Chesterton's Wit Gives Catholics A Rule of Action

Author: Paul Likoudis

CHESTERTON'S WIT GIVES CATHOLICS A RULE OF ACTION By Paul Likoudis In summing up the two-day conference celebrating the 20th anniversary of Canadian publisher Ted Byfield remarked that "something very significant" is occurring in journalism.

The change is not so much in the journalists as in what the consumers of journalism are demanding.

"People," said Byfield, the founder of two very successful weekly newsmagazines in western Canada, "are looking for solutions."

In the early 20th century, Byfield explained, people read newspapers to learn what was going on around them. When radio was developed in the 1930s, the newspapers had to find something new to say. With television's arrival in the 1950s, newspapers had to offer explanations for the news events people heard about and saw on radio and television.

"Supposing a man drowned in Lake Ontario," Byfield mused. "People heard it instantly on the radio; then, they saw the drowning on television. Now, it was up to the newspapers to explain why a man drowned. Perhaps it was because of a lack of safety features. Maybe he drowned because he was a member of the working class; maybe because he wasn't in the working class. Maybe he had sex problems....

"The point is that the newspapers had to penetrate more deeply into the rationale for why things happened. Now, all kinds of questions are being raised . . . and people want real answers to what's going on....

"What this has done is open an enormous opportunity for Catholics, because we have the explanation for why things happen. We have come to the frailty of human nature itself, and people are asking questions for which only the Church has the answers....

"Many of the answers people want were given by Chesterton. So many of the questions he raised are still being raised. Chesterton tells us how to arrive at answers, and he also gives us a means to look at the questions. What corporations, schools, families, and individuals want is a broad source for answers; they want to be able to look at problems from a coherent point of view."

What Catholics must do in this new situation, said Byfield, is "maintain a positive view.

"We're the flag of the world. The rest of the world is not marching at all. It's lost. The Church has the answers; Chesterton has the answers and it's up to us laity to give people searching for answers what the Church and Chesterton have to say."

Byfield's own dramatic success in publishing a weekly newsmagazine (as glossy and professional as or , with better and more complete news coverage) based on Chestertonian assumptions bears out his analysis. In the past two years alone, Byfield has seen his weekly circulation rise from 50,000 to 73,000.

For two days in mid-September, top Chesterton scholars and some Chestertonian journalists met at St. Michael's College in Toronto, probing and discussing Chesterton's social commentaries and their relevance to the contemporary world.

The common view, not surprisingly, is that Chesterton's social critique and his distributist proposals are extremely relevant, and deserve a new hearing by a larger public.

Historian Sheridan Gilley, author of a highly acclaimed biography of Cardinal Newman, set the tone for the conference with his address on "Chesterton and Politics."

Christian politics, Gilley explained. has always been defined by the tension between "other-worldliness" and "holy-worldliness." The former is expressed by the notions that men must constantly be on their guard against the world, the flesh, and the Devil; that we have no lasting city; that life is a vale of tears. The latter is represented by the belief that God so loved the world He gave His only Son; that Jesus has redeemed the world; that because of the Resurrection. the human body is eternal.

"Other-worldliness" and "holy-worldliness," said Gilley, are both Gospel truths.

The Church teaches holy poverty. but also the right to property; that the world is desperately important, but unimportant in light of eternity.

Chesterton's precise value is that he embraced both these tensions. Distributism, as Msgr. Ronald Knox observed, was essentially Chesterton's reaction to life, and, as Dr. Gilley remarked, to the aestheticism, indifferentism, and skepticism of his contemporaries.

Chesterton was part of a rich tradition of writers running back to Carlyle and Ruskin, Dickens, Swift and Johnson, Cobbett and William Morris, who questioned the assumptions of liberal-capitalist England. When the state-paid busybodies were interfering with the domain of the family, when monopoly was liquidating the independent businessmen, and bureaucratic socialism was clearly the ascendant political reality, Chesterton declared that the only solution possible was a return to moral objectivity and dogmatism: The family and property sacred institutions.

Looking At Origins

The second address - John Coates on "Chesterton Confronts the New Age"-examined Alfred Orage and his journal, , for which both Hilaire Belloc and Chesterton wrote.

