We Do Not Need St. Chesterton

Chesterton at the sea (Source)

The Bishop of Northampton has announced that G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization has been dropped. There will be no St. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, his portly visage peering out of a halo over an altar in some out-of-the-way country church. There will be no Gilberttide Novenas, with each day dedicated to some tired and over-labored paradox the man squirted out for an article on H.G. Wells some time in the late Edwardian period. There will be no holy relics passed around – “The pipe he used to smoke with the Blessed Belloc!” – nor even little medals or fat statues cramming the shelves of the stores that specialize in such pious kitsch.

Good. The Bishop has decided wisely. The cause never should have been opened in the first place. Its continuation would represent, if not an abuse of the process, then a serious misstep in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church.

Quaeritur: Why do we raise saints to the altar?

Respondeo: There are three reasons.

1) To hallow and liturgically organize a pre-existing popular cult of a holy person.

2) To recognize that said holy person is in Heaven.

3) To raise up a holy soul as an example to the Faithful.

The third is insufficient on its own. The second is implied and proven in the act of canonization itself, though the inquiry into a saint’s alleged miracles is adjunct to it. The first is thus the most important, foundational reason for the whole process.

As the Bishop pointed out in his statement, there is essentially no local cult of G.K. Chesterton in either his diocese or, I would wager, in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is such a cult in America. I was once part of it, as a member, officer, and president of UVA’s G.K. Chesterton Society. I was thus shocked to discover when I moved to England that nobody – not even most Catholics I knew – read or particularly cared about Chesterton. The British, for reasons I have never really understood, ignore much of their own “spiritual heritage,” as Americans might think of it. Even the relics of St. Edmund Campion barely raised an eyebrow when they visited Oxford in Hilary Term 2018. In the chapel where they were offered for public veneration after a sparsely-attended Mass, I watched as less than half the room went forward to pay their respects to the Jesuit martyr. Can you imagine the crowds that the same small relic would draw in Chicago or Virginia or California?

I digress. The point is that instituting an official cult of Chesterton where no such popular cult exists is to vitiate the process of Beatification.

I remain agnostic as to whether Chesterton is in heaven. I hope he is, and I pray that he might achieve the Beatific Vision if he hasn’t already. But we’ll never know until we get to heaven ourselves, now that the cause won’t advance.

But, is Chesterton an example to the faithful? My own thoughts on the matter are mixed. Clearly, he was a great apologist who presented an appealing if idiosyncratic vision of orthodox Christianity. His conversion was to be commended, as all conversions are. There are, of course, some moral objections one could make. Lingering questions remain about Chesterton’s attitude towards Jews, though the issue is probably overblown. Some have pointed to his large frame as a sign of intemperance and gluttony. However, I think there is perhaps another matter at stake.

Chesterton with his dog. (Source)

It must be said that Chesterton was, as far as we can tell, a very good man. He could be riotously funny. He was probably just the sort of fellow with whom one would enjoy getting a pint. But that quality of conviviality, even when wedded to right doctrine, does not equate to sanctity. If anything, it speaks to the opposite quality, a lack of the salutary ascesis proper to the Christian life. We hear much today of Chesterton’s alleged quote: “In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together.” Let us leave aside the question of whether the man actually said it (I have struggled to find the source), and accept that he did. The question we should be asking is whether it’s true. And if it is, is it really the sort of thing worth saying anyway? What are pints and pipes but little human vices and pleasures, the things of this world, the ordinary hobbies we enjoy from time to time? A Catholicism that fits them in is probably what most of us (myself included) can strive for, what most of us achieve. But surely that’s not the heroic, sacrificial faith of the Fathers. Would any of the Desert monastics or the martyrs say such a thing? Would any of them really consider it truly pious, if acceptable? Surely we can do better than a religion of the pub stool. Let us aim higher. Let us not canonize this symbol of comfortable Catholicism.

Perhaps the best reason to refrain from canonizing Chesterton was offered in 2013 by Melanie McDonagh:

The first argument against making him a saint is that he was a journalist (the profession he called the easiest in the world); it’s a contradiction in terms. And canonising the man would make his output unreadable. It would invest all the pieces he wrote in railway waiting rooms and Fleet Street bars with the leaden quality of official sanctity. He wrote some of the best literary criticism of the last century — give The Victorian Age in Literature a go — and it would forever be burdened with the approbation of the Catholic Church, which would put a great fat halo between the reader and the text.

I hate even the secular canonisation of the writers I love best — Flann O’Brien is a recent victim — with all the rites of summer schools, conferences and journals. It puts too much weight on their lightest utterances, ossifies their personalities and turns their perfectly lucid writing into the stuff of PhDs. In the case of Chesterton this phenomenon has an especially deadly quality, because the conferences and journals are bound up with contemporary Christian apologetics, a bit like what happened to C.S. Lewis. You might still just about be able to read the Father Brown stories with pleasure if they were billed as being by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton — but it would be despite the billing, by pushing it to the back of your mind. It would be a downright hurdle for secular readers.

Melanie McDonagh, “Why G.K. Chesterton shouldn’t be made a saint.”

Chesterton should not be canonized because doing so would establish him as an authority. Never mind that Chesterton’s famous aphorisms and paradoxes were so often little more than the trite (or even false) quips of a journalist. I have in mind quite another matter; canonization would effectively insulate Chesterton from serious criticism, literary or otherwise. Is that really an effective tribute to a man who was, by all accounts, a brilliant mind? Are we doing him any great service by placing his work under the light of a nimbus? Wouldn’t we rather be paying him the greatest of all insults to a writer, namely, to place him beyond serious and fair consideration? On the other hand, perhaps McDonagh is right – canonizing Chesterton could instead spark a lugubrious academic cottage industry, just as the (American) Evangelical discovery of C.S. Lewis has turned that first-rate children’s novelist and second-rate Anglican theologian into big business. I can only imagine Chesterton would find it all extremely drab.

