Chesterton and the current crisis: “If we boast of our best, we must repent of our worst”

Chesterton, who is a prophet, talks like any other prophet. He talks about the need for repentance.

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In every Catholic Church, there is a gruesome sight. It is the image of a man being tortured to death. We should turn away from it in horror, but instead we don’t even notice it, that he hangs there in public humiliation, his clothes torn off, bloodied from a cruel beating, nailed by his hands and feet to a wooden cross, thorns wrapped around his head in a mock crown. Then we begin each Mass by being reminded why he is there. Because in our thoughts, in our words, in what we have done and what we have failed to do, we have sinned against God. We deserve the death that this man is dying. But this man dying for us instead.

And this man is the very God we have sinned against.

There is nothing better than finding God. There is nothing better than being forgiven. The two go together. It is why we need the Catholic Church.

It was G.K. Chesterton who helped me find my way into the Catholic Church, where I would find a different sort of clergyman from the church where I had grown up, a church that identified itself as “protesting” against the Catholic Church. There was something different about that robed figure who stood at the altar. Go there, said Chesterton, go to that Church and find the priest, “and he will give you God out of his hand.”

That’s what I did. And after partaking in that feast of thanksgiving, which is what the word “eucharist” means, it has been my great reward to tell everyone about that Church, where they, too, can find God and enjoy his forgiveness, and join the feast where he feeds us with himself from the hand of a priest. And I tell everyone about the wise and witty man who pointed me in the right direction. Chesterton has continued to be my trusted companion, as he has proved himself to be a teller of truth about the Church and also about the world.

But now the Church faces a grave crisis. Priests, bishops and even cardinals are in the grip of sin and corruption, and the faithful are in a fog of doubt and disappointment. People have been asking me, “What would Chesterton say about this?” I can only tell you what he has already said.

First of all, he says, “The Church is proved right, not when her children do not sin, but when they do.” We are sinners. That is why we are Catholics. We need the forgiveness and redemption of the man who hangs on the cross in each of our churches. Yes, the world holds us up to a higher standard, but that is a compliment to us. It is only holding us up to our own standard.

Chesterton says:

The fact obviously is that the world will do all that it has ever accused the Church of doing, and do it much worse, and do it on a much larger scale, and do it (which is worst and most important of all) without any standards for a return to sanity or any motives for a movement of repentance. Catholic abuses can be reformed, because there is the admission of a form. Catholic sins can be expiated, because there is a test and a principle of expiation. But where else in the world today is any such test or standard found; or anything except a changing mood…?

There have been times when the Church, rather than adhering to its own standard, has attempted to abide by the world’s standard. It has never worked. There have been times, says Chesterton, when the Church has been wedded to the world, but it is always widowed by the world.

And though the world tries to justify its own sins, it is still repulsed by certain sins. In the Father Brown story “The Worst Crime in the World,” Chesterton makes clear that the worst sin is the corruption of the innocent and debasement of virtue.

Chesterton, who is a prophet, talks like any other prophet. He talks about the need for repentance. “If we boast of our best, we must repent of our worst.” He says that, unfortunately, the warning, “Repent, before it is too late,” is hardly uttered until it is too late.  “We have lost the idea of repentance; especially in public things.” And we have “an unfortunate habit of publicly repenting for other people’s sins.” But he also says, “I am convinced that no crimes, let alone confessions of crimes, arouse so much hatred as the spiritual insolence that refuses to confess anything.” And, he says, it is one of the glories of our faith that the very men who have to condemn sins also have to confess them.

He points out that when Christ says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he is addressing his disciples, that is, his priests. “Salt is not a piece de resistance. It is a corrective. It is the priest, not the man. The meaning of salt is that there exists something which we cannot live on, but cannot live without.” The laity needs the priests. But the priests also need the laity. Priests hold the laity accountable, but the laity also hold the priests accountable.

And what of the Pope? Chesterton offers an amazing insight:

When Christ at a symbolic moment was establishing His great society, He chose for its corner-stone neither the brilliant Paul nor the mystic John, but a shuffler, a snob, a coward – in a word, a man. And upon this rock He has built His Church, and the gates of Hell have not prevailed against it. All the empires and the kingdoms have failed, because of this inherent and continual weakness, that they were founded by strong men and upon strong men. But this one thing, the historic Christian Church, was founded on a weak man, and for that reason it is indestructible. For no chain is stronger than its weakest link.

