Soon after entering the Catholic Church in the early 1920s, G.K. Chesterton published St. Francis of Assisi, a “sketch of St. Francis of Assisi in modern English.” This he followed up a decade later with a companion volume, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”.
|"The Dumb Ox of Sicily"|
Both books are clearly the work of an intelligent amateur, an enthusiast (in the good sense). Neither book was ever intended as authoritative or even — the bane of honest Academics — particularly original. As Chesterton informed his readers, “It will be understood that in these matters I speak as a fool; or, as our democratic cousins would say, a moron; anyhow as a man in the street.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 146.)
Despite that (or perhaps because of that), the books are remarkable — and remarkably effective, if taken for what they are. For example, St. Francis of Assisi was very successful at highlighting the absurdity of the efforts of the Fabian Society and other forms of religious or spiritual socialism that inherited the mantle of the “Neo-Christian” movement of the first half of the nineteenth century.
This was— and continues to be — a serious problem, as anyone familiar with the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” can testify. As Dr. Julian Strube of Heidelberg University argues, pre-Marxist socialism of the early nineteenth century and the new religious ideas of “the Enlightenment” of the late eighteenth century were inextricably linked together, each influencing the other’s development.
|Henri de Saint-Simon|
The “New Christianity” of Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fournier, and the “Neo-Catholicism” of Félicité de Lamennais were essentially the invention of a new “esoteric” and socialist religion under the name of Christianity, but divided into a number of competing sects. The movement had an enormous influence on modern ideas of religion (Julian Strube, Ein Neues Christentum: Frühsozialismus, Neo-Katholizismus und die Einheit von Religion und Wissenschaft, Koninklijke Brill NV. Leiden, 2014).
This was especially the case regarding the interpretation and understanding of Catholic social teaching. The term “social justice” came out of the New Christian movement, and continues to be understood by many people in light of those principles down to the current day. This is in spite of the work of Pope Pius XI, as analyzed by CESJ co-founder Father William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., to help people understand Catholic social doctrine in light of traditional philosophy (especially the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas) and natural law theory.
The New Christian movement’s hijacking of the principles of orthodox Christianity naturally alarmed Leo XIII and subsequent popes; the reference to “new things” in Rerum Novarum was not by chance, nor was the focus of his first three encyclicals accidental. All were directed at the growing problem, variously called spiritualism, magnetism, social Christianity, New Christianity, Neo-Catholicism, etc., etc.
|William Hurrell Mallock|
As New Christianity was particularly strong in Anglican “High Church” circles — ironically as a result of the Oxford Movement — the popes’ focus on the problem favorably impressed such people as William Hurrell Mallock, Robert Hugh Benson, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, and Gilbert Keith Chesterton. It seems to have influenced the former’s positive attitude toward the Catholic Church and the conversions of the latter three.
Strube has identified four major characteristics of what he terms “socialist religiosity” in opposition to orthodox Protestant or Catholic Christianity. Not all of these are present in all forms of socialist religion/religious socialism, but they are prevalent. These are,
1) A reliance on Enlightenment religious criticism.
2) A different philosophy of history, almost always centered on the class struggle and portraying Jesus as a social/socialist revolutionary.
3) An artificial synthesis of science and religion, forcing one to conform to the principles of the other without attempting to reconcile them.
4) A union of civil and religious society, whether subsuming the State into the Church or vice versa, to establish and maintain “universal harmony.” (Ibid.; cf. Edward R. Pease, The History of the Fabian Society. London: Frank Cass and Co., Ltd., 1963, 18-21.)
|David Émile Durkheim|
Interestingly, “universal harmony” in this life was the goal of the school of socialist thought founded by the French sociologist David Émile Durkheim, that he called “solidarism.” Derived directly from the “religion of humanity” of Auguste Comte (who for a while was secretary to Henri de Saint-Simon, founder of the short-lived cult of “New Christianity”), Durkheim’s solidarism had a great deal of influence on modernism, which continued the tradition of “Neo-Catholicism” founded on the work of Hugues-Félicité Robert de Lamennais. (Strube, Ein Neues Christentum, op. cit., 161.)
