Hilaire Belloc: The Faith Through the Press


In England at least, a daily Catholic paper is not yet a practical proposition, meaning by this a daily paper not devoted to specifically Catholic news but to all news treated in the light of Catholic philosophy and Catholic morals. What we could and should have is a good general weekly review, but we must face the fact that it would need endowment and without endowment could not flourish or be of effect.

I write of a Catholic Press in England; of conditions in the English-speaking countries outside Europe I do not know enough to speak, but I may remark that an English organ of general effect would have its value for the Catholics of all the English-speaking world. There is a Catholic Press all over the place in Ireland, and a solid Catholic Press—–by which I mean a Press including daily papers and secular papers of all kinds with a Catholic tone—–in every other western country except Great Britain. Holland and Prussia have one, as well as Spain, Italy, France, Bavaria, Austria and Poland. England is the exception even among anti-Catholic nations.

The conditions of a Catholic Press in Great Britain are peculiar to that one society, the people of this island; and I ask myself what manner of Catholic Press could be established here with the full effect which such a Press should be designed for.

There is a large and flourishing Catholic Press already in existence; it is made up of weekly papers and of reviews; it has no daily paper; but to produce the full effect of which I speak the Catholic Press as it now exists, flourishing though it be, needs supplementing. At present it has in all its examples a more or less limited character; highly limited in particular journals which deal only with ecclesiastical subjects, less limited in others, which give their readers general essays and reviews; but, in the case of all it is limited in this sense, that they deal specifically with the Catholic body in this country and mainly with subjects directly attaching to that body as a religious organization.

It may be stated at once that a Press of this character is of very great service and has grown up naturally through the conditions under which Catholics live here. In all countries where the Catholic body is to be found, even where Catholicism is the active religion of the great bulk of the people, there is a Press of this kind, working within the same limits. Such a journal as La Croix, in France, is an example, and there are a host of others. But in these countries there is also a more general Press with a Catholic spirit about it; and I maintain that the Catholic Press in Great Britain as it now exists needs something of this kind to supplement it.

We need a Press which shall have a general interest; one in which the effect of Catholicism shall be felt without direct intention, as it were, just as in all the Press around us the effect of anti-Catholicism is manifest, although the editors and readers of that Press would be astonished to hear that this was so. We need a Press in which you may read on any subject of the day—–
the present controversy on Protection for instance, or the state of affairs in Russia, or a judgment upon fiction, or history, or the stage, which shall give to the reader the opposite implication to anti-Catholicism which he will find in nearly all non-Catholic papers. Until we have such a Press we suffer serious disabilities.

In the first place our way of looking at things [that is, the true way], the sanity for which we stand and the solidity of tradition which it is ours to maintain in a dissolving world, [emphasis added] will not, until we have some such general organ, affect anyone outside our own very restricted body. And in the second place, our own people will,—–until we have such an organ, only be able to get their general reading under anti-Catholic direction. Our people will, in any case, get most of their reading under anti-Catholic direction, for we are citizens of an anti-Catholic society; but had we such a Press as I am here speaking of, the anti-Catholic effect would be corrected. For instance, in a Catholic Press of this kind European affairs would be seen in their proportion; the reader of it could see international problems as they are and not as the anti-Catholic Press presents them through colored spectacles. There would be room for plenty of difference on policy and appreciation of other nations, but, at any rate, the reader of such a Press would occasionally hear that there was something to be said for Poland; that the Germans are not identical with the Prussians of Berlin; that there is a Spanish culture of the very highest value to Europe; that it is in very grave peril through an active anti-national and detestable clique which has seized power; and he would learn something of the great religious quarrel in France, which is of the highest political importance to our time. He would understand how that religious quarrel in France weakened the French at their entry into the war; especially how it weakened them in their failure to negotiate a lasting peace and in their subsequent foreign policy. Much more than this, such a Press would keep general interests in their due proportion; it would not emphasize the horrible or the obscene; it would not prefer tranquillity to justice in the discussion of social affairs.

