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Feature Article

Kenneth Colston tweeks the famous theologian, and Catholic social historian, Hilaire Belloc and the pre-conciliar Popes encyclicals on the topic of the “Religion Of Menace” and the critique of it. As Islamic philosophy is now routinely & popular historic comparison to orthodox Catholicism his commentary although not completely accurate is timely

Authorship Credits NOR_New Orthodox Review

The Most Pernicious Catholic Heresy

June 2015 By Kenneth Colston

Kenneth Colston, a retired teacher of languages, resides in St. Louis. His articles on literature have appeared recently in Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought & Culture, Saint Austin Review, New Criterion, and Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

In 1938, when fascism and communism were the most powerful threats to Western civilization, a brilliant but failed Balliol historian turned his acid pen to a quick but sweeping study of pernicious Catholic heresies such as Arianism (and its associated movements of Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and Monoletism) and Albigensianism (and other forms of Manichaeism like Catharism). In the very long run, he thought, there is nothing to fear, for most heresies, although resurfacing intermittently, die out after a few disruptive centuries and remain virtually extinct — except for one.

This heresy had once nearly overrun the West and had threatened it for over a millennium, but it appeared politically contained and dormant in the period following the Great War. Our historian, Hilaire Belloc, admits that “the possibility of that terror under which we lived for centuries reappearing, and of our civilization again fighting for its life against what was its chief enemy for a thousand years, [seems] fantastic.” But a terrifying “recrudescence” is nonetheless possible. Even though the West’s material and technological superiority saved it, there is nothing in that nearly forgotten heresy that is “hostile to the development of scientific knowledge or of mechanical aptitude.” Indeed, Belloc, a traveled war veteran, saw enough of this heresy’s good artillery work and superb transportation systems to know that there is “nothing inherent” to it that would “make it incapable of modern science and modern war.” For a good long while, after all, its science and warcraft were superior to the West’s. They could be so again, and this heresy could “become as large a menace in the future as it has been in the past.” This Catholic heresy, which he called “the most formidable and persistent enemy” of Western civilization, is Islam.

Like all intelligent history and all intelligent human utterance, Belloc’s book The Great Heresies sometimes oversimplifies and infuriates, but it also sheds valuable light as much for criticizing the West as for illuminating Islam.

Why, in the first place, should he call Islam a Catholic heresy? Like all heresies, he explains, it shares in the deposit of truths but “clings” to a few false propositions. He observes that Muhammad traveled as a “camel driver” along East-West trade routes and picked up elements of Catholic orthodoxy from which his purportedly divine “revelations” in an Arabian cave enjoyed spiritual strength: “the unity and omnipotence of God”; certain divine attributes like “the personal nature, the all-goodness, the timelessness, the providence of God, His creative power as the origin of all things, and his sustenance of all things by His power alone”; “the world of good spirits and angels and of evil spirits in rebellion against God…with a chief evil spirit”; and above all, “that prime Catholic doctrine, on the human side, the immortality of the soul and its responsibility for actions in this life, coupled with the consequent doctrine of punishment and reward after death.” Moreover, Muhammad gave to “Our Lady” and “Our Lord” (who, not Muhammad, would rule on Judgment Day) “the highest reverence,” and he even hinted at the Immaculate Conception! Finally, Muhammad taught against paganism using the Catholic doctrine of the equality of all men before God and “preached and throve upon the paramount claims of justice, social and economic.”

Unlike many historians, Belloc attributes the conquering strength of Islam not primarily to the spinning scimitar and the stirrup but rather to a surprising solution to an economic problem that he believed was ravaging the 1930s and that still threatens the West today: “indebtedness everywhere; the power of money and usury.” At the time of Islam’s early conquests, “there was slavery everywhere. Society reposed upon it, as ours reposes on wage slavery today.” Those who labored under “the burden of imperial taxation,” “the irritant of existing central government interfering with men’s lives,” and “the tyranny of lawyers and their charges” welcomed Islam as a “vast relief and solution of strain.” In one fell swoop, Islam forbade usury, just as it was forbidden in Belloc’s Catholic Middle Ages before “Protestant greed” gave the heresy of Calvinism a double-edged momentum. Therefore, while many debtors and slaves still existed in practice, in theory “wherever Islam conquered there was a new spirit of freedom and relaxation.”