We should not be too quick to canonize, especially when it comes to writers. I love the books of Flannery O’Connor and find much that is edifying in her fiction. I believe she probably died a holy death. But I don’t think she should be canonized; if a cause were to open, it should be based entirely on the merit of her sufferings.

Julien Green thought that the very act of writing a novel – a good one anyway, that deals with real human experience and the truths of the human condition – inevitably implicates the author in mortal sin. One has to imagine evil, and in portraying it, one engages with it at some level. I don’t know whether that’s true. I have no novels on my CV. But his statement speaks to a deeper point about the act of writing. We cannot escape from the fallibility and fragility of our own humanity, nor a certain fallenness inscribed into the fractured and slipshod structures of our language. This is why criticism is a good thing. Criticism, even pointed criticism, is a sign that one takes an author’s work seriously. It also keeps an author within the bonds of a community of writers, each of whom shares the same basic limitations even as their individual geniuses differ. These are truths that Chesterton himself understood; he, too, was a literary critic.

But the work of canonized writers retains an implicit authority. Sure, philosophers and theologians might dispute over a point in St. Thomas, but rarely do they state outright that the Angelic Doctor is wrong (and he was on several occasions). One could point to other examples. There is a degree to which such deference is acceptable. One of the Church’s great strengths is her long memory and the deposit of theology that acts as a shield around the deposit of faith. Yet this quality of authority is entirely inappropriate with a figure like Chesterton, whose voluminous works largely consist of trivial journalism. True, he made a few good points in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. There are strange parts of Orthodoxy, too, that make little sense and must be taken for what they are – Chesterton’s deeply personal attempt to understand his faith. And some of his writings are simply bad, wrong, or unreadable. If we take Chesterton seriously as a thinker and a writer, we should say so.

Looking quizzical on a bench. (Source)

I realize that many of my readers, especially British ones, will think I am belaboring the point. If there is no popular cult, then are we really in danger of such an uncritical turn? I would direct such readers to the G.K. Chesterton Society’s website. I would direct them to the inclusion of Chesterton in Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The Pivotal Players alongside objectively more important figures like St. Augustine, St. Benedict, and Cardinal Newman. I would direct them to that inexcusably hagiographic study of Chesterton’s milieu, Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts. There may be no local cult per se, but there is a Chestertonian cult of personality spread across the Anglophone church. Especially in America.

The hallowed place Chesterton holds in the hearts of American Catholics is a reflection of a deeper American fetishization of English Christianity. This tendency tends to erect little idols of men such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Mons. Robert Hugh Benson (a deeply bizarre man of unsavory connections), and others.

I believe this tendency reflects a deep cultural anxiety proper to both Americans in general and American Catholics in particular. Unlike Europeans and South Americans, we live in an unhallowed, “historically empty” landscape. We US Catholics carry on an agon with European culture, especially British culture, because we feel deep down that we have never developed an authentically rooted version of American Catholicism. There are few saints native to our shores; the recent popular cult of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is a positive development, as we move beyond the lineup of immigrant clergy who used to make up most of the canon of American saints. If Fr. Augustus Tolton is canonized, all the better. But there remains an unspoken if everywhere manifest anxiety about the authenticity of American Catholicism. Its identity is new, still forming, and thus up for grabs. One effect is a relentless, internecine preoccupation with the culture wars. Liberals and conservatives in the Church largely map on to our broader political axis. But there’s another method of identity-formation, deployed primarily by those on the right end of that spectrum. We borrow the British writers as if they’re our heritage. But this borrowing blinds us to the faults of the men (and it is largely men) whom we take as representatives of a common spiritual ancestry with the Brits. Lewis and Tolkien are emblematic of this trend, and he’s not even Catholic. Yet they are invoked breathlessly by conservative Catholics and Christians in the same way that Harry Potter has become a shibboleth of secular liberals. Chesterton’s memory is in danger of becoming just another tribal marker.

I don’t claim any special insight beyond my compatriots. However, I do think that living in England for the better part of two years has disillusioned me of my former support for this tendency. Chesterton is bigger (in many ways) than the narrow role he has been asked to play by American conservatives. Let him rest in peace, let us read him on his own terms, and let us preserve the altars of the Church from a dubious canonization.

4 thoughts on “We Do Not Need St. Chesterton

  1. I’d agree with this almost entirely, although I must say that I enjoyed reading Literary Converts a great deal. But pray tell, which of Chesterton’s writings do you have in mind when you say that some are ‘bad, wrong, or unreadable’?

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  2. No local cult 🤣 You are hereby invited to the Tenth Annual GK Chesterton Walking Pilgrimage. Most likely on Saturday 25th July 2020 [tbc]. Tens of thousands of GK Chesterton Prayercards have be distributed over here including thousand in Northampton Diocese. 40 walked part or all of the 27 miles to be at his grave this year, more came for the Mass.

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  3. The contempt bordering on hatred hints at a less-than-unbiased personal hiccup you must be wrestling with. None of things you mention is your real problem with Chesterton. You’re talking around it. I understand. I have the same problem with CS Lewis. I don’t even know what the problem is; I just know that I have one.
    “A few good points in Orthodoxy.” Heavens, man, you know nothing of literature. This is where you’re prejudice really started to show through. If you simply can’t understand or appreciate his writing, just say so. An inability to see a color doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I don’t care for Dostoevsky at all and I don’t understand his writing. But I blame myself for that, not deny his literary qualities.

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