It is interesting to note that the man whom some would consider the weakest pope of the 20th century has just been canonized. Fifty years ago, when the Church—and the world—was crumbling all around him, Paul VI wrote the most important encyclical of that troubled century: Humane Vitae. In it he warned that contraception would not only lead to abortion but to sexual perversion. Chesterton warned the same thing even earlier. Did you know that Giovanni Battisti Montini, the priest who became Pope Paul VI, read Chesterton?

Chesterton says, “The faithful watch the holy places as well as the priests.”

It is indeed the Hour of the Laity. It is why we need models of lay spirituality. Like G.K. Chesterton.

About Dale Ahlquist 31 Articles
Dale Ahlquist is president of the American Chesterton Society, creator and host of the EWTN series "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense," and publisher of Gilbert Magazine. He is the author and editor of several books on Chesterton, including The Complete Thinker: The Marvelous Mind of G.K. Chesterton.

16 Comments

  1. But now the Church faces a grave crisis. Priests, bishops and even cardinals are in the grip of sin and corruption, and the faithful are in a fog of doubt and disappointment.

    Yes indeed. The problems go all the way to the very top. See longtime Vatican observer Sandro Magister’s latest analysis on his L’Espresso web site:

    The Wrong People Francis Can’t Get Rid Of

    Although I must say that not all “the faithful are in a fog of doubt and disappointment.” These problems are decades old and remained hidden for far too long. That the Holy Spirit is bringing them into the light indicates He is going to now purge the Church of them. I and many other Catholics are genuinely happy and excited about that.

    What we must do is to beg the Holy Spirit to show us our part to play in His renewal of the Church, and be ready to be led to where we must make a great act of faith to go.

    • Good on you Harry, for not letting things get on top of you. I have nearly finished reading the Book of Esther, in a Navarre Bible. RSVCE translation. Such a beautiful story. Plenty to meditate on in the prayers. God’s Providence working in a hidden way, to bring about his will. The worst may be yet to come but, the victory belongs to Jesus.
      God bless you.
      Stephen in Australia.

  2. Thank you Mr Ahlquist. I have more books by Chesterton than any other writer but, much to my shame, it’s been quite awhile since I’ve read any of them. I suppose the most prised one would be, a first edition of, A Miscellany Of Men. In very good condition, and was given to me. Yes: Chesterton knew only to well that people sneer at the Church, but fail to see their own sins. I’m sure I remember reading that, the only time he showed any real bitterness in his writing, was over the way Cecil was shamefully treated one time. It seems we owe a lot to Dorothy Collins, for the work she did, after his death. I doubt that where we are today, would surprise him one bit.
    All you Champions of Chesterton: I salute you.
    Stephen in Australia.

  3. I forgot to mention. The only thing missing from the copy of, A Miscellany Of Men: is Chesterton’s personal signature and, Mr Winkle’s paw print. What a treasure.
    Stephen.

  4. “Chesterton, who is a prophet, talks like any other prophet.” I love the instruction of Chesterton and enjoy the elucidations of Mr. Ahlquist, however I don’t think I can agree that G.K was a prophet (or that he would have described himself that way). Prophecy is the task of predicting future events that cannot be known by natural means, while Chesterton’s strength was that he “told the future” through the natural means of reason. This is not too say that his reason was not enlightened by the grace of faith; in fact it took a great faith and a great reason (and a great humor)combined to make a Chesterton. I would rather consider Chesterton to be a great Christian sage, one who has actually attained the wisdom that the philosopher seeks; and Chesterton’s appeal was that he spent his life battling against the worldly philosophers by describing pointedly where their errant philosophy would lead them.

