OXFORD—Courtesy of The Chesterton Review, I recently spent two days in Zagreb, trying to organize a small conference there on ethics and economics. Why Croatia? Why Chesterton? Those who’ve read The Napoleon of Notting Hill must know the answer; for those who haven’t, a few clues may explain.
In the main square of Zagreb, near to the Cathedral, and overlooked on one side by the offices of Otto von Habsburg’s Pan-European Union, the Croatians recently re-erected with great ceremony the monument to Ban Jelacic, Croatia’s hero-prince. In the same square, there were tears and laughter as an ancient fountain was re-stored: an illuminated pool set into the ground, its green waters welling up like a new spring. Past these two symbols of national tradition, the serviceable old State trams continue to rattle amicably. Public transport, along with health and housing, remains cheap or free, allowing the people to spend their meager wages mainly on clothes and food (or cigarettes). The coffee house near Jelacic’s statue is newly privatized. The managers have shares, I was told, but these go with the job, and they lose them if they leave. The McDonalds sign has not yet appeared in this “frontier town.” When it does, what other changes will come to the elegant public squares of Zagreb?
Chesterton loved the brave underdog. The fighting spirit of the Croatians, who see themselves as the last best hope of Christendom, would have appealed to him. He would have made some profound point about the red and white checkerboard shield that has replaced the hammer and sickle, and would have noted with approval the flashing gold of the statue of Our Lady that faces the twin pinnacles of the Cathedral. But there are more serious reasons why he would have wanted to involve himself in Croatia.
The Balkans may not appear to have the strategic importance on the geo-political stage that goes with the possession of oil fields, but they have always been a fulcrum of European history. The Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire “split” near Split. Genghis Khan was stopped here (they’ll show you exactly where); so were the Turks. The First World War began in Sarajevo. Even today, in Bosnia, three world powers could potentially be drawn into a disastrous war: the U.S. and the West, Russia and the East, Islam and the South. Each of these “powers” is weak and confused at the moment, for very different reasons. Yet each might be provoked and challenged into a response by the continuing aggression of Serbia. In the Croatian part of Bosnia, at Medjugorge, many believe Our Lady of Peace has been appearing nightly since 1981. Whether she has or not, the messages are probably right: peace, if it comes, will be the fruit of prayer and fasting.
The conference we propose will avoid political questions to concentrate on economic ones. The Croatians, if history will let them, want to rebuild their society along the lines of Centesimus Annus, the encyclical issued by John Paul II in 1991, on the hundredth anniversary of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. The earlier encyclical initiated a century of development in Catholic social thought and provided the authoritative basis for the “distributist” movement with which Chesterton associated himself, and which he largely inspired by means of his hugely entertaining columns in G.K.’s Weekly and elsewhere.
The distributists wanted to rebuild an England of sturdy, self-sufficient peasant farmers and industrial guilds. They would have no truck with communism, but none, too, with the kind of capitalism that encouraged monopolies and wage-slavery. In the words of Eric Gill, they believed that “The ill from which we are suffering is the decay of personality. The remedy is the revival of personal property.” Property ought to be well and widely distributed throughout society, not concentrated in the hands of a few, the distributists believed. But their movement never really took off. Perhaps it was too fixated on the medieval model of a Christian society; or perhaps England simply had to follow the logic of industrialism to the bitter end. Yet the influence of the distributists can be seen today on both sides of the Atlantic, in the Catholic Worker movement of Dorothy Day, and in the New Economics movement inspired by E.F. Schumacher.
Catholic social teaching has moved on since then, and Chesterton would have moved on with it. According to John Paul II, the Church cannot offer the world a “third way” between communism and capitalism. Some form of market economy, some kind of “enterprise culture,” is the only way forward for Europe and the developing nations. But how is this to be defined, and what are to be its limits? A great deal hangs on how these questions are answered. Black-marketeers and party bosses have turned overnight into crooked capitalists in the ruins of the Soviet Empire, and even now unsavory Western “tycoons” are exporting porno-consumerism into Eastern Europe. Chesterton believed in the importance of family businesses and small holdings for the health of the nation. So do many in Eastern and Central Europe. They want a “free market,” but not a free-for-all without ethical restraints.
In Centesimus Annus, the Pope writes that, “A great effort is needed to rebuild morally and economically the countries which have abandoned Communism.” The Croatian Chesterton conference is intended to begin a process by which sympathetic Western economists, business practitioners, theologians, and philosophers may be brought into contact with those in Eastern Europe who are trying to make the “effort” the Pope has encouraged. We in the West need to become more aware of the grim realities that the new nations of Europe are facing daily, and which put our problems in the shade. We can help those nations by bringing to bear on their problems our own experiences of the varieties of capitalism in the West. They can help us, by putting our assumptions and expectations to the test.
During my two days in Zagreb, I met the people who were able to help us organize the conference later. The Institute for Applied Social Research at University of Zagreb will be the host. But even in the short time I was there I could sense a political maelstrom swirling around me, a maelstrom which might lead, I feared, to further delays. The Croatian government remains in an essentially “defensive” posture. It has resisted the temptation to take the war on to Serbian territory, and retains the moral edge over an enemy that has long lost any international credibility. For that, it should have received acclaim, along with practical assistance, from the West. But the dirty war and atrocities in Bosnia are dragging even the victims—Croats as well as Muslims—into the mire. There was much to be depressed about.
Then I met a saint. Marijo Zivkovic runs a Family Center in Zagreb and was the local organizer of the Zagreb Family Congress. He says he used to be anti-abortion; then he became pro-life; now he is pro-love. Currently, he is tirelessly organizing relief supplies to the refugees, especially food, clothes, and toys from well- wishers all over the world. They can’t help everyone; they have to prioritize. At the top are women with small children. As we hurtled around Zagreb in his tiny car, our lunch was a couple of cans of pink grapefruit juice from Sun Valley, California. He showed me the railway depot he is allowed to use, and the men who move supplies for him. They are chauffeurs and workers helping him after hours, for no wages; he makes sure to be there when they finish each job, to persuade them to come back the next day. It all works on the sheer force of his personality, with the loving support of his wife at every turn.
I had remembered why I was there. But I had to hang on tight to that memory during the flight back home. I got talking with a pleasant young relief worker from London who had been some time in Bosnia and had witnessed horrors there. He reminded me of a young conjuror from the north of England I’d shared a tram with in Zagreb, heading south to entertain the kids in the camps. As my new friend was a Muslim, I naïvely mentioned my interest in Sufism. “Those people falsify the Quran,” he explained. He promised to send me some literature. There are a quarter of a million Iranian troops ready to invade Bosnia if the West does not sort out the mess, he said. Of course, he added, the Iranians also distort the Quran. Knowing I was a Catholic, he mentioned that there is a surah in the Quran (he couldn’t remember which) that predicts a Muslim takeover of Rome. “The Third World War,” he said, “will be between Islam and the rest of the world.” On the basis of our brief acquaintance, he seemed to hope I would opt to join the winning side.
This experience clarified matters for me. Surely we don’t need more ideologies, whether secular or religious. We need more saints. And we need to wake up. Civilization is worth defending; mothers and children are worth defending—whether they be Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, or atheist. But the way we defend them is important, too, if we don’t want to poison souls as we save lives for all these reasons, it is partly the memory of the Zivkovic family that has kept me from despair. There are real people out there in Croatia and Bosnia, and they are not just faces on a TV screen. And even in the middle of a war, there are people who believe in love.