even mass-circulation British newspapers cover a story about the
Church and beatification, you know it matters. The Daily Mail
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.”
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!)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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."
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."
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.”
wrote biographies of St.
Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens, compilations of columns and
journalism, autobiography and works of apologetics and history such
Everlasting Man. There was also poetryThe
Ballad of The White Horse and Lepantoand
the creation of the priest
detective Father Brown.
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.
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.
did make some hurtful and thoughtless comments, in particular after
his brother’s death, but when the testing time camethe rise of
the Nazishe 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.
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.