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THE Global Justice Movement Website
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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Philosophies at War, VIII: The New Christianity Versus Chesterton

One can only imagine the rage that suffused the leaders of the Fabian Society with the publication of G.K. Chesterton’s book on St. Francis of Assisi.  Here was a former member of the Society, one whom they had ridiculed for years and characterized as a buffoon, almost an imbecile, for refusing to admit that they were right and he was wrong.
Instead of meekly coming to them for confession, forgiveness, and instruction, however, Chesterton turned their insults back on them.  He then demonstrated that — at least when it comes to the truths of Christianity — an idiot who holds by the truth is far superior to the genius who persists in error.
R.H. Tawney: the Fabians' finest socialist writer.
Since his book, The Acquisitive Society, had evidently been the spark that ignited Chesterton’s effort, R.H. Tawney was the obvious choice to carry out the counterattack.  This was combined with a series of debates between G.B. Shaw and Chesterton, which — as the two men argued from different sets of principles — never managed to resolve anything (as Hilaire Belloc predicted).
Tawney carried out the literary phase of the assault with the exemplary skill that had made him the Fabian Society’s best socialist writer and moved him into the upper echelon of the Society’s leadership.  The result was Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, published in 1926 when Tawney was at the height of his powers.
Tawney based his analysis on the New Christian principle that “The whole of society ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class.”  He drew on his esoteric studies as well as the pseudo histories created by leading New Christians and Neo-Catholics such as Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Félicité Robert de Lamennais, and “Eliphas Lévi” (Alphonse-Louis Constant), who appears to have been the model of what C.S. Lewis called "the Materialist Magician."  As Dr. Julian Strube of Heidelberg University characterized this school of historiography,
The "Baphomet," a Neo-Catholic symbol.
A key concept of Lamennais and other Neo-Catholic authors was the révélation primitive, a theory that sought to prove the eternal and exclusive truth of Catholicism on the basis of “historical evidence” gathered from all religious tradition.  Lévi’s approach to history decisively relied on this theory, as becomes most obvious in the light of his constant emphasis on the true tradition being nothing else but “Catholicism.”  Similar to Neo-Catholic writers, he certainly did not seek to abolish the Church but to reform it and establish its true character, which would eventually lead to a universal — that is literally “Catholic” — religion of humanity.  However, his attitude towards the status quo of the Church was much more radical in that it was marked by an aggressive anti-clericalism, directed not against the office of the priest, but against the corrupted holders of this office.  (Julian Strube, “The ‘Baphomet’ of Eliphas Lévi: Its Meaning and Historical Context,” Correspondences 4 (2016), 8-9.)
Paradoxically, the image that Lévi created to symbolize his new socialist “religion of humanity” or “true Catholicism” — the “Baphomet” — was eventually taken over by Satanist groups, as was his goat’s head-pentagram design.  Today, the images Lévi intended as the icons of his version of “true Catholicism” are widely regarded as diabolical in origin.
Thus it comes as no surprise that Tawney took as his starting point the New Christian doctrine that the organized churches had long ago departed from the real message of Jesus.  Religion was going to have to change, becoming less “religious” and more “naturalistic.”  As he declared in the opening salvo of his response to what he considered Chesterton’s treachery,
New Christianity: Jesus was a socialist.
Not the least fundamental of divisions among theories of society is between those which regard the world of human affairs as self-contained, and those which appeal to a supernatural criterion.  Modern social theory, like modern political theory, develops only when society is given a naturalistic instead of a religious explanation, and a capital fact which presides at the birth of both is a change in the conception held of the nature and functions of a Church.  (R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study.  New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1952, 8.)
As Tawney warmed to his subject, he developed his main theme.  That is, having betrayed the real, historical Jesus (as envisioned by the New Christians and Neo-Catholics), the official churches could no longer be considered truly Christian.  As Tawney declared,
John Wyclif[fe], 1320-1384.
