Hilaire Belloc and being principled in politics

As Canadian politicians twiddled their thumbs and denounced their opponents for most of an unproductive winter — in the process alienating voters even further from the political process — I recalled a different kind of politician, a man who entered politics not from personal ambition but from conviction, an MP of the British Parliament who chose to quit politics rather than compromise his principles.

That unlikely politician was novelist, poet, essayist and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953).

Born of mixed parentage (English and French) at La Celle Saint Cloud, about 20 km outside Paris, Belloc loved both France and England (particularly East Sussex). He was educated at Cardinal Newman’s Oratory House; his precocious intellect enabled him to carry off academic prizes in several subjects. One such prize was a signed copy of Cardinal Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius, which Belloc later had to pawn when his finances were precarious.

Following a year of French military service, Belloc went up to Balliol College, Oxford, where he excelled academically and was elected president of the student union. A contemporary, E. C. Bentley, thus described him:

“When Belloc came to Oxford . . . a fresh spirit began to work in the intellectual life of England. His immense personal magnetism, his cascade of ideas, of talk, of fervid oratory, his exuberant and irreverent humour, his love of bodily activity and adventure, carried all before them.”

For a temperament as bellicose as Belloc’s, Parliament was a natural outlet. In 1906 he ran as Liberal candidate in the marginal South Salford constituency where the electorate was overwhelmingly Protestant and Belloc’s Catholicism was considered an insurmountable political liability. The Conservative incumbent, J. Greville Greeves, was a wealthy brewer whose family owned a hundred pubs within the constituency. Belloc countered Greeves’ advantage by pointing out that people had died from drinking impure beer; if elected, Belloc promised a Pure Beer Bill. He made good on his promise, but his bill was defeated in parliament.

Urged by his campaign manager to make no mention of religion, Belloc began his first election speech in typical pugnacious fashion:  “Gentlemen, I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day. This (taking a rosary out of his pocket) is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative.”

After a shocked silence, there was applause. Belloc won.

He proved a prickly parliamentarian. So frequently he voted against the government that he was sometimes mistaken for an opposition member.  When a minister proposed “compromise and moderation” over a bill dealing with Catholic education, Belloc rose to say: “I cannot too emphatically point out that those two words are absolutely meaningless when the House of Commons is dealing with the Catholic faith.”

What a contrast Belloc is with our sorry string of ostensibly Catholic prime ministers — Trudeau, Turner, Chretien and Martin — who first initiated, then extended, abortion access until Canada became unique among countries of the Western world in having no legislative restriction on abortion.

Belloc served two terms (1906-1913) but finished up at odds with his party and constituency, the latter because they spurned his proposal to run as an independent. To a close friend Belloc wrote: “I can no longer stand the House of Commons. I see little object in it. It does not govern; it does not even discuss. It is completely futile.”

What would Belloc make of the bellicose barnyard which our House of Commons has become? Better not to ask.

After he left Parliament Belloc continued to lecture and write but, by 1940, the four human beings who had mattered most to him were dead: his wife Elodie, his mother, his eldest son Peter and his closest friend, G. K. Chesterton. Solitary, and increasingly senile, Belloc lived a hermit-like existence at Kingsland, his Sussex home, until July 14, 1953 when he fell out of his chair and was badly burned in the fire grate. Two days later he died.

In a sense, it could be said that Belloc foretold not only his own fate but the fate of that rare bird (probably  extinct now in Canada), the principled politician, the man who puts principle before expediency, when, as a young man, he wrote these lines:

A lost thing could I never find;
Nor a broken thing mend.
And I fear I shall be all alone
When I get to the end.
O who will there be to comfort me,
O who will be my friend?
(Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University.)

Pius XII - Examining the Catholic-Jewish divide

{mosimage}The last time Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum and Redemptorist Father Paul Hansen shared these pages they discussed the idea of Jesus as Torah . With the help of Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto we’ve invited them back to discuss the controversy surrounding the possible sainthood of Pope Pius XII, who was pontiff during the Holocaust.

The Vatican moved Pius closer to possible beatification by declaring him “venerable” in December.

Don’t repeat Quebec’s error in English Canada

Working within the beauty of the Ottawa Valley I see many cars pass by from la belle province with license plates emblazoned with the motto je me souviens. 

These words are a declaration by the majority Francophone population to always  “remember” the struggles of la révolution tranquille (the Quiet Revolution), which transformed Quebec society into a modern secular state. Sadly, it is a state in which French Quebecers turned a deaf ear to the Catholic Church to heed instead the siren cry of the modern secularist project.

Flight 253 and Nigeria's growing radical Islamism

{mosimage}The botched terrorist attempt on an American airliner by 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has raised serious questions about airport security and terrorism. It has also raised concerns about the rights and dignity of innocent and law-abiding travellers in light of new security measures.