How accurate Belloc is about the source of Islam’s success in the Eastern empires and how applicable his analysis might be in the West’s encounter with Islam today are open questions, but at the very least it provides an overlooked line of inquiry. Surely the resurgence of Islam hasn’t been due only to its oil reserves. Does it also regain conquered ground from the human heart’s universal yearning for authentic (instead of superficial) freedom, however differently it might define the elements of that freedom, a freedom that rests on an economic basis? Are all of its conclusions about the West wrong?

The intellectual father of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, whose brother influenced Osama bin Laden at university in Saudi Arabia and whose more moderate version of militant Wahhabism (if there is such a thing) has influenced the Islamic State (IS), would endorse some of Belloc’s theses about the nature of Islam. A secularized Egyptian, poet, and student of the Qur’an, Qutb came to the U.S. in 1948 on a grant from the Egyptian Ministry of Education and was appalled by the decadence of Western freedom, its materialism, racism, and sexual permissiveness. (What would he think today?) Rushing back to Islam in horror, he published a fundamental but little-known treatise on Islamic economic philosophy called Social Justice in Islam (1949), which has a great deal in common with the great social encyclicals Rerum Novarum (Pope Leo XIII, 1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (Pope Pius XI, 1931) — the economic gospels for Belloc’s distributism. These Popes and Belloc himself, as well as many thinking Christians, who thought that the great pity of the Crusades was that they had failed, might have written large amounts of this Muslim Brother’s account of salutary political economy.

Qutb’s social justice, in contrast to Western (Belloc would say Calvinist) laissez-faire individualism, holds that “mankind is essentially one body, its members mutually responsible and interdependent.” The whole Islamic community is especially knit together as “one body, and it feels all things in common; whatever happens to one of its members, the remainder of the members are also affected.” Qutb quotes “the noble Messenger” in a line that is quite close to Paul’s Body of Christ imagery: “The likeness of the Believers in their mutual love and mercy and relationship is that of the Body; when one member is afflicted, all the rest of the body joins with it to suffer feverish sleeplessness.” Hence, “mutual responsibility,” what Catholics now call solidarity, stands in stark contrast to laissez-faire capitalism.

“The family is the basic unit on which society stands,” Qutb writes; it is a “nest” resting on “the permanent characteristics of human nature, on the emotions of pity and love…raised by them above the license of the animals and above the anarchy of a rabble.” Inheritance from parents and care of them by their children are the Islamic society’s social-security system. Beyond the family, “every individual is charged with the welfare of society, as if he were a watchman over it.” Qutb offers the image of society as a ship at sea “whose crew are all concerned for her safety. None of them may make a hole in it with an axe in the name of individual freedom. Everyone is a shepherd held responsible for the entire flock.”

Qutb sounds a lot less like Donald Trump than like Leo XIII, who writes in Rerum Novarum that the family is “the ‘society’ of a man’s own household…limited indeed in numbers but a true ‘society,’ anterior to every kind of State or nation, with rights and duties of its own, totally independent of the commonwealth.” Like Qutb, Leo insists on the father’s duties to care for his wife and children, and the mother’s duty to nurture their children. Beyond the family, Leo invokes Tertullian’s call for the Church to provide for the poor, the orphaned, the aged, and “the shipwrecked.” Giving alms to them is a “duty, not of justice (except in extreme cases), but of Christian charity.”

Qutb lists seven groups who may make a claim upon the zakat, Islam’s compulsory charitable contribution: the poor, the destitute, Islamic administrators, the recently converted, slaves, debtors, and Islamic workers (military, teachers, and others furthering the way of Allah). Some of the latter function not unlike the guilds extolled by Pope Leo or the religious orders in Catholic tradition.

As Belloc maintains about both Islam and orthodox Catholicism, Qutb scorns, rejects, condemns, and damns usurers — the shock troops of Calvinism, in Belloc’s assessment, the Protestant heresy that he believes created the materialistic atmosphere of northern Europe and the Anglo-Saxon peoples. This atmosphere has resulted in “the isolation of the soul,” “unbridled competition and greed,” and an industrial capitalism that imperils civilization “through the discontent of the vast destitute majority with their few plutocratic masters” — a condition Qutb disdained for its brutish excesses (popular music and sports) in his 1951 article “The America I Have Seen,” published in Al-Risala, an Egyptian magazine. Belloc’s, Qutb’s, and Leo XIII’s economic theories have far more in common with each other than with those of Friedrich Hayek or Adam Smith.

