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The End of Man
A Review of Europe and the Faith by Hilaire Belloc
Europe and the Faith is a work of historical analysis by the Catholic Anglo-Norman scholar Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). Belloc, a prolific writer of more than 150 books and articles, composed a wide variety of works during his career, from comedic children’s fables to travelogues, but his primary interest was history. As a devout Catholic, he traced and interpreted the role of the Catholic Church in the history of Europe and the corresponding influence of European history on the Catholic Church. While each of his historical works endeavors toward this purpose, most focused on a specific episode of European history. Europe and the Faith, meanwhile, is at once a broader and more penetrating treatment of the role of the Catholic Church in European history more generally, and as such it can be seen as a foundational guide for all of Belloc’s histories.
Like his Catholic friend and contemporary G.K. Chesterton, Belloc wrote to address the many social and spiritual problems of his day, including political and economic oppression, spiritual confusion, and intercultural strife. Unlike his other contemporary H.G. Wells, Belloc identified the ills of his time as deriving from the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century and the destruction of the unity of Catholic Christendom which resulted from it. Writing in 1920, Europe and the Faith came after the chaos of the First World War and yet prophetically pointed forward to the Second. In this way Belloc addressed the questions and concerns of those for whom WWI was a close memory, who were searching for reasons why such a thing could have happened and what could be done to prevent it in the future.
The overall theme of Europe and the Faith can be summed up in the last three sentences of the book, which Belloc repeats as both a principle and warning throughout it: “Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish. The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.” While Belloc identifies the roots of European civilization in the unity of the Roman Empire, and recognizes the origins of the Catholic Church as a new Covenant extending from the Hebrew religion and culture of Israel, he also explains that Europe can only be understood as a fusion of the secular universality of Rome and the spiritual universality of the Catholic Church, this fusion having begun when both the Roman Empire and the Church began almost simultaneously in the first century AD.
In contrast to the wide variety of mystery cults and vague philosophic positions all around them, ancient Romans came to see the Catholic Church as the only source of the stability, courage and self-sacrifice that result from the certainty of faith, “filled, as was no other body of men at that time, with passionate conviction.” This, alongside the great virtue and charity exhibited almost exclusively by Christians they encountered, soon led to the official legitimation of the Church and finally its declaration as the official religion of Rome. Belloc then identifies the source of modern problems as the result of the destruction of this unity by the Reformation and the fragmentation of that holistic integrity of the human person achieved by Christendom, and with a return to this unity as the only remedy for our discontent.
To explain his overarching premise, Belloc carefully traces the history of this fusion of Rome and the Catholic Church during the centuries of the Roman Empire. He first explains the fact that Rome was not a modern nation-state, nor was it chiefly concerned with racial, cultural or even religious distinctions. Rather, Rome differentiated itself from those outside its borders by its dedication to the ideals of civilization, to living in an orderly and rational society preserved through force of law and the prosperity it engenders. Contrary to most histories taught both in Belloc’s time and today, he clarifies that the so-called fall of the Roman Empire was not so much a disintegration as a slow weakening of the central authority of the Empire and a gradual transformation into the social structures of medieval Europe. He sees a definitive continuity of Roman civilization despite these changes. Rather than the popular image of barbarian hordes invading Rome and conquering it, Belloc shows that “[t]here was no conquest of effete Mediterranean peoples by vigorous barbarians.” The ‘barbarians’ outside the borders of Rome longed to be part of its civilization and this was the primary motivation for their raids, which were always and everywhere put down swiftly by the Roman legions.
Like Rome itself, conflicts in the Church were primarily internal rather than external, resulting from various heresies. The Arian heresy, for example, “the old court heresy which was offensive to the poorer mass of Europeans”, threatened to fracture the patristic Church, until the enlistment of the pagan Franks of northern France by the Pope. The Franks readily converted to the Roman way, including its civilization and its Catholicism which were by this time indistinguishable, and went on to eradicate the Arian influence from Roman society, just as the Pope fought against the Arianism within the Church itself. As Rome transformed into medieval Europe, this format became the standard for addressing internal European conflicts. Over time, as the Emperor, removed from the life of western Europe by its transmission to the East, lost its traditional role as the unifier of society, the authorities put into power formerly by the Emperor throughout the West came to possess their own kingdoms alongside the descendants of landed Roman aristocrats.
The hierarchical nature of society, with lower officials of serfs, knights, lords and kings, holding their superiors accountable to feudal oaths, just as the bishops and popes of the Church held all accountable to Catholic doctrine, brought an impenetrable unity and power to Europe which enabled them to combat the overwhelming assaults of Norse, Germanic, Slavic and Islamic incursions throughout what Belloc calls the ‘Dark Ages’, approx. 600-1000 AD. Although culture largely stagnated during this dark time, when conservation and defense expended all the energies of the West, “the Catholic Faith became between the years 600 and 1000 utterly one with Europe.” By the efforts of the Normans and Pope Gregory the Great, by 1000 AD medieval Christendom became what Belloc identifies as “a civilization which was undoubtedly the highest and the best our race has known, conformable to the instincts of the European, fulfilling his nature, giving him that happiness which is the end of men.” Even more than ancient Rome, Catholic Europe united people to a far greater degree precisely because the unity was primarily spiritual. The Pope was both the secular and spiritual leader of Europe; all issues could be resolved by his authority, and by his guidance absolutism and heresy were prevented.
The unity of Christendom was dissolved in the Reformation primarily through the rejection of the universal fatherhood of the Pope who, with the clerical authorities in general, were ultimately too slow “to capture the spiritual discontent, and to satisfy the spiritual hunger of which these errors were the manifestation.” Though the reformers initially saw Europe as a united whole and desired to change it as such, relativism and the fragmentation of the human person, of reason from faith, of power from authority, of the spiritual from the material, fused with the sixteenth century worship of absolute government to finally destroy Christendom in the seventeenth century. As Belloc explains, however, this could not have been accomplished without the Defection of Britain, the only Roman province to become Protestant. “[T]he prime product of the Reformation was the isolation of the soul”: from then on, the West has fluctuated from one idol to the next, searching for fulfillment in technological power, advanced knowledge, wealth, absolute government, and sensual pleasure. Without the mediation of the Pope, tyranny, slavery, genocide, and world wars politically reflected the miasma of confusion and despair permeating European society.
After reading Belloc’s masterpiece of history, the true nature of Europe became clearer to me. The essential fusion of Rome and the Catholic Church, the gradual evolution of Rome into medieval Christendom, the growth of Protestantism primarily in European countries which were only lately brought into Christendom, and the supreme importance of the Defection of Britain in the destruction of Christendom and making Protestantism an official international movement were all new concepts to me. These truths are, as he explains, lost on those who study European history without the Catholic worldview which is necessary to truly understand it, since “The Faith is Europe. And Europe is the Faith.”
 Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (London: Black House Publishing, 2012), 245.
 Belloc, Europe, 75.
 Belloc, Europe, 100.
 Belloc, Europe, 135.
 Belloc, Europe, 187.
 Belloc, Europe, 191-192.
 Belloc, Europe, 208.
 Belloc, Europe, 238.
 Belloc, Europe, 245.