Hilaire Belloc and The Great Heresies

I have a hard placing this particular event in the sequence of the various things that happened to open me to the thought of Catholicism. I presume it must have happened while still attending the non-denom church, because, as I recall, it originated out of a little e-spat on the non-denom church singles ministry (NDSM) discussion forum. The NDSM was planning a little ecumenical get together with the local Catholic singles ministry. And of course, certain members of our group couldn’t contain their wild enthusiasm to present the Gospel to the lost hordes of single Catholics. So they started sending around calls for prayer for the opportunity to present the Gospel to some Catholics. This was, of course, sniffed out by the local Catholic group, who took umbrage at this, given that this was supposed to be a simple ecumenical worship service. I remember feeling really drawn to speaking with some of the Catholics at the event, but like everyone else, stayed comfortable ensconced in my own camp.

One of the good outcomes of this little e-spat was that some Catholics felt compelled to defend some of their practices that were under attack. I remember that one of them in particular was the intercession of the saints, especially the Blessed Mother. And these Catholic apologists handled themselves very well. Their argument made perfect sense. We don’t worship Mary. We ask her to pray for us, just like y’all ask others to pray for you. And then they linked to a few websites to counter the anti-Catholic websites that were also being bandied about. I don’t remember which set of sites I was reading, but I eventually, through a series of links, ended up here, a metabook of The Great Heresies, by Hilaire Belloc. Never heard of him. Never heard of this book. And more intriguingly, never heard of any of the chapter heads, save Mohammed and the Reformation.

I was, as I still am, bored and underworked, so I set about reading a chapter here and a chapter there. Clearly, I wasn’t going to read the chapter on the Reformation, as I already knew about it. And Catholics can’t be trusted anyway. But I think I read the chapter on Islam. And was instantly hooked, for it presented something I was completely unfamiliar with: the history of religion. How did we get here? And amazingly, I discovered that Islam was a (particularly pernicious) Christian heresy. So I then proceeded to read about the Arians and Albigensians, things which were described as potentially civilization-destroying. And then I finished. And was disappointed there wasn’t anything else to read. So in a fit of boredom, I decided to read the chapter on the Reformation.

Nothing would be the same. I thought I knew something about the Reformation. But like most people, I had a vague impression that things were pretty bad, Luther made them better, and we have never looked back. But this chapter gave details. And it gave a coherent view of the details from the Catholic perspective. Things indeed had been bad. The papacy responded too slowly to the crisis. A first generation of Reformers really had sought to reform the Church. But once a second generation who had never tasted the former unity arose, it was over, and all that remained to be decided was who would control which territory. Furthermore, though Luther was no doubt motivated by a very great sense of scandal, nevertheless, there arose other powers on his heels whose motivations were not entirely spiritual (to say the least). The overarching feeling from this chapter was a sense of loss, of losing the unity I had never had. A Christian civilization. A Christendom. The world had been united. And now it was in shatters. It was the first time I had the experience of discovering that the world hadn’t always been the way it is, and that it had been better. These experiences have multiplied as I have entered more and more into the vast heritage that belongs to Catholics.

But there was another, more radical challenge that was presented by this great book of Belloc’s, and it is this. I agreed with him that the Catholic Church had been right to condemn the Arians, the Muslims and the Albigensians. By extension, I also agreed with the Catholic Church when she condemned the Montanists, the Marcionites, the Gnostics, the Monophysites, the Nestorians, the Donatists, the Pelagians, etc, etc. The Catholics were right and they were wrong. Horribly wrong. Insidiously wrong. And yet, what an amazing stroke of fortune that the one time the Catholic Church was wrong in condemning a heresy was the one time when I was the heretic. It seemed almost too convenient. Was there another possible explanation? With this thunderbolt, the blinders were thrown off. I was aware that the universe I had inhabited was not quite so simple as the good-guy-bad-guy story I had bought up until that point. The reality of the history of Christianity was much more complex and nuanced. It wasn’t so one-sided as I had been led to believe.

And so the history of the Church became an instant fascination to me.


~ by Rob on May 19, 2008.

4 Responses to “Hilaire Belloc and The Great Heresies”

  1. […] Hilaire Belloc and The Great Heresies […]

  2. […] loggerheads about such critical issues?  Life and death issues.  Heaven and hell issues.  Given the revelation of a united Christendom that I had received from St. Hilaire, it seemed to me that things hadn’t always been this […]

  3. Nice Revelation. The Church is right and I am wrong. That pretty much sums up my reversion story.

  4. […] of Rob’s conversion, influenced by Belloc’s The Great Heresies, in which he writes regarding heresies: “The […]

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