You’ve never seen a blockbuster movie based on a book by G.K. Chesterton. Perhaps you’ve stumbled across one of the many television adaptations of his Father Brown mysteries; and if you’re fortunate enough to live in Chicago, maybe you saw last fall’s staging of The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton’s secret-agent-novel turned heartbreaking-Christian-allegory.
Unlike C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien (both of whom adored him), Chesterton didn’t write larger-than-life fantasy tales easily transferred to the screen. But in his own day, he was more a man of the people than either of those Oxford dons – a journalist, novelist, and poet of tremendous wit and notable width, whom Lewis later called the best Christian apologist in the English language.
Like Lewis and Tolkien, Chesterton is venerated by many, a practice that may someday be legitimated by ecclesial approval. At a conference in July 2009 on 'The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton,' the Chesterton Society decided to get the ball rolling on what is hoped will be his eventual canonization in the Roman Catholic Church.
Make no mistake: Though he made his living as a journalist, Chesterton was no theological lightweight. Open the standard edition of the collected works of St Francis of Assisi and you’ll find Chesterton’s biography cited on the first page of the introduction; read any review of twentieth-century Thomism and you’ll find that one of the most highly recommended studies of Aquinas is, again, the biography Chesterton wrote. And rumour has it he was halfway through before he thought it wise to send his assistant to London to bring him some books on St Thomas.
But it wasn’t biographies that made Chesterton’s name. The apologetic works Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are perennial favorites. Novels like Manalive and The Ball and the Cross continue to delight. And then there are the innumerable newspaper essays, perhaps Chesterton’s best medium, concentrated doses of his brilliance that exemplify the qualities that make him venerated.
Those qualities are, first, love and enjoyment of humanity and the world in all their finitude and concrete particularity; second, a belief in the fundamental health and sanity of ordinary human beings and ordinary human life; and third, a passionate devotion to reason and its roots in religion. He found the contemporary world basically set against these themes, and so became a tireless controversialist who nevertheless won the affection of his opponents through humour, self-deprecation, earnestness, and generosity.
In short, there is much in Chesterton’s views and attitudes to commend him: He shows us how to be deeply engaged in the social world without becoming crippled by strife and bitterness.
Granted, there are snares that may catch up Chesterton’s mooted canonization. Some have suggested that funding will be an issue (going through all the preliminary steps required for canonization isn’t cheap, and the Church isn’t going to pay for it), as will the sheer volume of his works to be sifted through. More likely, questions will arise from two sources: his late remarks regarding Jews, and the way in which 'holiness' is defined.
Chesterton supported wide-spread ownership for the sake of personal freedom and dignity ('distributivism'), and felt that the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few was detrimental to this. For that reason, late in life he had barbed remarks for the very wealthy – among them, Jewish financiers.
It will be noted in his defense that he criticized Hitler’s racial policies before his death in 1936, but it’s to be hoped that the Catholic Church (which has dropped the ball on Jewish-Christian relations in the near past) will give Chesterton’s comments serious consideration and qualification.
Furthermore, at the heart of Catholic canonization lies not the oft-mentioned miracles, but the more subtle idea of heroic sanctity. Before the question of miracles and persons’ eschatological status even arises, it must be established that they possessed essential Christian qualities in a degree definitively surpassing the ways those qualities are lived out by the less spectacular of us – as was declared in December regarding Pope John Paul II (of course) and Pope Pius XII (to some surprise and controversy).
How to do so in the case of Chesterton, a man notoriously impulsive and astoundingly corpulent, who sang the merits not only of Francis and Thomas, but also of beer and cigars?
But that, it will be argued, is exactly the point. That he relished the world should not disqualify Chesterton from consideration for the highest pedigree of sanctity: If his holiness can be ascertained from his devotion to truth, his humility, most of all from his faith, hope, and charity, then he recasts for us what it means to enjoy the world. He gives us a larger-than-life example of how to live on this earth, involved in its struggles yet not controlled and limited by it.
Chesterton, it could be said, consumed the world; but the world did not consume Chesterton. For that gustatory miracle, canonization may be the best digestif.
(c) Ian Gerdon received a MD from the University of Chicago in 2009 and an MA in Monastic Studies from St John's University, a Benedictine abbey, in 2008. He is currently a doctoral student in patristics at the University of Notre Dame, USA.
With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.