On sexual matters it would present the old tradition of decency and sound morals; it would present the right apology for property; it would show what authority was and distinguish it from mere force.

Both the effects which it would have, the effect on people outside our body and the effect on people inside it, would be good; the one for the country as a whole, the other for our particular community. It would meet a great need, and I propose to ask myself how that need can be met.

In the first place we must eliminate a false issue; the need is not met by the presence in the Catholic Press as it now exists of articles of general interest. The difference between what is needed and what exists is a difference in proportion. What is needed, not to compete with, still less to diminish, the existing Catholic Press, with its specialization upon particularly Catholic affairs [mainly upon ecclesiastical affairs] is a Press in which the great bulk of the printed matter shall be general and even in which ecclesiastical and particularly Catholic affairs shall be absent, save as part of the general news.

You may have an article in The New Statesman, for instance, dealing with and ridiculing the American fundamentalist, or dealing with and woefully misunderstanding the relations between the Italian Government and the Vatican, but The New Statesman does not fill more than half its columns with specifically anti-Catholic matter. It will take anti-Catholicism for granted, of course, in everything, because the editor and the readers have never heard of anything else, but it will print matter from a Catholic pen so long as that pen does not present a specifically Catholic plea. It has printed many essays of my own, though sometimes a little doubtful about them when I showed the indirect effects of a culture with which its readers were unfamiliar. I remember one most amusing discussion as to whether I should or should not be allowed to say that Le Misanthrope of Molière and Seville cathedral were the two summits of achievement in Western art. This statement in one of my essays was not objected to because it was specifically Catholic——nor was it; any Catholic is free to think Seville hideous and Le Misanthrope negligible——it was objected to because it sounded bizarre——just as praise of John Bunyan would have sounded bizarre to the Court of Louis XIV.

The anti-Catholic Press around us is what men call today “subconsciously” anti-Catholic. It would not be possible for the Catholic Press of which I speak to be “subconsciously” Catholic, for Catholicism sticks out, and Catholicism knows a great deal too much of its own motives. But it would deal with matters at large without, at any rate, that overt reference to an especial position which has hitherto been the mark of all our journals. The first and most obvious answer to the question “What should we add to our existing Catholic Press?” is a daily newspaper like anyone of those scores of daily newspapers on the continent of Europe which take Catholic ethics for granted and have the Catholic central vision of national and international affairs. We must rule that out. Such a daily paper is not possible.

It might be possible to have a daily newspaper Catholic in the sense in which our Catholic Press is already Catholic; that is, dealing mainly with specifically Catholic things; but it would not be possible to found and maintain a daily newspaper which would be generally Catholic in tone. The thing has often been talked of; it has never been done, because the only conditions under which it could be done are absent.

Those conditions may change. I speak only of things as they are. The conditions which make a daily paper of this sort impossible are the habits of people in this country in the matter of their daily Press. The kind of thing which the English reader demands of his daily paper makes it a thing which our small poor and scattered body could not afford. An Englishman’s daily paper must contain a great deal of matter, the quality being of little consequence; it must be well printed on good paper; it must be delivered very promptly over very wide areas. All this means today an enormous initial capital of some millions and a correspondingly gigantic annual loss unless the paper obtains a circulation of very many hundreds of thousands and a corresponding revenue from the advertisers.

It is as certain as anything can be, that, as things are, no paper with a Catholic tone about it, however indirect, could enjoy those advantages. The same forces which make our average daily paper the despicable thing it is would prevent a daily paper informed by the high culture and sane morals of Catholicism from keeping afloat. If, or when, the customs of Englishmen so changed that they would accept first-rate matter, though printed on a few flimsy sheets, as Frenchmen, Germans and Italians accept it, then we could have a Catholic daily paper; but so long as they demand what they do demand for their morning reading, your daily paper of general interest, but of Catholic morals and outlook, cannot live.

There remains the review——monthly, quarterly or weekly.

