Six hundred Chestertonians convened in Kansas City last week for the American Chesterton Society’s annual convention, hailing from as far afield as India and Kenya. It was a jubilant occasion, as always, though not without one disappointment. On the first evening, ACS President Dale Ahlquist read aloud a letter from Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, the English diocese wherein G.K. Chesterton’s grave lies.
In his missive, Bishop Doyle appeared to quash the nascent cause for beatification of one of the Anglosphere’s most beloved Catholic writers. He reasoned thus:
I am very conscious of the devotion to G.K. Chesterton in many parts of the world and of his inspiring influence on so many people, and this makes it difficult to communicate the conclusion to which I have come.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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That conclusion is that I am unable to promote the cause of G.K. Chesterton for three reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no local cult. Secondly, I have been unable to tease out a pattern of personal spirituality. And, thirdly, even allowing for the context of G.K. Chesterton’s time, the issue of anti-Semitism is a real obstacle particularly at this time in the United Kingdom.
The (not unnatural) reaction to this development has been an immense wave of criticism for My Lord of Northampton. Whether or not he is deserving of it, I am no fit judge, not knowing Bishop Doyle from Adam – for which I am sure we may both be grateful. In his defense, it is Bishop Doyle’s province to decide which causes he shall pursue, and for whichever reasons he chooses.
Yet, sound or not, Bishop Doyle’s decision is not so conclusive as it may appear. Had he been more solemn and rigorous in closing Chesterton’s cause, his judgment may have been final. The good news for Chesterton’s devotees is that… well, he wasn’t. His successors in the See of Northampton will not be bound by the ad hoc manner in which Bishop Doyle has made this pronouncement. This refusal to pursue Chesterton’s cause matters little in the long run.
What does matter are the reasons cited for dismissing GKC’s possible sanctity. Let us gaze upon them in reverse order.
The last-named is perhaps the most important to those who consider themselves modern: the charge of anti-Semitism. This is the lightest bit of fluff in the letter. As Ann Farmer well illustrated in Chesterton and the Jews; Friend, Critic, Defender, calling GKC an anti-Semite is simply ridiculous.
Unless, of course, one believes that the desire for their conversion is anti-Semitic. If so, then we must also condemn St. John Chrysostom, the Apostle Paul… and Jesus Christ, for that matter. But this particular codswallop has been influential in derailing several causes, including those of Ven. Queen Isabel of Spain and Ven. Leon Dehon – the latter, quite literally, on the eve of his beatification.
The danger in allowing the opinions of non-Catholics to affect such causes (other than putting such opinions over that of Heaven, as expressed by miracles in the latter two cases) is that it puts the understandable desire of the unevangelised not to be exposed to the Faith over the Great Commission set forth by Christ Himself. Of course, in today’s Church, we have countless examples of Churchmen believing themselves wiser than Christ.
On a lesser note, were we to accept non-Catholic judgement in canonization, we might expect Jews and Muslims to excise elements in the Talmud and the Koran which we might find objectionable – something that I, for one, would consider unreasonable in the extreme.
The other two critiques, however, are more substantive. His Lordship’s assertion, “I have been unable to tease out a pattern of personal spirituality,” is doubtless true. Now, whether or not he is sufficiently familiar with GKC’s oeuvre to make such a judgement I cannot say.
But it is a fair question. A witty, humourous, and effective way of presenting the Faith is not in itself prima facie evidence of sanctity. It shall be up to those who are indeed conversant with the Chestertonian canon to “tease out” (in His Lordship’s memorable phrase) precisely the devotional and spiritual life followed by the master. His Eucharistic and Marian devotions, for instance, must be brought out and exhibited for a future Bishop of Northampton to consider.
My Lord’s prime objection is: “Firstly, and most importantly, there is no local cult.” Yet he must be aware that, in recent years, a pilgrimage has started up. A number of people have attributed various blessings to GK’s intercession.
So, Bishop Doyle’s note should not end either pilgrimages or prayers. Rather, both should increase. Few causes have been accomplished quickly. When they have been in recent years, it was generally because of keen pontifical sponsorship.
We ought to give Heaven the opportunity to show the Church Militant on Earth that Gilbert Keith Chesterton is indeed among the Saints in Heaven. The resulting miracles shall in that event give a future generation of hierarchs, unencumbered by our contemporary prejudices, the objective miraculous proof they need to make such a declaration.
Speaking of such prejudices, other (non-prelatial) figures have objected to Chesterton’s views on drinking and smoking. To the latter objection, one can only refer to the copious use of tobacco by Popes St. Pius X and Bl. Pius IX – both of whom had tobacco blends of their own. As to the former, one can only give thanks that such folk were not on the guest list at the Last Supper!
Editor’s note: To show your support for Chesterton’s cause, please consider lighting a votive candle at the American Chesterton Society’s website.
[Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons]