The Protestant Heresy – by Hilaire Belloc


Martin Luther and his 95 Theses at Wittenberg, Germany

What Was the Reformation?

The movement generally called “The Reformation” deserves a place apart in the story of the great heresies; and that for the following reasons:

1. It was not a particular movement but a general one, i.e., it did not propound a particular heresy which could be debated and exploded, condemned by the authority of the Church, as had hitherto been every other heresy or heretical movement. Nor did it, after the various heretical propositions had been condemned, set up (as had Mohammedanism or the Albigensian movement) a separate religion over against the old orthodoxy. Rather did it create a certain separate which we still call “Protestantism.” It produced indeed a crop of heresies, but not one heresy_and its characteristic was that all its heresies attained and prolonged a common savour: that which we call “Protestantism” today.

2. Though the immediate fruits of the Reformation decayed, as had those of many other heresies in the past, yet the disruption it had produced remained and the main principle_reaction against a united spiritual authority_so continued in vigour as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more widely. None of the older heresies did that, for they were each definite. Each had proposed to supplant or to rival the existing Catholic Church; but the Reformation movement proposed rather to dissolve the Catholic Church_and we know what measure success has been attained by that effort!

The most important thing about the Reformation is to understand it. Not only to follow the story of it stage by stage_a process always necessary to the understanding of any historical matter_but to grasp its essential nature.

On this last it is easy for modern people to go wrong, and especially modern people of the English-speaking world. The nations we English- speaking people know are, with the exception of Ireland, predominantly Protestant; and yet (with the exception of Great Britain and South Africa) they harbour large Catholic minorities.

In that English-speaking world (to which this present writing is addressed) there is full consciousness of what the Protestant spirit has been and what it has become in its present modification. Every Catholic who lives in that English-speaking world knows what is meant by the Protestant temper as he knows the taste of some familiar food or drink or the aspect of some familiar vegetation. In a less degree the large Protestant majorities_in Great Britain it is an overwhelming Protestant majority_have some idea of what the Catholic Church is. They know much less about us than we know about them. That is natural, because we proceed from older origins, because we are universal while they are regional and because we hold a definite intellectual philosophy whereas they possess rather an emotional and indefinite, though characteristic, spirit.

Still, though they know less about us than we know about them, they are aware of a distinction and they feel a sharp division between themselves and ourselves.

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  1. Interesting to me that so stellar and renowned a Catholic apologist as Hilaire Belloc would adopt the nomenclature of the enemy by calling it the Protestant Reformation. (This term is redolent of “gay” in another context.)

    True, the term is occasionally found between “scare quotes” and/or with a qualifier phrase. But just as often, it appears without any such embellishment.

    One of the most valuable lessons I was taught in Catholic grammar school was to always say “Protestant Revolt.” That was a morsel of educational nourishment that still sticks to my ribs.

  2. Yes, I prefer ‘Protestant Rebellion,’ myself. But terminology is a collaborative job and perhaps at the time he was writing we hadn’t gotten around to naming it more aptly. Know where he details some abuses in the Church that ‘needed reformation’? I have read that modern historians have decided this understanding was greatly exaggerated. I would like to read one of them and compare it to Belloc’s understanding. It is funny that Doug should have posted this today, just as I was feeling quite low at being the only person in the world, apparently, idiotic enough to call for renewed interest in the Catholic confessional state (some British site called me a mental case for it), but reading this selection I see my audacity, or idiodicy, is not so stupid because here the famous Belloc says the protestant stock was falling threadbare even then, which is my own explanation (more rudely put by me, a word I would not use around gentlemen such as yourselves!), viz. it’s not so dumb to imagine Christendom could win again because protestantism and its evil spawn, secularism, are simplty played, exposed in all their ugliness even tho it took five hundred years, and all we have to do is step into the vacuum. Another related thing, look at all the things he says about the economy that are still true today, the ‘Catholic fixes’. regarding money lending and labor and land. I don’t remember it being in this selection but I have read he and Chesterton believed you’d have to return to a small holder’s economy, that was the big problem with their scheme, but one of the social encyclicals, I’d have to look which one, said that mass production was not necessarily de-humanizing, nor cities, and that’s how it seems to me. The key thing is broadly distributed ownership, and we could do that with all new wealth (e.g. new gas fields–why should Standard Oil have them??? especially now with our fascist government lending them our money for development and then letting them keep all the ownership!). Here’s another thing: all the distributists now think all you have to do is get distributist schemes to work and then ownership will spread out and that will solve things, but I don’t think so, I think the key thing is what Pius XI said about justice, that the first justice is putting Christ in the center, no other justice is possible without that, and all other justice flows from that, so that it’s madness to imagine distributism could possibly function in a secular state. I keep trying to tell that to dear Richard Aleman.

    Thank you, Doug, for posting this today. What writing! I’m sending it to all my kids. To tell that much history so gracefully, so confidently. Let’s read it ten times and then give us a test, please! I pray for Catholic writers at every mass; Belloc must be out of purgatory by now, surely. I wish he would help me finish my distributist science fiction novel. Only a few scenes left but uphill work.

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