Luca Fumagalli

As a spiritual son of Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) enthusiastically welcomed the condemnation of Modernism contained in the encyclical Pascendi by St. Pius X.

On 8 October 1907 he wrote an unequivocal letter to a friend: «Have you seen the Pope’s gentle remarks to Modernists? They are indeed noble! […] He gently hints that they can’t think – which is true. The old Heretics had guts, notably Calvin, and could think like the Devil, who inspired them. But the Modernists are inspired by a little minor he-devil with one Eye and a stammer, and the result is poor».

Belloc also took the liberty of making fun of one of the most prominent leaders of English Modernism, Maud Petre, linked to George Tyrrell, Baron von Hügel and Henri Bremond. The pun, however predictable, remains amusing in alluding to the self-centeredness of the nun: «Thou art Maud Petre, and upon this rock I will build My Church».

Most likely Belloc’s anti-modernism also influenced G. K. Chesterton. The latter, in 1909, in a journalistic debate with Robert Dell, a leading Modernist, contrasted the solid “Tree” of Tradition with the vague “Cloud” of Modernism.

Among other things, Belloc had the opportunity to meet St. Pius X personally, a Pontiff whom he esteemed and by whom he had been highly praised. When Pope Sarto died on 20 August 20 1914, the the Anglo-Frenchman wrote a touching obituary in the columns of the “British Review”: «The note of Pius X’s reign was simplicity. It stood composed of a few very clear principles like a carefully constructed classical thing of cut stone standing against a flood. For as the note of that reign was simplicity of principle rigidly applied, so the note of society which it had to meet and subtly to dominate was one of very rapid and anarchic change».

In general, the modernist controversy did not greatly interest British Catholic writers that much, but Belloc was an exception. While his militant spirit never abandoned him, he too fell into the error of considering Modernism a fleeting evil, definitively eradicated by St. Pius X. The future would reveal his great mistake.

Sources: J. PEARCE, Catholic Literary Giants, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2014; J. PEARCE, Literary Converts, Harper Collins, London, 2000.