Father Heinrich Pesch, S.J., would reorient solidarism along genuinely Christian/Thomist lines, and transmit this tradition to his first generation of students. Two of these students, Fr. Gustav Gundlach, S.J., and Fr. Oswald von Nell-Breuning, S.J., were members of the Königswinterkreis discussion group co-founded by another student of Fr. Pesch, the jurist and political scientist Dr. Heinrich Rommen, and were called to Rome in 1931 to consult on the writing of Quadragesimo Anno in order to refute as effectively as possible the New Christian/Neo-Catholic schools of socialist-religious thought.
|Eugène Melchior de Vogüé|
Unfortunately, by 1931 the principles of New Christianity had hijacked the interpretation of Rerum Novarum forty years previously (cf. the Vicomte Eugène Melchior de Vogüé, “The Neo-Christian Movement in France,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, January 1892, Vol. 84, No. 500, 239). Thanks in large measure to the efforts of Msgr. John A. Ryan of the Catholic University of America, whose mentor, Ignatius Loyola Donnelly, was prominent in socialist and spiritualist circles, principles of New Christianity rapidly became the accepted standard of interpretation of Leo XIII’s encyclical. This was despite the pope’s clear intent of using it as a powerful refutation of the socialist and pseudo-religious principles of New Christianity — the “new things” to which he referred in the opening passage.
Consequently, even Fr. Pesch’s Catholic solidarism was reinterpreted by those outside the relatively small circle of his first generation of students in terms of socialist New Christian principles. This turned the interpretation of Fr. Pesch’s thought 180 degrees from its original intent, and undermined Quadragesimo Anno just as Rerum Novarum had been sabotaged.
|Richard Henry Tawney|
It should therefore come as no surprise to discover that the Anglican socialist economist and writer Richard Henry Tawney, who was one of the leaders of the Fabian Society, serving on its executive from 1920 to 1933 (Edward R. Pease, The History of the Fabian Society. London: Frank Cass and Co., Ltd., 1963, 288.), was “in” to what Strube loosely terms “esotericism,” and that Chesterton called “Esoteric Buddhism.” A few years prior to the publication of Chesterton’s book on St. Francis, Tawney had presented a grossly distorted version of Christianity in The Acquisitive Society (1920) that accepted the basic principles of “New Christianity” as a given (cf. Fulton J. Sheen, Philosophies at War, op. cit., 22).
Adding insult to injury, the Fabians and other New Christians had adopted St. Francis of Assisi as a kind of patron saint. This was for presumed virtues that Il Poverello never exhibited, and which would have been completely alien to him. These included St. Francis’s alleged rejection of the tyrannical authority of the pope, assertion that true Christianity is socialist, and a presumed syncretic acceptance of all faiths as equally valid — see, for example, Fabian Society co-founder Havelock Ellis’s essay “St. Francis and Others,” collected in Affirmations. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926, and George Bernard Shaw’s comments in the Preface to Back to Methuselah, 1896.
|George Bernard Shaw|
Adding to that Shaw’s rather waspish comment that Chesterton didn’t know what socialism is (and his declarations of Mallock’s alleged stupidity for not being a socialist) gave Chesterton sufficient reason to refute the “New Christian” ideas of religion, politics, and economics, and other travesties of truth and common sense. And the best way to do that was, obviously (at least for Chesterton), a book presenting a true picture of St. Francis.
Chesterton’s book was so successful in refuting the Fabians’ romantic perversion of St. Francis’s message that it called forth a counterblast a few years later. This was Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), which many consider Tawney’s magnum opus, and which (along with the works of E.F. Schumacher) has become virtual Holy Writ for New Christianity.#30#