    • The heart of biblical, Christian prophecy is forth-telling, while foretelling is meant to support, explain, warn, and edify in accord with the proclamation of God’s word. Put another way (as I explain in detail in the Study Guide for Bishop Barron’s “Priest Prophet King” video series), a prophet is meant to embrace God’s word, be consumed by God’s word, and then proclaim God’s word (sometimes with future prophecies, sometimes not). One reason St. John the Baptist is called the greatest of the prophets is that he not only proclaims God’s word to the world, he announces and introduces the Incarnate Word of God, especially at Christ’s baptism. Likewise, those who have embraced God’s word (through hearing and faith), have been consumed by God’s word (first in baptism and then in the reception of the Eucharist), are called to proclaim the Word in and to the world. Another aspect of biblical prophecy is the call to repent, follow the Law, and return to the Covenant. The essential way in which all of the baptized participate in the prophetic of Christ is to repent, follow the New Law (Christ himself), and enter more deeply into the New Covenant through God’s grace. Connected to this the prophetic expression (which can take many forms) of the blessings and curses: blessings that flow from following Christ and pursuing truth and goodness; curses that result from the rejection of Christ and the pursuit of sin and evil. Chesterton certainly was prophetic that regard. And it can be argued that his many works on the family, marriage, and culture were deeply prophetic, in that they both warned of what would happen if eugenics, immorality, etc. were embraced, and why a Christian understanding of family and marriage were essential to a vital, life-giving culture.

      • Carl, thank you for your response. Most of what you write so well describes the common prophecy (similar to the common priesthood). I do agree that Chesterton reached the pinnacle of the common prophetic role through a full digestion and proclamation of the faith (through the expression of reason). Yet, still I reserve the right to make a distinction because Mr. Ahlquist appears to infer that Chesterton was a ministerial prophet. You might also make the argument that he was – however I do see a difference in Samuel, Elijah, and John the Baptist.

  5. “In every Catholic Church, there is a gruesome sight. It is the image of a man being tortured to death.”

    In every _Roman_ Catholic church, maybe.

    • Not sure what it meant by this comment. Every Eastern Catholic church I’ve ever been in has an icon of the Crucifixion.

      • Christ is not “being tortured to death” — the “realism” characteristic of later medieval Latin crucifixes (and after) is lacking in Byzantine iconography of the crucifixion, which focuses on other aspects — either Christ Victor with eyes open in early icons (which one can see in early medieval Latin icons, like the San Damiano crucifix) , or later, Christ’s serenity in death (also reflected in some Latin depictions, e.g. the crucifixion painting of Fra Angelico) — this too is supposedly a depiction of Christ Victor, though with eyes closed and Christ asleep.

      • I think maybe SOL is saying that in many Roman Catholic Churches, the Crucifix has been removed from behind the altar and replaced with some type of “risen Jesus” image. This was an all too common occurrence in the 70’s and 80’s and, sadly, many parishes built during those years remain the same way today. Sure, you can find a crucifix somewhere in the parish, but its not behind the altar where it is supposed to be.

        • re: the Latin churches, yes, I was alluding to the replacement of traditional crucifixes by the resurrected Christ with the “maybe,” but it wasn’t my major point…

  6. You would find it difficult to find a crucifix or one that is visible in some of the Modernist churches-too Catholic don’t you know. Don’t want to offend the non-Catholic. You may admit at the beginning of its masses that you are a sinner but you rarely or never hear that word from the pulpit or in any “educational” classes taught by your diocese or parish. Too negative, too judgmental don’t you know. No, this church of what’s happening now isn’t interested in saving souls but doing the work of liberating you, like Oscar Romero and Pope Francis, from that outdated, rigid, fundamentalist Catholic religion. You need to get out there on the social justice bandwagon and save the planet!

  7. Excellent and uplifting article. But “the world ‘held’ us to a higher standard”, and I’d doubt whether there’s any of that left. When the Church, the paragon, went into free-fall a few decades ago it took society with it. We are responsible for a lot more than just ourselves, I fear.

  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7GVNb522P1I

    An awe-ful mystery is here
    to challenge faith and weaken fear:
    The Savior comes as food divine
    concealed in earthly bread and wine.

    This world is loveless but above,
    what wondrous boundlessness of love!
    The King of Glory stoops to me,
    my spirit’s life and strength to be.

    In consecrated wine and bread
    no eye perceives the mys’try dread;
    But Jesus’ words are strong and clear,
    “My body and My blood are here.”

    How dull are all the pow’rs of sense
    employed on proofs of love immense!
    The richest food remains unseen,
    and highest gifts appear as mean.

    Now here we have this boon on earth,
    but faith alone discerns it’s worth;
    the Word, not sense must be our guide,
    and faith assure since sight’s denied.

    Lord feed You us with Your own hand,
    as first to Your fraternal band.
    Yourself our food let us become.
    May God made man make men like God.

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