Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Three Big Tasks for the Catholic Press in England

by Hilaire Belloc



The function of the Catholic Press in England is of a special kind. It has work to do which none of the journals contemporary with it in this country can do, and it has work to do different from that of the Catholic Press in other countries, where Catholics are numerous and Catholicism is a powerful factor in Society. There seems to me to be three main activities for a Catholic paper in England. The first is one which has been excellently fulfilled by our weekly Press in the past, and especially by the Universe. It is the giving of Catholic news to Catholic readers, emphasising matters which might be only slightly dealt with in the general Press, and telling Catholics in this country things specially concerning their religion which they would not hear of at all, save through its offices.

The second thing it has to do is to present Catholic truths in general, or rather the truth itself in general, by which I mean the correction of the great mass of error on morals and history and philosophy in the midst of which we live; for the society in which we find ourselves is not only non-Catholic but is profoundly anti-Catholic, in spirit and in tradition.

The third piece of work lying before the Catholic Press of this country is the presentation of the outside world, and especially Europe, after a fashion in which the ordinary Press of the country is largely incompetent to act, and nearly always unwilling.

Working in a Hostile Atmosphere

The first of these three duties or departments of work has, as I have said been excellently done in the past and especially well done of recent years by the Universe. It has been a special mark of our Catholic weekly journals since they first arose with the revival of the Church in this country after the Irish famine. The task is a peculiar one and not easy to fulfil. We are a very small community, we are poor, even poorer than our small numbers might suggest, and our fellow-citizens know so little about the Catholic Church (however much they may dislike it) that the social atmosphere about us is hostile to all that the Catholic newspaper has to do. The business of the Catholic Press on this side is to keep all parts of the Catholic community in touch; to invigorate, as much as possible, the consciousness of the Catholic body.

All that, I say, has been well maintained. Whether it would be still better done if we had a daily paper, I doubt. A daily paper must be filled with a great mass of general news, though its general tone may be this or that. Such a paper might be Catholic, in the same sense in which, say, the Manchester Guardian of The Times are Protestant - yet its appeal would not be to specifically Catholic objects, but general. Now, such an appeal being general, it needs a very large circulation indeed, under modern English conditions to make a national daily paper pay; and if a daily paper does not pay, but loses, it loses gigantically and is rapidly extinguished. But a large daily circulation a Catholic paper of this kind could not have. The community is neither large enough, nor wealthy enough, nor concentrated enough to afford such an economic basis, and advertisement, which is the financial necessity of any paper in England, would necessarily be lacking.

When it would be Possible

If, indeed, people here were accustomed as they are in France and Italy to getting the best writing and the best news in a small space and on bad paper with inferior printing, then the conditions would be changed and we could have our Catholic daily paper as the small local minorities of the Continent have theirs. But the public taste of England in the material side of a newspaper is fixed and will not be changed. It demands a great deal of space, good paper and print rather than a high standard in the quality of what is printed, or in the selection of the matter presented; and things being so, a Catholic daily paper seems to be as yet impossible.

The second function of the Catholic Press, that of presenting general truth, and especially truth in history, has been less developed. It is done in part, but only in part, and our first business for the future would be the development and expansion of this side of our efforts. It would show itself especially in a high standard of reviewing, and especially of reviewing books on history, for it is on the side of history that the most continuous and most dangerous attack upon truth appears.

Medicine and Fiction

But it would be necessary to extend the effort to other fields. Thus, the field of medicine is exceedingly important to-day, socially and morally. So is the field of fiction. As things now are the literary weeklies, which deal regularly with hundreds of volumes poured out by the modern English publishing business, are completely anti-Catholic in tone. They are both ignorant upon and vituperative of Catholic culture abroad, they have hardly heard of it at home. They accept, as a matter of course the bad morals, bad philosophy and bad history of current fiction and there is very little Catholic reviewing done to meet the evil. Now, in my judgment, there is plenty of room for a great expansion in such work. Among the thousands who read literary weeklies there is a very large proportion which thoroughly disagrees with the morals, the philosophy and the history upon which such journals are based. But their readers have now hardly any choice.

For instance, when there appears such a book as Mr Trevelyan’s History of England there is no audible protest. When there appears, as there appears perpetually in volume after volume of fiction and of serious history, the ridiculously and unhistoric presumption that the English people desired and of their own choice achieved the destruction of religion in England 400 years ago, there is no audible protest. “When theory masquerades its fact in biology, there is no audible protest.

