In Praise of Mean Catholics (A Tribute to Nathanael & Hilaire Belloc)
“Philip found Nathanael and told him, ‘We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.’
But Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’
Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.’
Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.’
Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.’”
– John 1:45-49
To some, Hilaire Belloc was a mean Catholic. His tongue could be acid. His stare daunting. And his posture imposing. Belloc was not one to suffer fools. An Englishman with French blood, his reasoning could be razor sharp and his passion could be fiery hot. What did his contemporaries say of him? English novelist and editor, Frank Swinnerton observed,
“One reason for [people’s] love of Chesterton was that while he fought he sang lays of chivalry and in spite of all his seriousness warred against only wickedness rather than a fleshly opponent, while Belloc sang only after the battle and warred against men as well as ideas.”
Oxford professor and author, Christopher Hollis, noted,
“Belloc made jokes which were as excellent as those of Chesterton. But Belloc’s jokes were all too often bitter and satiric. Their aim was to make the object of them ridiculous. He struck to wound.”
Intellectual nemesis H.G. Wells would contrast his ability to spar with, yet warmly revere G.K. Chesterton while simultaneously nursing a deep mutual contempt for another debate opponent, Hilaire Belloc. Wells, an avowed atheist, went so far as to muse about his concept of heaven (if there were a heaven) and omit Belloc.
“The company about me on the clouds varies
greatly with the mood of the vision, but always it is in some way, if
not always a very obvious way, beautiful. One frequent presence is G.K.
Chesterton, a joyous whirl of brush work, appropriately garmented and
crowned. When he is there, I remark, the whole ceiling is by a sort of
radiation convivial. We drink limitless old October from handsome
flagons, and we argue mightily about Pride (his weak point) and the
nature of Deity. A hygienic, attentive, and essentially anesthetic
Eagle checks, in the absence of exercise, any undue enlargement of our
Promethean livers…. Chesterton often–but never by any chance Belloc.
Belloc I admire beyond measure, but there is a sort of partisan
viciousness about Belloc that bars him from my celestial dreams. He
never figures, no, not even in the remotest corner, on my ceiling.”
Belloc’s acerbic passion led him to tell the helpful sacristan during worship to “go to hell”. He could obnoxiously bellow at friends from the street below their window or rummage uninvited through their basement icebox all the while cursing their shortage of beer. He could fume about being passed over for an important Oxford fellowship or brandish his Rosary beads in defiance of committee threatening his political future because of his Roman Catholicism.
And so, should we dismiss this irascible, mean Catholic?
Only to our great loss.
You see, while Hilaire Belloc could be harsh and rude and confrontational… He could also be exuberant. As Joseph Pearce tells us in his biography of Belloc, Old Thunder,
“Perhaps the most vibrant evocation of Belloc’s irrepressibility at Oxford was given by Edward Thomas in 1906. He recalled standing with a companion at the foot of Boars Hill one afternoon in May when they were disturbed by a high tenor voice lifted on the air:
‘Sils tombent, nos jeunes héros,Aux armes, citoyens!’
La France en Produit de nouveaux
Contre vous tous prêts a se batter
[If they fall, our young heroes
France will bear new ones
Ready to join the fight against you
To arms, citizens!]
A bicycle swept by, down a steep hill, guided, so far as it was guided at all, by the spirit of the Spring, winged by the south wind, crowned by superb white clouds, and singing that song in a whirl of golden dust. ‘That was Belloc.’ said my companion, as he lay by the roadside trembling from the shock of that wild career. It was Belloc, and it still is.”
Belloc could be bold. G.K. Chesterton aptly described his friend,
“When I first met Belloc he remarked to the friend who introduced us that he was in low spirits. His low spirits were and are much more uproarious and enlivening than anybody else’s high spirits. He talked into the night; and left behind in it a glowing track of good things…What he brought into our dream was this Roman appetite for reality and for reason in action, and when he came into the door there entered with him the smell of danger.”
Belloc could be right. In a letter to his recently converted friend, G.K. Chesterton, Belloc would describe precisely what Catholicism meant to him,
“The thing I have to say is this (I could not have said it before your [conversion]: I can say it now. Before it would have been like a selected pleading). The Catholic Church is the exponent of Reality. It is true. Its doctrines in matters large and small are statements of what is…My conclusion – and that of all men who have ever once seen it – is the faith. Corporate, organized, a personality, teaching. A thing, not a theory. It.”
You see, some mean Catholics aren’t in fact mean at all. They are exuberant. They are bold. And, often, they are right. Their style may be prickly. Their packaging may be coarse. But sometimes, sometimes, we need to be shaken a bit to capture our attention, to dislodge our smug biases, to rouse from our self-satisfied slumber. We need to be made just a bit uncomfortable so that we question our own anemic assumptions and begin the process of true and honest self-reform. Even today we need John the Baptists to prepare our way for Jesus Christ.
The first words we hear from Nathanael (aka St. Bartholomew) about Jesus Christ are derisive. To us, this is off-putting. But Christ knew better. He knew what lay at the core of this future Saint. And in short order, the once sarcastic Nathanael proved Christ right as he declared earlier than any disciple, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
When it comes to the vigorous, robust faithfulness to the Church – also known as orthodoxy – somehow it helps to be, well, vigorous and robust. Chesterton describes it in the following brilliant fashion…
“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic…To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands…But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”
Sometimes, for some people, to course through history on a thundering chariot in a whirling adventure requires that they be Vigorous. Robust. Exuberant. Bold. Right. All in dedicated service to a loving and merciful Christ.
That said, is it any surprise Nathanael and Belloc were a little bit mean?
No. Not at all.
Thanks be to God.