More troubling, however, are the unanswered questions about the role radical Islamism in Nigeria played in creating the environment for Abdulmutallab and future young African terrorists like him.

Lots of work needed to save vulnerable

{mosimage}Rimbocchiamoci le maniche is something my Italian father always says when there is much work to be done. Literally, it means to roll up one’s sleeves, but the idea behind it is to prepare ourselves for the hard work ahead. This could well be what we are being asked to do as Christians at the close of the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

Depending on whom you ask, the accord that came out of the climate summit could be considered “realistic,” as maintained by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an “essential beginning,” as stated by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, or “a weak and morally reprehensible deal,” according to the Catholic Church through its international development agencies CIDSE and Caritas Internationalis .

Changing government priorities close the door on KAIROS

{mosimage}Canada’s International Development Agency (CIDA) has cut off funding to KAIROS, Canada’s main ecumenical social justice group which, for decades, had maintained a stable and respectful relationship with CIDA. KAIROS brings together 11 national churches and faith-based organizations that collectively represent 18 million Canadians. But due to CIDA’s abrupt about face the future existence of KAIROS is now in doubt.

The decision to wholly terminate a long-standing program relationship (a four-year cost sharing arrangement worth about $9 million, of which CIDA contributes  about $7 million) means KAIROS must make sharp funding cuts to more than 20 ecumenical and citizens’ organizations around the world. CIDA says that KAIROS was just not a “fit” with the agency’s emerging priorities. But those who watched this story unfold think KAIROS was a victim of CIDA’s moving goal posts.

Web's culture of opinion must not be ignored

{mosimage}John Gabriel, an Internet games theorist/programmer, in 2005 developed what has become known as the Dickwad Theory of the Internet. It can be expressed as follows: One person + anonymity + audience = one “dickwad” opinion.

This theory is often used to discount opinions posted in the comment sections that accompany most news web sites. The often virulent and brutish tone of such postings has resulted in most authors, analysts and commentators developing a tin ear to these virtual opinions. Fr. Raymond de Souza, a columnist for the National Post, expressed this well: “I could write a column on mowing the lawn and before long the comment threads would degenerate into cracks about pedophilia….” 

May we hear the voices of our African brethren

{mosimage}They say we are running out of water, but I wonder if we should also be worried about running out of listening. Who these days would ever take several weeks out to listen to anyone about anything? But that’s exactly what several hundred of us did last month in Rome at the second Synod for Africa.

The theme was The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace: “You are the salt of the earth ... you are the light of the world.” Pope Benedict attended 13 of the 20 General Congregations (plenary sessions) and, except for prayer and a greeting, he just listened attentively.

Finding a Catholic home

{mosimage}Coming from an Anglican family of church musicians, I was received into the Catholic Church just over five years ago on the Feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More. Some other members of my family have also converted, but not all of them. Until now, we have been aware that becoming Catholic meant relinquishing some of our cherished heritage. So the Apostolic Constitution announced by the Vatican is quite a gift for my family and an answer to literally years of prayer.

Two years ago, when news first spread of the request from the Traditional Anglican Communion (TAC) for union with the Holy See, it was apparent that TAC Primate John Hepworth was serious about his vision for “the end of the Reformation of the 16th century.” The Oct. 20 announcements in the Vatican and London bring that vision one great step closer to being fulfilled.

Finding the highs in the valley of lows

{mosimage}This past month has been a very dark period for the Canadian Catholic Church. And it isn’t over. As Ron Rolheiser has said, “in times like these it is most instructive and healing to sit quietly in humility, in sackcloth and ashes.”

In spite of the media coverage — obsessive, unrelenting, merciless and yet fully understandable — it is important to still keep perspective, to remember we are a redeemed people, a people of hope. And so, I don’t intend to add to the commentary on the Bishop Raymond Lahey Affair — as it has been dubbed — in part because I have already done that in other media, but also because we could all do with a respite, an antidote, no matter how passing its effect.

Bishop Raymond Lahey - What would Jesus do?

{mosimage}ANTIGONISH, N.S. - I am inclined to believe that most Roman Catholics thought the high-watermark of the sexual abuse of children by clergy had already been reached and perhaps was even receding. The allegations against Raymond Lahey, recently resigned bishop of the diocese of Antigonish, would seem to prove otherwise.

Locally, these revelations have introduced dark and foreboding days for the parishioners of this Maritime diocese. At the writing of this article I am in my home diocese of Antigonish attending a family wedding. I can report first hand that newscasts and local newspapers keep the embers of the alleged accusations against Bishop Lahey hot and brightly burning. The environment is blue with sadness as people seek to deal with their anger, disappointment and outright frustration. In the days since the allegations against the bishop broke, the agonizing consequences seem as though they will never go away.