Dr. Coates is a lecturer at Hull University in England, and author of .

Many critics, Coates observed, dismiss Chesterton with the assertion that he was preoccupied with "trivial elements of the Edwardian period" which mean even less today. The reality. however, insisted Coates, is that the issues Chesterton confronted- education, divorce, disestablishmentarianism, ritualism, socialism, monopoly- were the major issues of his day, and rather than being "dim and remote," these old controversies are the "matrix of our world today" and demand "our scrupulous attention."

Chesterton's era, said Coates, was a period of "intellectual and spiritual crisis," marked by the rejection of reason and common sense, exemplified by Nietzsche's denial of the traditional postulates of philosophy, free will, private consciousness, and the notion of stable personality.

Relativism had become, Coates noted, "a fact of living." People everywhere, including Orage, began to "entertain vast cosmologies," based on the principle of evolution, through which human nature could be transformed by scientific processes.

Philosophically, Orage was at nearly the opposite pole from Belloc and Chesterton, but what made Orage such a fine publisher was his commitment to airing differing views and encouraging fierce debate.

, incidentally, was the first English publication to seriously examine Freud and Picasso and other revolutionary thinkers, in a deliberate attempt to become the "forcing house" of the new era.

The one thing Orage couldn't abide was the contemporary cant diffused by other journals. Naturally, therefore, Chesterton was a welcome contributor to the pages of .

Belloc prized Orage for maintaining a publication free from commercial pressures. was, said Belloc, the only paper in England that was intelligent and incorrupt.

The Only Option

Derided as "back to the land" or "forward to the fields," distributism, said Dr. Dermot Quinn, a professor of history at Seton Hall University, is nothing more or less than "a vision of the good society." It is based on the belief that the economic and moral needs of individuals can be balanced, and that man can be dignified by labor if he cooperates with his Creator. It is, stated Quinn, "an odd blend of modesty and mysticism."

Quinn, a brilliant young historian with a worldwide reputation as an enthusiastic proponent of distributism-an economic theory which dates back to Aristotle and is echoed repeatedly by Pope John Paul II in -explained why, as Ronald Knox declared, "Distributism is a body of ideas that will last."

First, as a theory, distributism- unlike industrial capitalism and theoretic socialism- holds up better in theory. Second, it is consistent with the body of Christian thought and theory. Third, it is simple; there is no mystery in it.

Its modern origins date back to William Morris, who, sickened by modern industrialism and the cult of the ugly, the noisy, and the cheap, called for a return to self-reliance and craftsmanship.

The advocates of distributism Quinn noted, contrary to the assertions of critics, were not dreamers or failures, but were successful, smart, and even cynical. Their essential claims were:

-- that property should be as widely distributed as possible;

-- that the shops should be owned by those who give the customer his change;

-- that men become free through the ownership of property, and families need property to be free;

-- that to be without property is to be a client of the state;

-- that possession is not the goal of life, but, rather, self-possession is.

The distributists' pleas for ownership, small industry, local control, family rights, were, said Quinn, very popular with the people of England in the period between the World Wars. Belloc and Chesterton developed a comprehensive critique of industrial monopoly, high finance, the economic crisis, and social breakdown in Edwardian England, and acquired a following, Quinn commented, because they were not viewed as "extreme."

They gained an audience because people recognized that usury and the dole were destroying the country; people understood that Belloc and Chesterton were right when they decried a noisy, dirty society which made simple thoughts and pleasures impossible and made its citizens wonder if they even had souls.

So, if it was popular, why did it fail?

Quinn offered a number of plausible explanations: England was "too far gone"; Belloc and Chesterton were too sure of themselves; Belloc and Chesterton were writing at a time of tremendous Catholic unity in England, and their success in capturing the hearts of the Catholic people made Protestants feel threatened, and so distributism was derided as impractical Catholic romanticism- and finally, the sheer attractiveness and simplicity of distributism opened it up to the charge that it was "too good to be true."

( readers who would like to see an example of a most spirited defense of distributism by Dermot Quinn will find it in the May/August, 1994 issue of , the charge is $10 for a back issue, plus shipping. Write to: St. Thomas More College, 1437 College Drive, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, S7N OW6. That issue is devoted to last year's International Chesterton Conference in Zagreb.)

