Project MUSE – Wilfrid Ward: A Religious Fabius Maximus

Wilfrid Ward: A Religious Fabius Maximus
Paschal Scotti
From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 88, Number 1, January 2002
pp. 42-64 | 10.1353/cat.2002.0051
In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:
The Catholic Historical Review 88.1 (2002) 42-64

[Access article in PDF]
Wilfrid Ward:
A Religious Fabius Maximus
Paschal Scotti, O.S.B. *
From 1903 to 1906 British politics was in tumult over tariff reform, and the Unionist government of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was hanging by a thread. At one end of the party, Joseph Chamberlain was vigorously pushing for Empire-wide protection, and at the other end, others, equally vigorously, were defending the principle of free trade, with Balfour in between trying to keep his party from disintegrating. It was a thankless task, and one that, in the long run, Balfour ultimately failed to accomplish. His efforts at compromise only alienated all sides, and he earned the contempt of being considered a poor leader, a trimmer, and a dilettante. In the midst of this political battle an article appeared in the Nineteenth Century defending Balfour, seeing in his political gymnastics not the feebleness of a roi fainéant, but the consummate statesmanship of a true ruler. The article was entitled “A Political Fabius Maximus” and its author was Wilfrid Ward (1856-1916), a good friend of Balfour and a leading Catholic thinker of the day. 1

Ward thought that Balfour showed truly Roman virtue, and, despite the frenzied attacks that his studied indecision, oversubtle remarks, and [End Page 42] delicate compromises incurred, that his Fabian policy of delay was the wise one. To have resigned would have been easier, but that would have destroyed the party and endangered all of its policies. What was needed most of all was time. Time to keep the party together and protect these policies; time to cool party tempers and permit the different sides to negotiate; time to vent the pros and cons of the protection scheme and see if it was workable. Time, also, to ascertain the mood of the Colonies and the British electorate, and to prepare the people for a shift in a long established policy. Change would come, but only gradually, after the excesses of both sides had been worn away in debate, and the people were prepared for it. What was essential now was not to close the debate prematurely, to let all sides speak their minds, revealing what was truly valuable on either side. Then, and only then, could decisions be made, careful decisions. “Thus, to combine a wide and daring speculative activity and sympathy with cautious and very limited action is in the circumstances the height of statesmanship” 2

In his article Ward compared Balfour’s situation to that of the churches in his own day: caught between the demands for change by modern critics and the dogmatism of the traditionalists. And while Ward wrote this article as a defense of Balfour, he could easily have been talking about himself. As Balfour, in the realm of politics, tried to create an opening for the proper discussion of new ideas and the assimilation of all that was truly valuable, so Ward tired to do for religion, most particularly for the Catholic Church. He was more of a “politician” than a speculative thinker: a man whose main interest was to maintain a proper harmony within the Church so that it could do its divinely appointed task, to help guide the relationship between its rulers and its thinkers so that undue friction could be avoided and progress could continue, and also, to make the world and the Church speak to each other again. As it was remarked in an article written after his death:

And what concerned him most in regard to the human mind was that it should go forward in orderly activity: he was less concerned with the actual results of philosophic or scientific investigation except in so far as they were evidences of intellectual activity. Hence he followed with a keenly appreciative interest the development of thought in all manners of subjects–in theology and philosophy, in natural science and history, in literature and art; but always it was with the eye of the politician, following the movements of the time with a view to the welfare and evolution of…


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