Here also we are heavily handicapped by national custom. To begin with, the setting up of type is what is called today in this country a “naturally protected” occupation. There is nothing very mysterious or difficult about it; the working of a type-setting machine was learnt in a few days [some people have told me “in a few hours”] during the general strike; but the terror in which English capitalists now stand of organized proletarian resistance gives to the naturally protected craft organizations the power to receive the wages they demand. They act as they have been trained to act by capitalist society, which denies the doctrine of the Just Price, which proclaims work to be an evil and the goal of human endeavor to be the avoidance of it; which puts it up as an ideal that individuals should get as much money as they possibly can out of their fellows by any means in their power.

Paper does not come under the same restrictions as printing, but transport does, and much more important than any of these causes in handicapping the weekly or monthly review is, again, the standard in size and outward appearance which public taste demands. You must sell 10,000 copies of a review a week, or rather more, and you must have a solid advertisement revenue as well, to make a weekly review pay. Even so, you must charge double what would be charged in more fortunate countries. A review representing Catholic ideas, but dealing with general matters at large, appearing weekly and costing, say, sixpence, would certainly lose money.
But here comes a very interesting consideration. Need such a paper pay?
That is the main question I would pose here. In my judgment we should not expect nor aim at a profit, and to make a profit a condition of continuance is to doom such a venture from the outset.

In my judgment the failure in the past of all such experiments has been due to an absence of subsidy. It has been taken for granted that a literary and political review of this sort must show a profit or must cease to be. But no one of the anti-Catholic literary and critical reviews would show a profit unless it had an advertisement subsidy. It only gets that advertisement subsidy by being in touch with the anti-Catholic atmosphere in which it lives and in which the readers live, and in which the advertisers live. Had it another tone about it, it would be suspect because it would be reckoned odd, and the advertisement subsidy would not be forthcoming.

I shall be told at this point, by practical men in the advertising trade, that they care nothing for opinions, only for circulation. I don’t agree. I have seen too many examples to the contrary. I have witnessed, for instance, the early days of the Daily Herald, when it was a genuinely socialist organ and not the official thing it has become. Its circulation warranted a larger advertisement revenue than it obtained; and the same was true of my own review, “The Eye Witness,” which exposed the politicians of the Marconi scandal.

We shall not get enough advertisement subsidy to float us. Therefore, I maintain, the subsidy must be provided from some other source. In other words, we shall never have an efficient Catholic Press of the particular kind I am now envisaging unless there be guaranteed support to make up the inevitable loss.

How large would such a subsidy have to be? For a weekly paper properly staffed and paying proper prices to its contributors, at least £5,000 a year.
In that figure is the answer to the question I have proposed myself. If, or when, a subsidy on that scale can be maintained, there will appear an English literary and critical review which will be of the highest value to the nation; but without the clear understanding that a loss must be faced, and a loss of that magnitude, we shall have either nothing or a series of those failures in the future which will continue our failures of the past. And with this very practical conclusion I would end the first part of these remarks.

But there is a second part. Suppose the thing be done; suppose the guarantee obtained and the loss deliberately envisaged. What machinery should be set up for the creation and maintenance of such an organ? I submit the following conditions:

(i) First, that the guarantors of the fund be as numerous as possible. The advantage of numbers does not lie in the opportunity it gives for a larger amount of money so much as in the opportunity they deny of interference with the machinery of the journal. Where one rich man stands the loss upon an experimental review he is always the master; and as he will not be at the pains of editing [for rich men have something better to do with their time], that means double control and failure. Every paper appealing to educated men is made by its editor. An editor whose own salary and whose pay list for others is guaranteed by a group is more or less independent. An editor whose finances come from a patron is a servant; and not even the servant of a man who is capable of giving definite orders, but a servant who has to provide all the initiative and yet suffer perpetual interference. Where the bulk of the money comes from one man, or even where two or three wealthy men are the main guarantors, there is still difficulty. It is essential that the fund should come from a number.

