In the previous posting on this subject, we looked at how Msgr. John A. Ryan, the Fabians, and other heirs to the mantle of Henry George worked to extend George’s thought from land to all forms of capital, and from George’s focus on the United States and Ireland to the world. In addition, Émile Durkheim captured sociology and invented solidarism to oppose Although the victory of socialism seemed inevitable, however, it did not go unchallenged.
In England, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc locked horns with the Fabian Society, while in the United States, Fulton Sheen, “the American Chesterton,” came into conflict with Ryan. On the continent, Fr. Heinrich Pesch reoriented Durkheim’s solidarism to conform to natural law and Catholic teaching.
Chesterton was at one time a member of the Fabian Society, but resigned during the Boer War, evidently as the result of his conversion to Christianity and profound differences with the Fabian philosophy. George Bernard Shaw, who believed Belloc exercised some mysterious influence over Chesterton, insisted that he (Chesterton) did not understand that he was really a socialist, and spent the next thirty years fruitlessly trying to convince him of it.
Sometime around 1910, Chesterton and others began publishing articles advocating “a policy of small distributed property” in the New Age and New Witness magazines, what came to be called distributism. (G.K. Chesterton, The Outline of Sanity. Collected Works, Volume V, San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1987, 45.) The articles were based in part on “idle arguments” Chesterton had with Charles Frederick Gurney Masterman, a Christian socialist politician who was a friend of Herbert George Wells and on good terms with the Fabians. (G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, Collected Works, Volume V. San Francisco, California: Ignatius Press, 1987, 35.)
In 1909, Masterman published The Condition of England (1909). (C.F.G. Masterman, The Condition of England. London: Methuen and Co., 1909; Alzina Stone Dale, The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1982, 140-141.) His goal was to present specifics that would justify imposition of the ideal socialist world and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. He rejected theories as “generalizations about realities.” (Masterman, The Condition of England, op. cit., vii.)
In response, Chesterton reworked his articles as “a thundering gallop of theory” titled What’s Wrong With the World (1910). Chesterton countered each of Masterman’s pragmatic collectivist proposals with a theoretical personalist principle.
A few years later Hilaire Belloc published The Servile State (1912), a harsh critique of the Fabian program. Belloc refuted the Fabian goal of socialized capitalism (or capitalized socialism), especially the demand that people gain income only through wage labor, a requirement to be enforced by greatly increasing the powers of the State. (Pease, History of the Fabian Society, op. cit., 229-230.)
Nor were the Fabians silent. Shaw and Chesterton engaged in debates that never resolved anything. At the same time, however, modern literature was enriched by a “battle of the books” in which Fabians skirmished with Chesterton and Belloc.
Richard Henry Tawney, “the most influential theorist and exponent of socialism in Britain in the 20th century” (Back cover of Lawrence Goldman, The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History. London: Bloomsbury, 2014), opened the game with The Acquisitive Society in 1920. As co-head of the Fabian Society from 1920 to 1933, Tawney presented a much-distorted view of history, with special emphasis on the corrupt Church that had oppressed the Fraticelli and deviated from the true teachings of Jesus.
Chesterton countered with the real story, Saint Francis of Assisi in 1923, and responded to former Fabian H.G. Wells’s Outline of History (1920) in 1925 with The Everlasting Man. Belloc also responded to Wells’s Outline in a more ad hominem manner than Chesterton, which resulted in an acrimonious exchange that did not resolve anything. Tawney responded to Chesterton with Religion and the Rise of Capitalism in 1926.
Again making the Catholic Church the villain, Tawney added insult to injury by claiming that distributism — promoted by Chesterton and Belloc as a progressive (in the original sense) application of Catholic social teaching — was really reactionary and Protestant. Chesterton got in the last word with Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” (1933), which refuted the modernist principles behind Fabianism and defended the primacy of the intellect against irrational faith.
Despite the best efforts of Chesterton, Belloc, and a few others, however, distributism never caught on the way Fabianism did. A large measure of this was due to the fact that relatively few people seemed to grasp the subtle but extremely important differences between the two systems. As Shaw berated Chesterton on more than one occasion, “Distributism is plumb-centre Socialism,” and insisted Chesterton was wasting his time “trying to establish a false anti-thesis” between them. (Dale, The Outline of Sanity, op. cit., 265.)
Shaw’s assertion was based on Chesterton’s refusal to give him anything particular he could ridicule (Louis Biancolli, ed., The Book of Great Conversations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1948, 498-506.), and Belloc’s insistence on recommending specifics that even he knew could not work. (See Hilaire Belloc, An Essay on the Restoration of Property. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1936.) As a result of this confusion, the distributist movement lacked clear principles and goals, and became a de facto personality cult centered on Chesterton himself, rather than on the ideas.
“Fanatical types” were involved from the beginning (Dale, The Outline of Sanity, op. cit., 245), with “many ideologies hiding under the cloak of Distributism.” (Michael Coren, Gilbert: The Man Who Was G.K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990, 264.) Chesterton being incapable of excluding anyone, the movement became a magnet for “cranks.” As he noted, “We have had some very fantastic human forms lingering about our office.” (G.K.’s Weekly, April 24, 1926.) Meetings of the Distributist League became so unpleasant that Chesterton eventually stopped attending, except for the annual celebration. (Michael Ffinch, G.K. Chesterton. San Francisco, California: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1986, 315-316.)
|Fulton J. Sheen|
Chesterton died June 14, 1936, whereupon distributism came to an end as anything coherent or even distinct from Fabian or any other kind of socialism. “Gilbert’s death signified the end of the philosophy, if that is what it was, as a serious proposition. He had kept it alive; squabbles and lack of direction tore the movement apart.” (Coren, Gilbert, op. cit., 243.)
Nor did Fulton Sheen fare better against Msgr. Ryan at the Catholic University of America. Bishop Thomas Joseph Shahan, Rector of the CUA, had been one of the examiners in the McGlynn case (the others were Rev. Dr. Thomas Bouquillon, Rev. Dr. Thomas O’Gorman, and Rev. Dr. Charles P. Grannan), and appears to have been suspicious of Henry George’s influence on Ryan.
Shahan evidently brought Sheen into the University as a sort of protégé to deal with the problems caused by Ryan. Not surprisingly, Sheen was made unwelcome from the first in the School of Sacred Sciences under the control of Ryan (Kathleen L. Riley, Fulton J. Sheen: An American Catholic Response to the Twentieth Century. New York: Society of St. Paul, 2004, 12), although nothing overt could be done as long as Shahan was Rector.
At the end of 1927, however, Shahan retired and was replaced with Monsignor James Hugh Ryan. Shahan’s departure marked the beginning of what Sheen later described as a period of great suffering, tantamount to a crucifixion. As he noted in the Preface to Life of Christ (1958), “This book was written to find solace in the Cross of Christ, as for about ten years of my life I endured a great trial.” (Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ. New York: Image Books, 1977, 9.)
And that changed the whole picture, as we will see in the next posting on this subject.