On the other hand, Leo and Qutb also avoid the Scylla of collectivism by rooting private property in the natural law of possession earned by labor. The natural-law right to property appears as the first economic right in Qutb’s chapter on economic theory and in the fourth paragraph of Rerum Novarum. According to Qutb, “Islam ratifies the right of individual ownership”; it guards the possessors of property “from theft, from being plundered or robbed [someone please remind IS!], and from being cheated by any means whatever”; and it bases this right on the family’s need for survival. Furthermore, Islamic legislation and exhortation support private property in order to raise “men above pure necessity to achieve a more developed state.”

Pope Leo states similarly, “Every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own.” Leo grounds this right in man’s rational nature: “On this account — namely, that man alone among animals possesses reason — it must be within his right to have things not merely for temporary and momentary use, as other living beings have them, but in stable and permanent possession.” Hence, the natural right to inheritance, “the ownership of profitable property” transmitted from a father “to his children by inheritance.” Similarly, Qutb invokes the specific injunctions of the Qur’an on inheritance in his discussion of “mutual responsibility.”

Each treatise is careful, however, not to make the natural right to property absolute but limits ownership to stewardship and use for the common good. “The cardinal principle that Islam ratifies along with that of the right of individual possession,” Qutb writes, “is that the individual is in a way a steward of his property on behalf of society; his tenure of property is more of a duty than an actual right of possession.” Leo quotes a remarkably similar principle from St. Thomas Aquinas: “Man should not consider his material possessions his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.”

Perhaps because the Church and Islam arose well before the Protestant heresy killed traditional economies, Belloc reveals that classical Islam has much in common with orthodox Catholicism. Qutb offers several sections on the fundamental “freedoms” of Islam: “freedom of conscience, human equality, and mutual responsibility.” We’ve already discussed the third freedom. For the first, Qutb cites the well-known Qur’anic principle, “No compulsion in Islam” (2:257), but admits its historic violations.

For the second, he maintains that men and women are essentially equal in Islam, but his discussion of male-female interdependence and sexual complementarity has far more in common with Pope St. John Paul II’s “theology of the body” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Mistake about Feminism” in What’s Wrong with the World than it does with Western liberalism’s understanding of the sexes. In the natural-law division of labor, women are primarily responsible for the nurturing of children.

Belloc rejects the conclusion, however, that Islam has succeeded because it has a share in Catholic truth. He acknowledges but repudiates the view of those who claim the following: Islam “proclaims and practices human equality. It loves justice and forbids usury. It produces a society in which men are happier and feel their own dignity more than in any other. That is its strength and that is why it still converts people and endures and will perhaps return to power in the future.”

This view fails to explain fully, he claims, the Islamic revolution. First, it swept out from Arabia for the obvious reason that it “won battles.” It endured, however, for another reason. Unique among all the other heresies, which died out after a few hundred years (doctrinally, but always leaving an enduring befouled moral atmosphere), it remained “inconvertible.” Why? Belloc proposes two observations as an answer.

First, Islam, unlike the other heresies, arose from paganism outside of Christendom and not from within already baptized Christendom. Apostate Muslims had no previously vibrant Catholicity to which to return. Second, it attracted “with fighting material of the strongest kind and drafted in from the pagan outer darkness” — first Arabs, then Mongols, then Berbers. In other words, Belloc seems to be saying that Islam benefitted from recruiting fierce forces that had not already been civilized by the Church. Belloc’s analysis might explain a curious twenty-first-century phenomenon that he had not observed but might well have cautioned against: the recruitment of Islamic fighters from within the West — a West once baptized but having withdrawn so utterly from Catholic values as to leave a dark, alienated, neo-pagan landscape in place for its young.

Of course, Belloc saw Islam as a Catholic heresy, and a heresy is an evil. Like Arianism, Islam denies the Incarnation. Like Calvinistic Protestantism, it denies the priesthood and sacraments, relaxes marriage laws, shatters images as idols, outlaws drinking and gambling, and overemphasizes the transcendence of God and His “immutable decrees,” which has the effect of “paralyzing free will.”