(ii) Next, the sums annually subscribed must be prepaid. You must start at the beginning of each year with a sum equivalent to the anticipated loss and a margin over. You must have that capital ready by you. Otherwise the thing falls into the grip of worry, and worry in the organization of a newspaper is like sand in the bearings of a machine; it checks and slows down everything and at last brings disaster.

It would be unwise to use any considerable portion of such a fund for advertising the paper. A paper of this kind is its own advertisement. The old green Westminster Gazette, which was far the best literary, critical and political paper of its day, would have retained its place and prestige and such circulation as it had [not very large I am told], even if it had not advertised at all.

(iii) There would have to be some sort of council or small body, not for the running of the paper—–it is fatal for such a body to interfere—–but for consultation with the editor, and, when his contract should have expired [one would have to begin with at least a five-year contract], for the renewal of it or the finding of another editor. Upon the editor chosen, the moral success of the paper would depend. To a financial success it would by definition be indifferent. And it is a fairly good rule, when you have your editor and he is giving the results you demand, to keep him; for everything in a newspaper of the cultivated sort depends upon personality and unity. The choice of the right editor would be vital. He had better not be elderly; he must have training in the business; it is most unlikely that you would find such a man among the authors and one chance in a hundred that you would find him in a profession not literary. You should look for him among the daily journalists.

(iv) Here I must add an unusual clause which may be thought paradoxical. There should be no doctrinal control. A review of this kind would not be specifically Catholic. If one made it so it would lose its whole point, and if things appearing in it were subject to a censorship it would cease to be what it was. One would have to trust to the general editorial spirit for one’s results, leaving criticism to the correspondence column or to the results on circulation.

(v) There should be in the format and make-up of the paper and almost in its constitution a very large department for correspondence.

There, I take it, are the main conditions under which the thing should come into existence. They are sufficiently hard, and in the opinion of many they will render the whole idea fantastic. I do not say that the thing is feasible; I do not say that a large guarantee fund is obtainable. All I say is that those are the conditions under which such a paper could exist and that if they are not observed the experiment will fail. If the guarantors aim at profit, if they are few in number, if they interfere with editorial control, it would have been better not to have launched the thing at all. It would be wasting money instead of spending it on a good object.

But is the object a good one? Would a literary and political review of this kind in modern England be first-rate, and if it carne into existence, would it do good to the Catholic cause and to the national cause?

I should answer all those questions in the affirmative, and without hesitation.

Not only would such a review be first-rate, but it would be altogether superior to the ruck of anti-Catholic stuff with which we now have to put up. We are small in numbers, but intellectually we are an elite, and we not only have—–out of all proportion to our numbers—–men available for the best work, [emphasis added] but we have a large margin of indifference and sympathy on which to draw. The journal I have in mind would in a dozen ways express what masses of the educated classes agree with or, at any rate, desire to see stated, and what today they do not see stated. The mere fact that it was not dependent upon an advertisement subsidy would emancipate it; the fact that it had right morals informing it would make it a palatable exception to the stuff upon which we are now fed by the neo-pagan Press of the intellectuals.

Take the attitude of such a review towards the fiction of the moment. All the anti-Catholic critical writing condones or accepts enormities, but in so doing it is not in tune with the best opinion of our time. Reaction against thoroughly bad morals, not only in sexual things, but in other departments of activity, is demanded by an existing and powerful section of general opinion. It is not provided. Or take the effect of a sound international point of view. Today we get nothing but a sort of conventional anti-Catholic litany, an unceasing stream of abuse and misquotation directed against the Catholic side of Europe. It is very wearisome, very futile, and in matters of policy dangerously misleading. We never get Europe presented as it is. The half dozen major problems of international policy turn upon religious culture, and the most important of them upon the conflict between the Catholic and the anti-Catholic culture in Europe. Educated men want to hear these things at least mentioned; they want discussion of them to be in terms of reality, and they are not satisfied. The demand is not met. We get the Prussian case against Poland by the bushel. Whoever hears the Polish case against Prussia? Yet an educated neutral who is indifferent to either side at least wants to hear both, for the fate of his own country will be affected by the sequel to the present conflict.

