When even mass-circulation British newspapers cover a story about the Church and beatification, you know it matters. The Daily Mail recently reported that, “Author G. K. Chesterton, best known for his Father Brown stories, has been put on the path to sainthood – with the blessing of the Pope. Just days before he was elected Pope in March, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, wrote to a Chesterton society in Argentina approving the wording of a private prayer calling for his canonization.”
I wrote a biography of Gilbert Keith Chesterton in 1988, and it was at a conference about the man’s life and work in 1986 at the University of Toronto that I met the woman whom I would marry, obliging me to leave Britain and come to Canada. We also named our first child Gilbert in honor of the man. (Our son’s middle name, though, as romance must not lead to cruelty!)
Should the great GKC be acknowledged as a saint? I’m not sure, really, but I do know that we are generally not well served by journalism today. Catholic journalists in particular sometimes seem more intent on pleasing their secular friends than in defending the Church. Oh, for another Chesterton, who wrote the truth of permanent things, of first things, of Catholic things. His cause has been discussed and promoted for some time, and in many ways it’s never been so fitting.
Born in 1874 in London, England, he enjoyed the best in British private education but chose not to go to university, which partly explains his visceral refusal to adopt convention and think and write within partisan definitions. He drifted into journalism but once afloat he sailed perfectly, and often against the wind.
On the fashionable nationalism of the Edwardian age, for example: “My country, right or wrong, is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, my mother, drunk or sober.” On literature: “A good novel tells us the truth about it hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” On being controversial: “I believe in getting into hot water, it keeps you clean.”
Books came early and frequently. Greybeards at Play in 1900, Twelve Types in 1902, and a biography of Robert Browning the following year. Then in 1904 one of his finest works, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Ostensibly about a London district declaring independence from Great Britain, at heart it explained Chesterton’s belief that the state was more often than not a problem rather than a solution and the greater the intervention of government the more profound the damage to the governed.
He married Frances Blogg is 1901 and they had an intensely happy, though childless, life together. She was a steadying influence on his notorious untidiness and lack of organization. “Am at Market Harborough”, he once wrote to her. “Where ought I to be?” Her reply was, “Home.” At a time when H.G. Wells was celebrating infidelity and George Bernard Shaw deconstructing marriage, Chesterton insisted that family was at the epicenter of any civilized society.
In 1922 he finally became Catholic. “The fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity”, he wrote. And, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
Step forward the grand knight of the Church. With his brother Cecil and the journalist and author Hilaire Belloc he embraced Distributism, based on concepts of family autonomy and small-scale production leading to authentic democracy. It was neither socialist nor capitalist, and never liberal in the contemporary sense. “A citizen can hardly distinguish between a tax and a fine, except that the fine is generally much lighter”, and “Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists.”
He possessed a sparkling ability to hold up a mirror to the addled society around him and show its absurd reflection. “Journalism largely consists of saying Lord Jones is Dead to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.” And, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
He wrote biographies of St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens, compilations of columns and journalism, autobiography and works of apologetics and history such as Orthodoxy, Heretics, and The Everlasting Man. There was also poetry—The Ballad of The White Horse and Lepanto—and the creation of the priest detective Father Brown.
He was as witty as Wilde, as original as Joyce, and as clever as Kafka. Yet he remains an icon to far too few, partly because he spoke and wrote as a Catholic. In the final years of his life Chesterton predicted that the absolutes of right and wrong would become blurred, religion publicly condemned, that we would care more for animals than babies and we would worship sex while mocking love. We would, he said, be governed by whim and fashion. “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” He was, quite clearly, not only a genius but a prophet.
But there was also the brief and shallow swim in the dark waters of anti-Semitism, and I predict that this will be highlighted by his opponents when Chesterton is considered for sainthood. I devoted an entire chapter to this issue in my biography, and I have a particular sensitivity towards the subject because my father was Jewish. Chesterton’s brother Cecil may well have been a genuine anti-Semite, but I do not believe this for a moment of Gilbert, or for that matter of Belloc. Gilbert in particular was too loving, too generous, too Christian to hate.
He did make some hurtful and thoughtless comments, in particular after his brother’s death, but when the testing time came—the rise of the Nazis—he was as active as he was angry. While many on the left were unsure how to respond to Hitler’s pagan racism, and some even sympathetic, Chesterton demanded that the Jewish people be protected and rescued. He was vehemently anti-Nazi before it was fashionable and before it was safe.
Context, timing, and nuance are everything, and a foolish comment about Jews before the Holocaust is somewhat different from indifference during it or hostility after it. Frankly, I am not sure if I will ever pray to Chesterton, but I know I pray all the time of my gratitude that he lived, thought, and wrote.