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From the May, 2005 issue of Touchstone


Unservile Catholics by John C. Chalberg

Unservile Catholics

Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy by Jay P. Corrin

University of Notre Dame Press, 2003
(571 pages; $49.95, hardcover)

reviewed by John C. “Chuck” Chalberg

What George Bernard Shaw once gave us, Jay P. Corrin has now partially taken away. It was Shaw who discovered the thing he called the “Chesterbelloc”: the two-headed monster whose targets were the likes of Shaw and his circle of socialists and agnostics. G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc are the two Catholic intellectuals who figure most prominently in this book, even if they do not figure in quite the same way or wind up at quite the same place. Which turns out to be Corrin’s point—and an important point it is.

Having previously written a book on Chesterton’s and Belloc’s “battle against modernity,” in this book Corrin includes many Catholic writers—and doers—who faced the “challenge of democracy.” Specifically, he examines their search for answers to problems facing industrial democracies. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, this search did not quite turn into one long, grim march toward fascism.

A Middle Way

Corrin begins by reminding his readers that there is “nothing intrinsic to Catholicism itself that precluded support for a liberal, democratic world order.” Fair enough. Then he goes a step further: “The main objective of this study is to give voice to those Catholics . . . who drew from their religious traditions [why the plural?] a liberal and progressive approach to the problems of modern social change.”

The changes he has in mind are essentially economic and political. His immediate concerns are similar to those of the nineteenth-century Catholic thinkers who wrestled first with the rise and increasing power of large-scale industry only to have to come to terms with the counter-rise and power of the modern state. While Pope Leo XIII figures prominently in these pages, Corrin turns first to such lesser-known persons as the Catholic layman Frederic Ozanam, who founded the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and Bishop Wilhelm von Ketteler, who preached against laissez-faire doctrines of absolute property rights.

The stage thus set, Corrin seems primed to tell the story of Catholic intellectual journeys leftward. But what to do with Leo XIII, not to mention Chesterton and Belloc? Once he reaches this point in his story, Corrin starts upon a new path, namely, the Catholic intellectual search for a middle way between right and left. And his heroes turn out to be not just those nineteenth-century Catholics who refused to endorse the monster that was unfettered capitalism, but their twentieth-century counterparts who refused to embrace the monster-in-the-making that was the totalitarian state, whether communist or fascist.

Borrowing from Leo XIII, Chesterton and Belloc defined their third way as “Distributism.” They believed that property and power should be distributed as widely as possible. They also believed that the common man could best lead a fully Christian life in a Distributist society, because such a society best preserved the sanctity of the family, the independence of the church, and the vitality of the local community. In sum, Distributism was less an economic theory than a vision of an entire way of life.

Here the dilemma is less intellectual than practical. Put simply, can such a presumably good idea ever be implemented, and, if so, can it be implemented democratically? Or is Distributism a utopian idea? We all know the terrible history of modern attempts to create a heaven on earth. Witness the late and unlamented history of the Soviet Union.

Before tackling totalitarianism, Corrin dwells on the failures and weaknesses of parliamentary government in “Chesterbelloc’s” England. No one was more convinced of Parliament’s failures and weaknesses than Belloc, whose brief experience as a member of Parliament for the Liberal party led him to conclude that representative democracy was little more than a series of tawdry deals between corrupt economic royalists and their parliamentary lackeys.

On the eve of the Great War, Belloc wrote The Servile State, which, besides attacking industrial capitalism and democratic socialism, predicted the fateful compromise between them, namely, a “servile state” populated by dependent welfare recipients and equally dependent wageworkers. Ironically, while such a society claimed to be devoted to the individual, it actually weakened the very institutions of family, church, and community that protected the individual from an increasingly all-powerful state.

A Division

Corrin thinks that after the Great War the two-headed Chesterbelloc gradually evolved into a two-minded creature. Having been bound by their commitment to faith, family, and community, and their hostility to the “servile state,” Chesterton and Belloc ultimately divided over the means to achieve their Distributist vision.

Throughout his Christian life, Chesterton placed his faith in God and his hope in the common man. Not so Belloc, whose faith in God was increasingly supplemented by his reliance on the “Great Man,” especially Mussolini and Franco. An increasingly pessimistic Belloc gradually convinced himself that only some combination of God and the Great Man could save Catholic culture.

But did he convince Chesterton? No, argues Corrin convincingly. Chesterton may have been “infatuated with Belloc’s persona” (about which there was always the “smell of danger”). He may have shared Belloc’s objections to the “servile state.” He may even have been tempted by the lure—and lore—of Mussolini. But in the end he drew back. Not so Belloc, whose “enthusiasm for Mussolini knew no bounds.”

By the late 1920s Chesterton had begun to lose hope in the possibility of converting the Labor party and the English trade union movement into Distributist-minded organizations. But he continued to believe that only voluntary, bottom-up Distributism could improve the moral health of a society. Then came Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War. The first clinched Chesterton’s suspicions about Mussolini-style solutions, while the latter moved Belloc even more firmly into the Great Man (now read Franco) camp.

By the time that Spain was fully embroiled in civil war, both Chesterton and the “Chesterbelloc” were dead. Corrin is given to wondering whether Chesterton might have been able to coax Belloc away from fascism. What he establishes is that following Chesterton’s death, the Distributist movement “broke apart along liberal and reactionary lines.”

More Heroes

Even as he laments the failure of Distributism and Belloc’s abandonment of it, Corrin continues to find intellectual heroes among Catholic exponents of a third way. Included among them are Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain, refugees from fascism Fr. Hans Reinhold and Fr. Don Luigi Sturzo, Virgil Michel, O.S.B., of Minnesota’s St. John’s University, and virtually all anti-Franco, pro-working class Basque Catholics. In one way or another, everyone on this list “managed to see through the smokescreen of fascist corporatism,” which is to say, they came to see what Belloc could not see.

Corrin then introduces his final hero: George Orwell. Anything but a Catholic intellectual, Orwell was a “special breed of socialist” whom Corrin admires both for actually taking up arms against Franco in Spain and for exposing the “philosophical linkage between reactionary Catholicism and the totalitarian twins of Marxism-Fascism.”

Orwell’s “self-declared mission” is Corrin’s mission as well, namely, to battle against all dogmas, whether “communist, fascist, or Catholic.” Or as Orwell put it, the great intellectual battles of the late 1930s and beyond were to be waged against “three literary cliques: the Stalinist gang, the Fascist gang, and the Catholic gang.”

By the 1930s Corrin’s reactionary Catholics were “intuitively uncomfortable” with democracy and thoroughly at home with the “certitudes of hierarchy and authority.” Not so Chesterton, whom Corrin rescues from those who would accuse him of succumbing to the fascist temptation.

Corrin has nonetheless done more than a small disservice to Belloc. While he is correct to criticize Belloc and others for succumbing to the very temptation that Chesterton avoided, he must be criticized for implying that these reactionary Catholics were no better than their fascist tempters. The question is: Must “reactionary Catholics” be lumped together with the true monsters of the twentieth century, as Orwell and Corrin have so lumped them?

Corrin praises his preferred “liberal Catholics” for “adjusting to the architecture of modern secular culture” and devising “new and imaginative” reforms for what ails the world. He also commends them for “infusing Christian values into a purely materialistic economic system.” The only problem is that these liberal solutions leave in place the very servile state that Belloc warned the world against nearly a century ago.

John C. Chalberg writes from Minnesota.

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