Such a review would obviously do good to the non-Catholic world. At present the right view of life is not so much denied as ignored. Men do not come across it. Even in the specialized world of apologetics we Catholic writers stand in the rather ridiculous position of perpetually preaching to the converted.

A thoroughly false piece of history comes out; it is well reviewed and destroyed by a competent pen in the existing Catholic Press. No one outside the Catholic world sees that review. Had it appeared in a paper of general information the non- Catholic would have seen it; he would have learnt something. With such a review we should teach, and we should teach a society which is not only insufficiently taught but is growing less and less taught every day——and an expansion of learning is one of the prime necessities of our time.

An example of what I mean which struck me very forcibly at the time was the case of GDYNIA. When that new port with its great coming effect on international politics was designed and begun there was no journal in England giving the educated Englishman any knowledge of GDYNIA. The name still remains, after all these years, quite unfamiliar. I visited the place three years ago; I wrote on it in one of the monthly reviews; I have seen slight allusions to it here and there, but it has never got into the consciousness of the educated public, because GDYNIA is Polish and Poland is Catholic. A journal such as that which I am describing would not exaggerate the chances of growth in Poland, simply because Poland is Catholic; but it would not leave out things essential to a comprehension of Europe, as does all the Press which is anti-Catholic in tone.

Perhaps the best effect of all which such a journal would have, would be its effect upon the Catholic body itself. It would provide an arena for controversy, it would strengthen the confidence of Catholics, it would instruct them, it would provide them with material, and it would be an introduction of it to the non-Catholic body outside.

Having said all this, I must end by repeating what has, I am sure, run through the reader’s mind, if he has had the patience to follow me so far: I mean, that this goal is very difficult of attainment. I should not quarrel too much with the decision that it is even impossible of attainment. But I have noticed in the course of forty years’ examination [it is rather more than forty years], since I first became mixed up with journalism and the survey of contemporary things, that: first, things one would have thought impossible sometimes come off; second, it is the totally unexpected which arrives. The imaginary review of which I have been speaking may appear, after all. More likely something else will appear doing the same work in a quite unexpected fashion.

Taken from ESSAYS OF A CATHOLIC, TAN Books, originally published in 1931.

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2 Responses to Hilaire Belloc: The Faith Through the Press

  1. Larry Bond says:

    Hi, Louiseyvette. I’ve started reading this interesting article and will get back to you with a comment when I’ve properly taken it all in. Belloc is a marvellous writer — easy to see why you like him so much…

    I apologise again for the reception you got the other day on my channel. There, unfortunately, just seem to be so many people on most of the online forums just itching to jump on other contributors and savage everything they say, without for a moment considering the merits of their arguments beforehand.

    See you soon.

  2. louiseyvette says:

    Hi Lawrence. I forget exactly why I wanted a copy of this essay on my site. Something to do with formatting. I’m assuming I’m not breaking copyright here.

    I actually can’t remember which reception you mean! I get so much nastiness thrown at me, I can’t keep up. Yes, many of those who savage others’ comments are what we call trolls. Sometimes it’s just normal people who are having an intense emotional reaction, and act accordingly, but some are simply there to upset people.

    I should point out that Belloc is accused by his critics of being antisemitic, but if he was (he certainly thought they were a bit of a problem) he emphatically did not like what the Nazis were doing. I say this because I know this is such a big issue at your channel and elsewhere.

    I’ve been thinking about it a bit. If one of the objections to the Jews was that they were allowed to practice usury, and hence became the financiers of Europe, then it still can’t have been anything but a minority of them with that influence. I just can’t believe that the bulk of the Jewish population were anything other than ordinary people who wanted to live in peace. There are definitely some traditional Catholics who have a big problem with the Jews, and they would happily bend both scripture and writers like Belloc to their purpose. Haters of the Church can then accuse us of being antisemitic.

    None of this has anything to do with Belloc’s essay, I just thought I should mention it.

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