It is monasticism, with its repudiation of the prizes and temptations of the secular world, which is par excellence the life of religion.  As one phase of it succumbed to ease and affluence, another rose to restore the primitive austerity, and the return to evangelical poverty, preached by St. Francis but abandoned by many of his followers, was the note of the majority of movements for reform.  As for indifferentism — what else, for all its communistic phrases, is Wyclif’s teaching, that the “just man is already lord of all” and that “in this world God must serve the devil,” but an anticipation of the doctrine of celestial happiness as the compensation for earthly misery, to which Hobbes gave a cynical immortality when he wrote that the persecuted, instead of rebelling, “must expect their reward in Heaven,” and which Mr. and Mrs. Hammond [to say nothing of Marx — ed.] have revealed as an opiate dulling both the pain and the agitation of the Industrial Revolution?  If obscure sects like the Poor Men of Lyons are too unorthodox to be cited, the Friars are not, and it was not only Langland and that gentlemanly journalist, Froissart, who accused them — the phrase has a long history — of stirring up class hatred.  (Ibid., 18.)
Consistent with New Christian assumptions, and in contrast to Chesterton and Knox’s disparagement of the Fraticelli (“the Spirituals”), Tawney recast them as being the only true Christians, oppressed by the official Church:
New Christian myth: Pope John XXII oppressing the Friars.
Practically, the Church was an immense vested interest, implicated to the hilt in the economic fabric, especially on the side of agriculture and land tenure.  Itself the greatest of landowners, it could no more quarrel with the feudal structure than the Ecclesiastical Commission, the largest of mineral owners today, can lead a crusade against royalties.  The persecution of the Spiritual Franciscans, who dared, in defiance of the bull of John XXII, to maintain St. Francis’ rule as to evangelical poverty, suggests that doctrines impugning the sanctity of wealth resembled too closely the teaching of Christ to be acceptable to the princes of the Christian Church.  (Ibid., 56-57.)
This, of course, was not only a response to Chesterton, but to his confrere Hilaire Belloc, whose constant theme was that the wealth of the Church was held in trust as “the Patrimony of the Poor” until confiscated by the State . . . after promising to take care of the poor.  What actually happened, as William Cobbett — “the Apostle of Distributism” — related in his History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland (1827) is that, having created a new class of pauper, it was made a crime to be poor.
Tawney: Belloc (left) and Chesterton (right) were really Protestants.
Nor did Tawney neglect to get in a few gratuitous jibes at Chesterton and Belloc.  Of the system of widely distributed capital ownership those two “aggressively Catholic” individuals developed they (reluctantly) called “distributism,” Tawney claimed that it was really Protestant.  He then implied that Chesterton and Belloc — to say nothing of the late Charles Stewart Parnell in Ireland who had so effectively countered for a time the influence of the agrarian socialist Henry George in the Irish nationalist movement — were romantic fools for hearkening back to an allegedly false image of a long-lost past:
Like some elements in the Catholic reaction of the twentieth century, the Protestant reaction of the sixteenth sighed for a vanished age of peasant prosperity.  The social theory of Luther, who hated commerce and capitalism, has its nearest modern analogy in the Distributive State of Mr. Belloc and Mr. Chesterton. (Ibid., 92.)
The obvious logical weaknesses in Tawney’s argument, combined with his reliance on bad history and the unpleasant habit he had of sneering at anyone with whom he disagreed should have alerted people — but it didn’t.  Chesterton waited for a while before responding to Tawney’s riposte, possibly expecting ordinary people’s inherent fairness and basic common sense to come to his assistance, as it had for Cardinal Newman some sixty years previously.
When that did not happen, Chesterton again took up the gage of battle, and produced what most authorities rank among his five best books, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”.  Not unexpectedly, while it absolutely demolished the whole basis of New Christianity and Neo-Catholicism — not by its argument, but by showing how to argue — the main point of the book was completely ignored.  Today's Fabians, New Christians, and Neo-Catholics use it not to lead them back to common sense, but to support them in their errors.