Against Modernity

Dr. David Dooley, professor emeritus of English literature at St. Michael's College, spoke on "Chesterton Confronts the Modern Age," and showed how Chesterton revolted against the smugness of Victorian antireligious prejudice, bigotry, and scientism.

Chesterton's greatest achievement, said Dooley, was in opposing and exposing the "tyranny of the expert," and the propagandists who are always urging others to "be up- to-date."

Fr. Leo Hetzler, C.S.B., professor of English at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., spoke on "Chesterton and the Realm of the Unconsciousness," and Chesterton's "X-ray penetration" into the heart of issues and into the heart of the common man.

Chesterton, said Fr. Hetzler, had a unique ability to read and hear many languages other than the verbal-signs, symbols, gestures and sounds-and this helped him "reach the divine through the imagination."

John Saward, professor of theology at St. Charles' Seminary in Philadelphia, and an internationally recognized authority on von Balthasar, spoke on the similarities between the two giants of 20th-century Catholicism.

Saward called them "two modern Fathers of the Church, able to heal the wounded souls of the modern age . . . two men who appear more appealing and youthful day by day.... These two men hold the seeds of spring."

Though the two men never met each other, and were as different as their native lands- England and Switzerland - von Balthasar recognized Chesterton as a giant in the class of such philosophers as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The serious von Balthasar was drawn to the jolly Chesterton because of the latter's "holy mirth," which, wrote von Balthasar, "is the defining mark of the Catholic."

Good humor is the expression of the humility of hope. "The devils try to make us helpless by making us hopeless," was Chesterton's response to an age in which there was "a cult of death, despair, and darkness."

Saward showed how both Chesterton and von Balthasar are united by their war against pessimism.

The two are also united by their trust in the Virgin Mary, and in their recognition that "in an age of darkness, we have to recover the innocence of childhood-which the Church provides through the grace of Baptism and the forgiveness of sins."

Thomas Fleming, editor of magazine, a monthly published by the Rockford Institute, presented Chesterton as a product of his classical education a journalist who may have made a few errors, but who nevertheless grasped the whole picture correctly.

Fleming focused especially on one particular lesson of Roman history: the Punic Wars, and how the study of that period of Rome's past made an indelible impression on Chesterton.

To Chesterton, "Rome was the city that saved the world from the baby-killers." Powerful Carthage, consumed by money worship, consummate traders, dedicated child-sacrificers, was hated by Rome, which set out to destroy it.

A classical education, said Fleming, a former professor of Greek and the classics, provides the student with "balance, proportion, perspective, and life," and if the English-speaking cultures do not return to the classics, he warned, "we'll continue to slide into Punic darkness.

"If we are to declare our intent to destroy Carthage and all its works, we must do it in the language of the Scipios."

The final address on the second day was given by Philip Jenkins, a professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, on "Chesterton's Mistake About Women."

Women, charged Jenkins "bring out Chesterton's worst," and the arguments he used in opposing women's suffrage and "emancipation" were "faddish, eccentric, dishonest, and cheap."

Moreover, said Jenkins Chesterton relied on "cheap shots, vulgar cliches, and stereotypes" to oppose women's rights.

Jenkins' talk was not received warmly by the conference participants, and a spirited debate followed.

The Cardinal's Homily

The Chesterton conference concluded on Sunday with Mass at St. Basil's Church, presided over by G. Emmett Cardinal Carter. He said he would be gratified if the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints began the canonization process for G.K. Chesterton.

The cardinal expressed his sadness at the anemic condition of contemporary Catholic literature, "so lacking in steel and spark," and so different from the days of his youth when "the powerful and unflinching" Hilaire Belloc and Chesterton dominated the literary world.

Their militancy, His Eminence declared, embodies the truly Catholic attitude, and we should thank God for their leadership.

This article was taken from the Sept. 29, 1994 issue of "The Wanderer," 201 Ohio Street, St. Paul, MN 55107, 612-224-5733. Subscription Price: $35.00 per year; six months $20.00.