G.K. Chesterton as a Pivotal Player

When someone asks where to begin reading G. K. Chesterton, it is like asking which door to go in along the Strand.  For just as the Strand offers entry to the Savoy Hotel and Twining’s tea shop, King’s College London and Nicholson’s Coal Hole, so does Chesterton admit of any number of approaches.  There is Chesterton the poet; Chesterton the novelist; Chesterton the newspaper columnist; Chesterton the biographer of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Dickens, Francis of Assisi and Geoffrey Chaucer; Chesterton the autobiographer; Chesterton the master of the detective short story, all featuring his amateur sleuth, Father Brown.

In 2016, Bishop Robert Barron included Chesterton in his DVD series, Catholicism:  The Pivotal Players, those players including Michelangelo and Saints Thomas Aquinas and Catherine of Siena.  Heady company for a son and grandson of London real estate agents, not to mention a convert to Catholicism, but for Barron, Chesterton, witty and exuberantly argumentative, was an outstanding evangelist.  As such, Chesterton has changed the lives of countless Christians, Protestant and Catholic.  Two examples will suffice.

Around 1926, C. S. Lewis read Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, a dense and robust presentation of the Catholic view of history.  Chesterton’s book rebuts H. G. Wells’s secular and commercially successful book, The Outline of History (1920).  Lewis credited Chesterton’s work with helping him see the truth of the Christian message.

In 1954, while filming a theatrical movie based on some of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, Alec Guinness began his conversion to Catholicism.  Between takes outdoors in Paris, Guinness, as Father Brown, was still in costume, a black cassock and a saturno, when a French boy of around seven or eight came up to him, took him by the hand, and chattered merrily away.  Guinness said nothing, his French being not the best.  Then as suddenly as he had appeared, the boy let go of Guinness’s hand and, with a joyous “Bon soir, mon père!,” darted off and disappeared through an opening in a hedge.  Thirty-one years later, Guinness wrote in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, “I reflected that a Church which could inspire such confidence in a child, making its priests, even when unknown, so easily approachable, could not be as scheming and creepy as so often made out.”

Both Lewis and Guinness responded to Chesterton’s delight in paradox, his belief that seeing things upside down is really seeing them the right way up.  For Lewis it came through a book that contrasted what twentieth-century people thought they knew about the Cave Man with what Scripture reveals about a Man who was born in a cave.  For Guinness, it came while portraying how a man of faith uses reason to solve crimes, and a little child was the one who led him.

As Robert Barron pointed out in Pivotal Players, Chesterton was a character, a vintage English eccentric.  Absent-minded if not self-absorbed, Chesterton’s quirks and foibles kept his wife and his secretaries busy in his wake.  His brain worked in unexpected ways, his clever turns of phrase being eminently memorable, such as his quip, “The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”

Still, eighty-some years after his death, Chesterton remains a controversial figure, although Barron downplayed this aspect.  Even now, Chesterton raises hackles, not least for his public comments about Jews that provoked strong criticism even in an age less sensitive about anti-Semitism than is ours.  Meanwhile, Chesterton’s nebulous economic theory of Distributism, what in What’s Wrong with the World (1910) he called everyone having “three acres and a cow,” failed to consider, among other practical points, the limits of acreage and the limitless state control needed to redistribute it.

Nevertheless, Pope Pius XI dubbed Chesterton a Defender of the Faith, and some of Chesterton’s admirers hope for his canonization.  Oddly enough, Barron made no mention of this question.  As Chesterton himself would say, there are two ways of looking at the matter.  In Thomistic fashion, let us take the negative case first.

Melanie McDonagh, writing in The Spectator (24 August, 2013), argued against Chesterton’s possible canonization, citing his embarrassing anti-Semitism and his mostly topical and often polemical journalism, writings now best forgotten.  She concluded by saying, “I’m as sure he’s in heaven as I’m sure anyone is; I just don’t think the Church should canonize him, because it’s a public act, the making of an exemplar.”

Moreover, there is the question of Chesterton’s lifestyle.  For all the Church’s emphasis on the spiritual importance of self-denial, expansive girth, having various causes, has not been an impediment to canonization.  Unfortunately, Chesterton’s gargantuan self-indulgence reinforces a common Catholic error, that in order to distinguish Catholicism from puritanical Protestantism, authentic Catholics must engage all their senses, even to the point of acts of addiction and self-harm.  Chesterton thus becomes an excuse today for Catholic men daily to consume beef and beer and cigars, not for their own sake, but as tokens of traditionalism.  As McDonagh said about Chesterton’s dated polemics, he should not become a formal exemplar alongside even the portly likes of Saints Thomas Aquinas and John XXIII.

Sed contra:  Monsignor Ronald Knox, preaching in 1936 at a Requiem Mass offered for Chesterton at Westminster Cathedral, observed:  “Chesterton moved, though with the personal simplicity of a child, in a world of apocalyptic images; he saw his religion everywhere; it mattered furiously to him.”  Likewise, James Parker, writing in The Atlantic (August, 2015), argued for Chesterton’s canonization, “Because Chesterton, in his jolly way, was a militant,” meaning that he was “[A] blaster of the superstitions of modernity, a toppler of the idols of materialism.”

To return to the Strand:  It connects Trafalgar Square, with its evocations of British patriotism, such as Nelson’s Column and the National Gallery, with Fleet Street, once synonymous with British journalism, Chesterton’s bread and butter.  The Strand also connects sites along Trafalgar Square, such as Saint Martin-in-the-Fields, a church named for a Roman soldier in Gaul who became a Christian saint, with streets veering off Fleet Street, notably streets with the names Whitefriars and Carmelite, recalling the great city’s monastic heritage.  At his best, Chesterton performs the same function as the Strand, connecting the national with the international, the sacred and the secular, because for him what connected them all across so many centuries was his beloved Catholic Church.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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