CHESTERTON-SHAW DEBATE SPEAKS TO THE PRESENT CRISIS
by Fr. Ian Boyd, C.S.B.
WASHINGTON, D.C.-In the Hartke Theatre of the Catholic University of
America on Dec. 2nd and 3rd, an unusual entertainment took place as
part of a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the founding of and of the G.K. Chesterton Society. The event was
a re-enactment of a debate between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard
The fact that the great Catholic apologist and the famous Irish
dramatist had been dead for many decades did not seem to matter a
great deal to the people attending the event. In two performances
some 500 people listened with close attention to a lively and good-
humored argument about socialism, the family, and religious faith.
For the most part, the words were taken from actual debates between
Chesterton and Shaw. A number of passages, however, were also added
to the script from books such as Chesterton's and his biography of Shaw, and a passage was even added from a
debate between Chesterton and Bertrand Russell which had originally
taken place over BBC Radio in the early 1930s. An earlier version of
the Washington debate had been compiled by Michael Higgins and staged
in 1986 as part of a Chesterton conference held at St. Michael's
College in Toronto, but the material for the new debate had been
skillfully edited by John Mueller, a Washington economist who was
also one of the organizers of the event.
The people playing the parts of Shaw and Chesterton had been brought
in from Britain to do so. Owen Dudley Edwards, a senior lecturer in
history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, played the part
of Shaw. Dr. Edwards, a native of Dublin and a well-known author and
TV personality, has written a great deal about Chesterton in . He is also an expert on the works of Conan Doyle
and the editor of the recently published .
Fr. Malcolm MacMahon, O.P., of London, England, is the provincial of
the English Province of the Dominican Order, and he played the part
of Chesterton. Gary Lee, the only professional actor of the three,
was a member of the British Embassy Players in Washington, D.C. He
introduced the debate and played the part of Hilaire Belloc, who
served as an amusing chairman of the debate by refusing to Shaw's
indignation, even to pretend to be an impartial moderator.
Wit And Wisdom
One of the most striking features of the entertainment was its
topicality. Although the words had been written many years ago for a
society very different from that of today, it was remarkable how the
comments seemed to speak directly to the current cultural crisis. As
the actors read their scripts, it was easy to forget that the debate
was a reenactment of something that had happened long ago. Rather, it
seemed as though "Chesterton" and "Shaw" had come to Washington in
order to talk about the current problems preoccupying contemporary
Americans and indeed all the peoples of the modern world. On every
topic, from the topic of feminism, to the topic of sexual morality
and the less obvious, but equally serious, topic concerning the
hidden connections that exist between the assumptions on which a
society is based and the way in which its people behave- on all these
questions the debate seemed to be entirely contemporary.
There was, nevertheless, one notable difference between the
topicality of what the two authors had to say. It was clear that each
was a spokesman for a very different tradition. Shaw was the voice of
irreligious modernity; Chesterton the spokesman for Christian
orthodoxy. Both spokesmen were witty and persuasive. The main
difference was that the same events which had proved one speaker
wrong proved the other speaker right. Shaw's words about the benefits
of progressive reforms may have sounded plausible when he first
uttered them in the early decades of the 20th century, but, for those
living amidst the disorders brought about by these experiments in
progressive reform, his words had a hollow ring.
At one dramatic moment in the debate, he lectured Chesterton about
the benefits that would come from easy divorce: Everyone would be
happier, he asserted, when husbands and wives would be free to walk
away from any difficult marriage. At the same time, he went on to say
that there would be few divorces if divorces could be easily
obtained. "Marriage," he said, "is slavery for wives and home a
prison for children. Socialism, by making them economically
independent, would break the chains and open the prison door.... Far
fewer marriages and families will be broken up under socialism."
