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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Joseph Pearce Again Disappoints

This past Tuesday (January 26, 2021), Mr.* Joseph Pearce presented the second half of a talk on G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1925).  The talk, given under the aegis of the Institute of Catholic Culture, was sponsored by Christendom College.

*I did not unilaterally demote him.  Last week they referred to him as Doctor, this week as Mister.

Joseph Pearce


While the talk was informative on a personal level — what the book means to Mr. Pearce — I found it as disappointing as the first part he delivered last week.  Mr. Pearce avoided (or at least failed to take into account) what increasing numbers of people think might be the primary focus of Chesterton’s life’s work and the main point of The Everlasting Man.  That is countering the “new things” (rerum novarum) of modernism, socialism (and capitalism up to a point) and the New Age.

Underscoring this was Mr. Pearce’s careful avoidance of a question on this issue I have now put to him five times.  To repeat, the question was,

Chesterton wrote “The Everlasting Man” in response to former Fabian H.G. Wells’s “Outline of History.” Chesterton was opposed to all forms of socialism, including Fabian socialism, equating it with modernism (G.K.’s Weekly, May 10, 1930).  Given Chesterton’s stand on socialism, how do you think he would have viewed today’s socialists, e.g., Keynes’s protégé and Fabian E.F. Schumacher’s Fabian tract or his “New Age Guide to Economics”, “Small is Beautiful”?

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Mr. Pearce repeated a number of times the need for “clarity with charity,” and respect for human dignity, even that of our enemies.  Again, there is nothing exceptional in what Mr. Pearce said, although I think he misunderstands Chesterton’s position on how Christianity reconciled faith and reason.

Chesterton referred, in my opinion, to the Christian doctrine stated by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the first Question of the Summa Theologica, affirmed as infallibly true in the First Vatican Council (primarily to refute the faith-based "theory of certitude" of de Lamennais, who exaggerated papal infallibility beyond all bounds . . . .then repudiated his priesthood, renounced Christianity, and founded his own religion), and repeated in the Oath Against Modernism and the encyclical Humani Generis.  That is, reason is the foundation of faith.  Nothing held by faith can contradict that which is proved by reason, and vice versa.  Chesterton, in fact, made this the focus of his book on Aquinas, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” (1933).

Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

As Venerable Fulton J. Sheen pointed out in his “anti-modernist” doctoral thesis (with an introduction by Chesterton), God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925), and again in Religion Without God (1927), Aquinas stressed the first principle of reason in his philosophy almost to the point of redundancy, building his entire body of thought on its validity.  This principle can be stated positively as the principle or law of identity (“That which is true, is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true”), and negatively as the principle or law of (non) contradiction: “Nothing can both ‘be’ and ‘not be’ at the same time under the same conditions.”

G.K. Chesterton


Modernism, socialism, capitalism, and the New Age — the “new things” — necessarily rely in some part or all on violating the first principle of reason, as both Chesterton and Sheen implied.  Mr. Pearce, in my opinion, missed Chesterton’s point on this completely.

What also disappointed about Mr. Pearce’s presentation was what he didn’t say, missing — in my opinion — a golden opportunity to drive his own points home with much greater force and make other points more consistent with Chesterton’s goals and intentions.  Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than in connection with one of the passages Mr. Pearce quoted from The Everlasting Man.

Although he quoted Chesterton’s allusion in The Everlasting Man to the “astonishing” Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (“some American crank” — G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man.  New York: Image Books, 1955, 206), Mr. Pearce did not elaborate on it.  This is somewhat puzzling, given Mr. Pearce’s references to modernism and his renown as both a Chestertonian and a Shakespearean scholar.

Ignatius Loyola Donnelly


Briefly, Donnelly, a former Catholic turned spiritualist and a follower of the agrarian socialist Henry George, was known as “America’s ‘Prince of Cranks’.” (Walter Monfried, “America’s ‘Prince of Cranks’,” The Milwaukee Journal, May 15, 1953, 8.)  He is best remembered today for his ideas about the high Neolithic civilization that allegedly existed before the Flood, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882); Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel (1883), as well as for a number of other theories communicated to him by his 25,000-year old Atlantean spirit guide or coming out of his own, extremely active imagination.