Like all heresies, Islam wearied of theology and preferred oversimplifications. No one can read Qutb and fail to notice the severity of Islamic sharia justice in mutilating thieves and stoning to death adulterers, and, as Belloc writes, “prescribing a principle of vengeance, awarding it as a legal right to the next of kin and permitting him to exact it in full.” Catholicism repudiates revenge absolutely, but according to Qutb, the Qur’an “kindles a love for fighting by inciting the conscience to accept it, by depicting it in glowing terms, and by emphasizing its justice and the glories which it brings to a society.”

Both Islam and Catholicism have just-war theories, but the trajectories are different: Islamic jurists needed to soften its warrior core; Catholic theologians had to overcome the suicidal extreme of pacifism. Qutb is thus unquestionably non-Catholic in his advocacy of violent revolution, specifically denounced by Rerum Novarum. “There are not a few who are imbued with bad principles and are anxious for revolutionary change,” Leo writes, “and whose great purpose it is to stir up tumult and bring about a policy of violence. The authority of the State should intervene to put restraint upon these disturbers, to save the workmen from their seditious arts, and to protect lawful owners from spoliation.”

Qutb’s Social Justice in Islam is more a guide for Islamic legislation within the Muslim world than a blueprint for a worldwide violent revolution. It upholds violence, however, as a means of change, a position he would expand on later, causing him to lose his life to the Egyptian government. Qutb’s blueprint for violent revolution comes in Milestones (1964), in which he argues forcefully and terrifyingly against Islamists who construe jihad to mean only defensive war. For Qutb, jihad historically and inherently means the universal overthrow of any political structures of slavery, which are contrary to the will of Allah, and thus decidedly includes offensive and worldwide war. In that seminal sense, Qutb decisively parts company with Catholic just-war theory.

Of course, Catholicism differs from Islam not only in its just-war theory but also in its supernatural end. The City of God, the Kingship of Christ, and the “civilization of love” are far different from a worldwide caliphate. Belloc has done us a service, however, in pointing out the ways in which orthodox Catholicism and this once-dormant Catholic heresy share a desire for social justice and offer a critique of a Western society that has been perverted, he would say, by another Catholic heresy, one much closer to home.

Belloc would more or less affirm Qutb’s assessment of the Protestant culture in America as degenerated by individualism, materialism, brutishness, and sensuality, and both Belloc and Qutb would join Leo XIII in counseling men to “prefer honesty to lucre, and the sacredness of duty to all other considerations.” All three extol justice and virtue, not material gain, as the proper goal of the well-ordered earthly city; and the worship of God, not what Belloc calls the “self-worship of the nation-state,” provides the means to that end.

Belloc claims that the central heretical proposition of Protestantism, “the denial of a central authority,” has led to the last, contemporary Catholic heresy, “the Modern Attack,” which tells man that “he is sufficient to himself,” which looks upon prayer as “mere self-suggestion,” and “has set up everywhere great idols to be worshipped as gods,” idols to which “human sacrifice is paid.” Against atheism, which is the heretical proposition already marked by the greatest “cruelty,” the violence of the early twentieth-century, the Church is a lonely “fortress,” “an ark” standing against the two modern forms of slavery — “slavery to the State and slavery to private corporations and individuals.”

Belloc quotes Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno that while pauperism had been diminished in the previous forty years, men were still reduced “to a condition not far removed from slavery.” For Pope Pius, the causes are moral: “the unquenchable thirst for riches and temporal possessions,” “easy returns” of the open market, “and mere greed for gain” — all of which Belloc characterizes as the essence of “Protestant culture.” This culture has brought about the chief disorder of the modern world: not poverty but “the ruin of souls” through “selfishness [and] unbridled and sordid greed,” which have led to “low desires.” Having forgotten the Church, industrial capitalism has turned human work into a “strange perversion: for dead matter leaves the factory ennobled and transformed, where men are corrupted and degraded.” The solution in a “world almost fallen back into paganism” is a return to charity, “the bond of perfection,” re-incorporation into the Body of Christ, “the son of a carpenter,” through “spiritual exercises” for the “auxiliary soldiers of the Church,” who will re-catechize the modern world in a “good and peaceful fight.”

Without a good and peaceful fight, which, Belloc would say, demands at the outset accurate self-criticism, a thousand-year-old, foreign, heretical army roils and rumbles, perhaps containable by drones and ground troops but spiritually unvanquished if not “inconvertible,” unless we overcome our own five-hundred-year-old, home-grown, heretical evils.

“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia is in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy…. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity…. The influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.” — Winston Churchill