both during the Pope's reign and thereafter, could not believe that Modernism had any real strength. This did not lead him to underestimate the importance of the Pope's decisive actions against it but it led him to conclude that such actions had been entirely successful. He believed that the Pope had killed it, not through brutality or persecution, as others oversensitive types, largely might have seen it, but rather through the simple re-statement of Thomistic truths and the clear expression of Catholic Truth. "[In the Pope's actions] there was an absence of what friends call breadth and enemies compromise and an absence of what men call subtlety save, indeed, the subtlety that always accompanies clear thinking and whose sharpest manifestation is irony. This irony was abundantly present in the rejection and swift destruction of the weak-headed modernist folly."
He thought that Modernism was no more than a muddle-headed stupidity, of the sort that seems to recur in Man from time to time. Perhaps he under-estimated the virulence of Modernism because he had no time himself for speculative theology. He saw Modernism simply as an inane attempt to reconcile opposites: "it had its roots.... in the unreasoning speculations of Protestant Germany, and it was stamped throughout with that which the plain man will always call "sentiment" that is, the desire to have your cake and eat it too." Belloc was wary of sentiment. He would not allow it to muddle his thinking when it came to the Faith. He failed to see that coiled at Modernism's heart, ordering its admittedly often contradictory principles, there was a cunning that spoke with forked tongue and which lay behind all Sin and Error. The "weak-headed modernist folly" was in fact far too canny, evil and dangerous to die so easily.
The Pope's great attack on modernism, an intensification of the combat undertaken by his predecessors, began of course with the encyclical "Pascendi" in October 1907. Belloc was delighted with this attack, even if he felt that Modernism had "only a local and restricted influence." In a letter written very shortly after "Pascendi" was issued he rejoiced: "have you seen the Pope's gentle remarks to the Modernists? They are indeed noble! I could not have done it better myself. He gently hints that they cannot think which is true. The old Heretics had guts, notably Calvin, and could think like the Devil, who inspired them. But the Modernists are inspired by a little minor he-devil with one eye and a stammer, and the result is poor."
Even 15 years later, in his book "Survivals and New Arrivals", in which Belloc clearly prophesied the neo-pagan assault of un-reason and immorality indeed perversion upon civilization and upon the Church, he still thought that "Modernism in the technical sense of the word is pretty well dead." Belloc was notably over-optimistic on this point (in contrast to how his views are usually portrayed!), as indeed he was concerning the Fate of the Church in the late Twentieth Century. In that same book he considers Maritain's then current conviction that the Church would shrink to become a small but intense remnant standing apart in an increasing flood of Paganism as less likely than his own belief that the Church would continue to grow from strength to strength as it was indeed so growing when he wrote "Survivals and New Arrivals". Belloc was convinced that people outside the Church would increasingly see Her for what She really was: the sole effective defender of the common sense and common morality of Man and of Reason. He thought the assault of neo-Paganism and the solvent influence of "the Modern Mind" would both break upon the impenetrable bulwarks of the Church. He never dreamt that a Pope, and many bishops in the Church with him, would let them in the through the windows of a reckless and foolhardy "aggiornamento".
While Belloc maintained his opinion of Leo XIII as the greatest Pope since the Reformation, there can be little doubt he considered Pope St Pius X to be the holiest. Already in this article of 1914, he refers to the "actions of the Saint" as prophetic. He speaks of him as "a man inspired by sanctity" and Belloc saw simplicity as the note of his holiness. This simplicity, the hallmark of Pope St Pius X's reign, "stood composed of a few very clear principles like a carefully constructed classical thing of cut stone standing against a flood. For as the note of that reign was simplicity of principle rigidly applied, so the note of the society which it had to meet and subtly to dominate was one of very rapid and anarchic change."
Belloc may have got it wrong about Modernism, but he truly appreciated the greatness of the Pope who had dedicated his life to the struggle against it, and to the combat for the Rights of the Church in an increasingly anti-Christian age. No prophet can be expected to see all eventualities and how many good Catholics could have dreamt of the horrors that Vatican II has brought in its wake?