Now if we had a vigorous weekly review, not concerned with the details of Catholic life or with particular points of religious controversy, but informed throughout with Catholic morals, we should meet a need which is felt by plenty of people who are not Catholic, and we should have a good economic basis on which to work.

Misunderstanding And Ignorance

The last function with which a Catholic Press should deal is the proper presentation of the great world outside England and especially Europe. The task has hitherto been almost wholly neglected. There is ample room here for expansion. The outside world where it does not speak English is shockingly misrepresented or unknown in the general Press. Even the English-speaking world is misrepresented. A completely false view is given of American relations with this country, and we have only to recall the absurd picture given of Ireland in the past, and the disastrous results of that malinformation, to test the truth of what I say.

But with regard to information in Europe, things are still worse. The nations of Protestant culture are slightly known to us (yet they are always taking us by surprise). The nations of Catholic culture are hardly known at all. I cannot recollect one article in a hundred of late years which has helped the educated Englishman to understand the Fascist Movement in Catholic Italy, or the special problem of Alsace, or the key position of Catholic Belgium in the struggle between tradition and revolution. As for the comments on Catholic Poland, they are worse than useless: a mixture of incredible ignorance upon the past and hopeless misunderstanding upon the present.

Now in all this important department of public information, a Catholic Press has special opportunity. The Catholic Church is universal of its nature; it is international of its nature; and it is, in particular, European. It is the historical religion of the rest of Western Europe. It is the influence under which all our culture was framed. In the conversation of Catholics who travel, you find a comprehension of Europe, as a whole, which you find in no other conversation, but we have not as yet an effort in our Press corresponding to such conversation.

There is no doubt that, were the supply present, the demand would be found to absorb it. The educated public is not in love with the increasing ignorance shown upon foreign affairs, and especially upon European affairs in the average English paper and review. And not only is there an intellectual demand for proper information and comment and judgement upon Europe, but there is the immediate practical necessity for it. For example, a Catholic Press working upon a general knowledge of Europe could have made English people understand long ago what they do not understand to this day, the nature and strength of the Italian revolution.

The practical value of a right judgement in foreign affairs, especially for a nation situated as England has been since the war, cannot be exaggerated. But no one can give a true picture of Christendom save from the Catholic standpoint, and a press that would present such a true picture, must be a Catholic Press. There is a task of the utmost value lying right before us. It is an opportunity of the widest scope, and we have only to grasp it.

How the World Has Changed Since 1860

Outwardly, at any rate, we are living in a world that is almost entirely different from the world of 1860 into which the Universe was born. Motor cars were unknown. Telephones were unknown. Gramophones were unknown. Cables were unknown. The telegraph was unknown (it had not even reached the stage which inspired the hymn writer to talk about “the magic wire”, in God Bless Our Pope”). There were no cinemas, and there were no underground railways. The chronicle below shows some of the principal events of the past seventy years.

1860 Papal States seized.
1861 Victor Emmanuel proclaimed King of Italy
1863 London Underground Railway opened
1865 Death of Wiseman: accession of Archbishop Manning
1866 Atlantic telegraph cable completed
1867 First ship passes through Suez Canal
1870 Franco-German War
1870 Rome taken from Popes and made capital of Italy
1871 First dry plates for photography
1873 “Little Flower” born
1876 Graham Bell patents telephone
1877 Edison’s first phonograph
1878 Leo XIII, becomes Pope
1878 Hierarchy restored in Scotland
1880 First electric lamp
1883 First internal combustion engine motor car
1883 First electric train in London
1884 First photogravure process of reproducing pictures
1890 Forth Bridge opened
1890 Cinematography invented
1892 Death of Manning. Accession of Archbishop Vaughan
1895 X-ray discovered
1896 Marconi’s first wireless patent
1897 “Little Flower” died
1903 First aeroplane flights
1903 Death of Vaughan: Accession of Archbishop Bourne
1909 Bleriot flew channel 1909 Peary reached North Pole
1911 Amundsen reached South Pole
1912 Ceremonial entry into new Westminster Cathedral of Cardinal Bourne
1913 Welsh Church disestablished
1914 Benedict XV becomes Pope
1914 First liner passes through Panama Canal
1914-18 The Great War
1919 Atlantic flown
1922 Pius XI becomes Pope
1926 Catholic Relief Bill passed
1929 Papal sovereignty re-established by Lateran Treaty
1929 Centenary of Catholic Emancipation

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