Madame Blavatsky


These included the claim that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him.  Rather, they were written by Francis Bacon to convey occult spiritualist messages to his disciples.  Donnelly presented these theories in The Shakespeare Myth (1887); The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in Shakespeare’s Plays (1888), and The Cipher in the Plays, and on the Tombstone (1899).  When he presented his theory in London at the Royal Society, he was laughed off the dais.  One commentator described Donnelly’s Baconian-Shakespearean cypher as “a worthless and silly piece of nonsense. . . . the work of a crank or a humbug.”  As he concluded, “Such men as Mr. Donnelly can thrive only when the ignorant and the curious support them.” (Arthur Mark Cummings, “Letters to Theodore, IX,” Boston Evening Transcript, July 3, 1888, 10.)  Madame Blavatsky cited Donnelly’s book, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World (1882), several times in The Secret Doctrine (1888). (Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine, The Synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy. New York: The Theosophical Society, 1888, II.221n, II.266n, II.276n, II.333, II.334, II.741n, II.745, II.746n, II.761n, II.782, II.782n, II.786n, II.791, II.792-793.)

Msgr. John A. Ryan


Nowhere, however, was Donnelly’s influence greater than on Monsignor John Augustine Ryan (1869-1945) of the Catholic University of America, whose work was immensely influential in ensuring that today’s interpretation of Catholic social teaching incorporates modernist and socialist elements.  Ryan idolized Donnelly (Francis L. Broderick, Right Reverend New Dealer: John A. Ryan.  New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963, 9) and credited him with “exercis[ing] more influence upon [his] political and economic thinking than any other factor.” (Rt. Rev. Msgr. John A. Ryan, D.D., L.L.D., Litt.D., Social Doctrine in Action: A Personal History.  New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1941, 12.)

Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J.


As related in Sheen’s autobiography, Treasure in Clay (1979), Msgr. Ryan was responsible for sabotaging Sheen’s academic career.  A friend of mine who was, in part, led to become a Catholic by reading everything Sheen wrote that he could find, is of the opinion that Sheen (“the American Chesterton”) destroyed his correspondence with Chesterton (“the English Sheen”) because it contained less than complimentary references to Msgr. Ryan and the damage Ryan was doing to the Catholic Church.  Dr. Franz Müller, a student of Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., concurred with Sheen’s assessment in Müller’s book, The Church and the Social Question (1984).

Obviously, Mr. Pearce’s peroration against modernists would have been greatly strengthened by making some brief statement about their influence and the fact that so many people today accept a modernist understanding of Christianity and social ethics without, apparently, even realizing it — and by confining his remarks to modernism, not modernists.  After all, as Mr. Pearce himself stated, we are to hate the sin, not the sinner.

E.F. Schumacher


While I tend to agree with Mr. Pearce about the baleful influence of modernism (and socialism; Chesterton equated the two, and tossed in the New Age for good measure, along with strictures against capitalism), I would disagree with his consigning all modernists to the nether regions without having the authority to do so, and without giving them a chance to defend themselves against his judgments.  There is also the slight problem that some of Mr. Pearce’s own positions could reasonably be taken as modernist, although he clearly believes them to be orthodox, e.g., his evident admiration of the Fabian socialist E.F. Schumacher and Schumacher’s “New Age guide to economics,” Small Is Beautiful (1973).

Thus — and I’m sure that Mr. Pearce would agree in theory even if he fails in practice — our relations with others, even (or especially) those whom we hate — should be guided by charity.  Instead of unilaterally condemning people to Hell and refusing to speak to them or even acknowledge their existence — especially when (ahem) they ask inconvenient or embarrassing questions — we should follow the advice Mr. Pearce himself gave several times in his talk.  We should argue without quarrelling, or (at the very least) know what the other person really said or did instead of relying on secondhand information that could, at times, be nothing more than spiteful gossip cut from whole cloth to advance a personal agenda or bolster someone’s reputation at another’s expense.