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The Making and Unmaking of the English Catholic Intellectual Community, 1910-1950


James R. Lothian


Notre Dame (Indiana): University of Notre Dame Press, 2009

Hardback.  xxiii+487 p.  ISBN 978-0268033828. $60.00


Reviewed by Sheridan Gilley

Durham University


This valuable book is a striking contribution to twentieth-century English intellectual history, structured as one brief biography after another. It argues for the existence between the two World Wars of an English Catholic intellectual community, inspired primarily by Hilaire Belloc in his work The Servile State (1912), through the attraction of his argument that the creation of an English class of small property-owners in the later Middle Ages had been counteracted by the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation, which endowed a new proto-capitalist class further enriched by industrialism. This capitalist elite had now been confirmed in power by the emergence of the ‘servile state’, which guaranteed the submission of the working class by policing it through social security and, as Belloc argued in The Party System (written with Cecil Chesterton in 1911), by deceiving it with a sham parliamentary democracy in which the principal parties corruptly agreed to support the status quo and one another. The solution lay in a more equal distribution of property to all (Distributism), in opposition to liberalism, capitalism and socialism. This Catholic emphasis on the need for social justice accompanied an anti-Semitism which identified Jews with wealthy bankers, and an authoritarianism which welcomed dictators such as Mussolini who would confirm the public position of the faith.  

Thus the primary intellectual impulse to the Catholic revival was a matter of politics and social theory, not of philosophy or theology. Belloc’s greatest convert here was G.K. Chesterton, who popularised Distributism through the Distributist League and G.K.’s Weekly. Together with Belloc’s modified sort of anti-Semitism, Belloc’s more radical disciples, who were free of philo-Fascism and anti-Semitism, included the Irish Dominican Fr Vincent McNabb, who wanted England to return to a world of pre-industrial farmers and craftsmen, and the sculptor and letterer Eric Gill, who founded such a utopian community at Ditchling. The ‘lesser servants’ of the Bellocian vision included the right-wing journalist Douglas Jerrold, who advocated the replacement of parliamentary democracy with a corporatist system of representation by occupation; Belloc’s young friend Christopher Hollis, who produced a more sophisticated version of English Catholic history than his master; and Douglas Woodruff, the long-serving editor of the rejuvenated Catholic periodical The Tablet. The most distinguished writer of this latter group, Evelyn Waugh, largely shared Belloc’s view of English history, though as a political conservative rather than a radical, he did not subscribe to Belloc’s Distributism. Belloc’s vision also influenced the pugnacious Catholic apologist and authority on mountaineering Arnold Lunn, though his conversion to Catholicism was also based upon a rigorous structure of reasoning and proof.

Lothian argues that Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, as founders of the new Catholic publishing firm of Sheed and Ward, though profoundly influenced by Belloc, partly replaced the Bellocian crusade in politics and history with a movement of theological and philosophical renewal, based on translations of French and German writers such as the eirenic Karl Adam and the neo-scholastic Jacques Maritain. This new departure produced the Chelsea Group round Tom Burns, an editor of Sheed and Ward and of the short-lived periodical Order, with its intellectual, apolitical and aesthetic critique of Bellocianism and conventional Catholicism. The circle included the gifted artist and poet, Gill’s disciple, David Jones, and the philosopher and historian Christopher Dawson, whose enormously learned conception of the spiritual and cultural dynamic of civilisation placed Catholicism within a much broader setting than the Eurocentric vision of Belloc. The acquisition by the younger intellectuals of the Tablet, under the aegis of  Cardinal Hinsley, gave a new centre to Catholic thought, but despite some dissenting voices like Maritain’s, there was a large measure of unity among the Bellocians and Dawsonians in the Catholic enthusiasm for the Spanish Nationalist cause against the wider English intellectual support for the Republic.

The Catholic commitment to Franco entered into Dawson’s position, later corrected, in the impression he gave, like Belloc himself,  that secular liberal democratic societies were not much better than Fascist or Communist ones in their dehumanisation of the spirit under the iron heel of the modern state. This antidemocratic view harmonised with the Catholic affection for the authoritarian ‘Catholic Latin bloc’ of Italy, Spain and Portugal, and then Vichy France, which was still being promoted by Michael de la Bedoyère’s Catholic Herald even after Italy had entered the war. Yet Catholics had shown no liking for Nazi Germany, and rallied to the defence of Catholic Poland in 1939. As editor of the Dublin Review, Dawson espoused liberal democracy, an ideal reinforced by the movement of the Sword of the Spirit organised by Dawson’s ally Barbara Ward, under the active patronage of Cardinal Hinsley, who became celebrated for his wartime broadcasts in support of the Allies. Dawson challenged the more conservative Bellocian views of Douglas Jerrold, who in a not wholly creditable manoeuvre, displaced Dawson from the Dublin Review after Hinsley’s death. Lothian argues that this was a pyrrhic victory, as all the tenets of Bellocianism—Distributism, the Catholic version of English history, and suspicion of parliamentary democracy and of the power of government—were no longer attractive after the Allied triumph, the election of a Labour government and the advent of the Welfare State. The result was the disappearance of an English Catholic intellectual community with a firm core of ideas.

I noted one slip, a reference to ‘Gerald’ Manley Hopkins. The relation of Caligula coyly mentioned on p. 29 is surely his successor Claudius. The summary of the fundamentals of Chesterton’s philosophy is a fair one, but it is difficult to state briefly his protean genius which rose far above Bellocianism. More could be said about the wider shores of English Catholicism. Few English Catholics were intellectuals. The old Catholic gentry remained largely aloof, while the children and grandchildren of the Irish immigration in England drifted into the Labour Party. There was no English Catholic political party as on the Continent, which made Catholic political theorising appear to be a game for a lay minority and for publishing houses and journals which spoke to a minority of a minority, but were divorced from the experience and concerns of the mass of ordinary Catholics. Belloc and Chesterton were products of what has been called the strange death of liberal England, and had the difficult role of laymen in an expanding clerical culture. Lothian is right to root Belloc’s Ultramontanism in his mentor Cardinal Manning’s, but Ultramontanism was in many ways an accommodation with modernity as much as a rejection of it, in education, journalism and politics. The author discusses Leo XIII’s social encyclical Rerum Novarum, but there is no reference, in the account of corporatism, to its manifesto, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931), or to such central political actions by the Church as Cardinal Bourne’s denunciation of the General Strike in 1926 and his approval of the Labour Party in 1931. It can be added that the virtues of the Reformation are still historically disputed in another way in the writings of Jack Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy.

For all that, this work is a fascinating, stimulating and profoundly learned attempt to give a shape to English Catholic intellectual history in its period, and it is to be warmly welcomed on that account.


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