Chesterton's quick wit and deep wisdom were apparent in everything he
said. On the political and economic questions, for example he
insisted that there was no essential moral difference between the
collectivist system that Shaw advocated and the monopoly capitalist
system about which Shaw was complaining. For Chesterton, neither
system came close to being the property-owning democracy which he
believed was most likely to provide ordinary people with a normal and
fulfilling life. Always Chesterton was the voice of common sense and
of the inarticulate wisdom of ordinary human beings. He was also the
voice of the Church which presents a moral teaching not for a
particular religious sect. but for all mankind.
It was appropriate, therefore that the part of Chesterton was taken
by a priest. When Fr. MacMahon spoke Chesterton's grave words in
defense of the traditional family, a hush fell over the Washington
listeners as though they instinctively recognized that indisputable
truth was at last being spoken. Shaw was a false prophet; Chesterton
was the true prophet. How could a late 20th-century audience that had
lived to see his prophecies fulfilled fail to recognize the truth of
what he had to say? Consider for example, Chesterton's answer to
Shaw's ideas about marriage as something that might be temporary. At
one memorable moment in the debate, Fr. MacMahon spoke the following
words of Chesterton:
"The overwhelming mass of mankind has not believed in freedom in this
matter, but rather in a more or less lasting tie. In everything worth
having, even in pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that
must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure.... The
essential element is not so much duration as security. Two people
must be tied together in order to do themselves justice, for 20
minutes at a dance, or for 20 years in a marriage. If Americans can
be divorced for 'incompatibility of temper' I cannot conceive why
they are not all divorced. I have known many happy marriages, but
never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through
and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable.
For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible."
A Happy Man
But there was a sense in which the debate itself illustrated one of
the main themes in Chesterton's philosophy. In all his writings,
Chesterton insists that the key to happiness and to sound social
reform is the discovery of community. In his opinion, small groups of
people are the basic units in any good society. He also believed that
such groups, working together at some task that at first seems to
have no directly religious significance, are sanctified by their work
and by their fellowship.
This cheerful philosophy is in fact based on a conviction that God is
most likely to be found in such little communities. Instead of the
grim liberal view of atomized individuals, forever competing with
each other, Chesterton presented the optimistic Catholic sacramental
vision of a world in which God continues to be present, even when the
only sign of His presence is the happiness of a group of people. With
such a religious faith, no wonder that Chesterton was a happy man. As
he explains in his great book , "Joy is the gigantic
secret of the Christian."
A Spirit Of Friendliness
There was, therefore, something Chestertonian about the evident
enjoyment of the people who recreated the Shaw-Chesterton debate and
of the people who attended it. It was clear that everyone was having
fun. In the age of silent and passive television watching, the
enjoyment of good conversation and friendly argument had been
The same was true of the people who organized the event. At its own
request, this little community of hard-working people remained
hidden. Few of the people attending the debate were likely to guess
the amount of careful and detailed work its members had done in order
to make sure that the debate would be a success.
Frank Cannon and John Mueller are partners in an Arlington, Va., firm
of financial analysts (Lehrman Bell Mueller Cannon, Inc.), and they
and the people working in their office devoted hundreds of hours of
time to organizing the entertainment. And here, too, a Chestertonian
spirit of friendliness characterized their work. When Owen Dudley
Edwards visited their office, he commented that he had never been in
so happy a place. He also pointed out that it was impossible to
thank anyone, because the person whom you thanked would always insist
that it was someone else in the group who had done most of the work.
It was also interesting to note that this group of happy people
included Protestants as well as Catholics, blacks as well as whites.
They were a community of people working together in order to help the
Chesterton Society and its journal, . They
themselves, however, illustrated the truth of what Chesterton had to
say about the value of small communities and about the possibility of
a social system based on friendship and service.
The Washington debate was the latest in a series of events marking
the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Chesterton Society and
its journal, . In mid-September, a conference
was held in Toronto. In November, the Chesterton Society and the
Intercollegiate Studies Institute of Bryn Mawr, Pa., collaborated in
order to hold a conference at Fordham University in New York City.
And plans are being worked out to hold the Shaw-Chesterton debate in
other American and Canadian cities in 1995.
