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
"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
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
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
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
-- 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
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.)
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
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
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.
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