In recent years, the work of the Chesterton Society and has broadened considerably. Founded in 1974, the
100th anniversary of the birth of Chesterton, the society and its
journal are devoted to bringing the wisdom of Chesterton to the
In 1993, the society sponsored a conference in Zagreb, Croatia, at
which people representing a number of Christian groups discussed ways
of evangelizing societies which have been radically secularized. The
proceedings of the Croatian conference were published in a double
issue of , and plans are under way for the
society to sponsor a series of seminars and studies at which the
ideas discussed in Zagreb can be brought to bear on a number of
A Restatement Of Ancient Teaching
But perhaps the main importance of the Shaw-Chesterton debate was as
a practical demonstration of how fresh and valuable the Chestertonian
perspective remains. Almost every aspect of the evangelization of
culture becomes clearer when examined from this perspective. The
debate demonstrated first of all that the clear expression of
Catholic thought is itself an enormously effective force for good.
It was interesting, for example, to hear a young college student
comment on the debate. This student said that although she had
studied the social teachings of the Church at a good Catholic
university, she had never really understood the Church's teaching
about private property until she heard Chesterton's clear exposition
of that teaching in the debate. The debate also demonstrated the
value of civility and good humor in discussions about even the most
important subjects. In spite of the differences between Shaw and
Chesterton on almost every question, they were obviously friends who
always took care never to hurt each other.
A question-and-answer session which followed each performance
possessed many of the same qualities found in the debate. In the
discussion which then took place, the debate seemed to be continuing.
One of the questions concerned contemporary writers who were in the
Chestertonian tradition. No one could think of a writer who combined
the qualities found in Chesterton: C.S. Lewis was mentioned and it
was pointed out that he had been greatly influenced by Chesterton.
There was also a valuable discussion about Chesterton's view of
America and how that view changed as a result of his two visits to
the country. Chesterton's social philosophy of distributism was also
discussed. Someone pointed out that in spite of the strange name,
this social theory is simply a restating of the ancient teaching of
the Church about the need for true communities in which people take
responsibility for their own lives.
Something was also said about Chesterton's belief that people had to
be taught to see the world around them with a fresh vision. In his
view, it is more important to awaken the imagination than to provide
the mind with additional information, because, once people have
acquired a fresh perspective, they would then see overly familiar
things for the first time. Only then could sensible change take
place. In his view, awakening a sense of wonder is the key to all
personal and social renewal. From that point of view, the debate
itself could be regarded as a practical step toward true reform.
Chesterton And Evangelicals
Other reminders about the importance of Chesterton were also provided
by the Washington debate. Chesterton once said that there are certain
writers who are "morning stars of the reunion." It is evident that
Chesterton himself was such a writer. No modern Catholic writer is
held in such high regard among Protestant Christians. It was not
surprising, therefore, that a number of the people attending the
debate were evangelical Protestants. Everything they said about the
evening's entertainment indicated their affection and respect for
In the current cultural wars concerning such things as abortion and
euthanasia, an alliance is developing between Catholics and
evangelical Protestants. Chesterton will have an important part to
play in strengthening that alliance. It is worth remembering, for
example, that for Randall Terry, the evangelical pro-life activist
who founded Operation Rescue, Chesterton is more important than C.S.
Lewis. Comparing the writing of the two authors as intellectual and
spiritual food for Christians, Terry used a biblical image from one
of St. Paul's epistles (Heb. 5:13-14). For him, the writing of Lewis
is "milk for children" and Chesterton's writing is the solid food or
"strong meat" for those who are fully grown in the faith.
In recent years, a great deal has been said about a possible
"Catholic moment" in modern American history. What the Washington
debate made clear was that a Catholic moment must be a Chesterton
moment as well. Once again, geniality must somehow be combined with
orthodoxy, and happy communities must be established in which
important issues can be discussed without bitterness. Chesterton
represents the possibility of such harmony. There is no other
Catholic writer quite like him. He is our future, as well as our
(Anyone interested in becoming a member of the G.K. Chesterton
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This article was taken from the January 19, 1995 issue of "The
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