Book Recommendation: The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism

March 1, 2010


David W. Fagerberg, an Associate Professor of Religion at Concordia College, has written a book about G. K. Chesterton’s theological and Catholic apologetical works, The Size Of Chesterton’s Catholicism.  He demonstrates Chesterton’s passion for his faith using the great one’s own words to reveal the Catholic paradox he was so fond of exploring.  Fagerberg draws on Chesterton’s theological writings — avoiding secondary sources –  so that the reader can encounter his thought as directly as possible. This selection takes up some of the more common accusations others make against the Church and how Chesterton dealt with them.

Humanity possesses a religious nature. Chesterton once said that it is a mistake to say that religions of the earth are the same in what they teach and only differ in their rites and forms. He believes the opposite. The religions of the earth differ greatly in what they teach, but they share the common machinery of rites and forms, holy priests and sacred texts, vows of virginity and sworn brotherhoods, venerable altars and hallowed days. Therefore he can state (in fact, slightly overstate) that these features are exactly the features he is proud to possess in Catholicism because they are the most humanitarian features of religion — even if they vex the Protestant.

As an apologist I am the reverse of apologetic. So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I lam especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds (as my journalistic friends repeat with so much pertinacity). for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated, I am very proud of what people call priestcraft; since even that accidental term of abuse preserves the medieval truth that a priest, like every other man, ought to be a craftsman. Jam very proud of what people call Mariolatry; because it introduced into religion in the darkest ages that element of chivalry which is now being belatedly and badly understood in the form of feminism. I am very proud of being orthodox about the mysteries of the Trinity or the Mass; I am proud of believing in the Confessional; I am proud of believing in the Papacy.
The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton, p 85.

Why does Chesterton defend precisely those things which others assail as superstitious? He is going on the counteroffensive against objections typical of spiritualists who are troubled by the worldly quality of the Roman Church. Let’s amass some of these aggressive retorts.

An embodied Church is bound to be worldly, because it is practiced by beings who are bound to time and space. Worldliness is a consequence of heaven having descended into the world of matter. “The supreme spiritual power is now operating by the machinery of matter. . . It blesses even material gifts and keepsakes, as with relics or rosaries. It works through water or oil or bread or wine. Now that sort of mystical materialism may please or displease the Dean [Inge], or anybody else. But I cannot for the life of me understand why the Dean, or anybody else, does not see that the Incarnation is as much a part of that idea as the Mass; and that the Mass is as much a part of that idea as the Incarnation. A Puritan may think it blasphemous that God should become a wafer. A Moslem thinks it blasphemous that God should become a workman in Galilee.” Being worldly means being visible; in fact, it requires being visible. Christ did not come to add a philosophy to the queue but to found a Church which would proclaim him in the world; and an embodied, terrestrial, political force which will subsist throughout the historical life of humankind requires visible vestiges. A philosophy does not need a society, but the Church is a society. The ancient world had a bellyful of philosophies but it had not one Church. “Very early in its history this thing became visible to the civilization of antiquity,” and from the beginning it appeared as a Church, “with everything that is implied in a Church and much that is disliked in a Church. . . . It had a doctrine; it had a discipline; it had sacraments; it had degrees of initiation; it admitted people and expelled people; it affirmed one dogma with authority and repudiated another with anathemas, If all these things be the marks of Antichrist, the reign of Antichrist followed very rapidly upon Christ.” There may be occasions when abuses by the Vicar of Christ need reform, but the way to do it is not to name him the Antichrist and remove the papacy along with the abusive pope.

I am struck by a brief thought, Chestertonian in form. Even the carping by critics about the Catholic Church discloses the Church to be exactly what it claims to be: catholic. Catholicity involves unity, and even persons antipathetic to Catholicism prove its unity by their practice of using a point from anywhere in the history of the Church to censure today’s institution. One might expect a Catholic to quote Augustine to endorse or dispute some issue on the current horizon, since the Catholic claims a universality for the Church mystically based in the transcendence of God, but for the critics to cite archaic practices of primitive monasteries, or the papal muscle of Gregory VII, or the Spanish Inquisition to the disfavor of today’s institution is a surprise. When the faultfinders use any one of these historical phenomena as a basis for criticizing today’s Church they assume the very connection between past and present, and between monk, pope, inquisitor, and philosopher, which the believer professes. So if the modern Catholic suffers guilt by association with the inquisitor and crusader, then the modern Catholic is also blessed by a tie which binds men and women, civilizations, cultures, and strangers across generations, eras, and epochs. What properties connect an American Catholic to a Spanish inquisitor? or a married layperson to the celibate hermit of the desert~ or a literary theologian to an illiterate friar? Only that they are all Catholic. That is the only reason why the former are asked to answer for the sins and excesses of the latter. The Reformers selected persons of preceding generations who fit their viewpoint; however, to deny affiliation with past movements because they are disapproved in light of current tendencies denies the very bonds which keep us from becoming ecclesiastical solipsists. We might not now approve of what Uncle Gregory did then, but members of the family are not voted in or out by each succeeding generation. We can only be blessed by the same ties which indict.

When Chesterton defends aspects of the medieval Church, he is not indulging in intellectual regression or nostalgic desire for bygone glory days. But what would we think of someone who looks into the mirror and cannot recognize his or her own countenance? Chesterton’s attitude toward our medieval ancestors is another exercise of the capacious catholic character. He does not say that everything in the Middle Ages was good, but he can say that Catholicism can contain everything which was good in the Middle Ages, while the medievalist cannot contain everything which is good in Catholicism.

Becoming a Catholic broadens the mind. . . . Standing in the centre where all roads meet, a man can look down each of the roads in turn and realize that they come from all points of the heavens. As long as he is still marching along his own road, that is the only road that can be seen, or sometimes even imagined. For instance, many a man who is not yet a Catholic calls himself a Mediaevalist. But a man who is only a Mediaevalist is very much broadened by becoming a Catholic. I am myself a Mediaevalist; in the sense that I think modern life has a great deal to learn from mediaeval life; that Guilds arc a better social system than Capitalism; the friars are fat less offensive than philanthropists. But I am a much more reasonable and moderate Mediaevalist than I was when I was only a Mediaevalist. For instance, I felt it necessary to be perpetually pitting Gothic architecture against Greek architecture, because it was necessary to back up Christians against Pagans. But now I am in no such fuss and I know what Coventry Patmore meant when he said calmly that it would have been quite as Catholic to decorate his mantelpiece with the Venus of Milo as with the Virgin. As a Mediaevalist I am still proudest of the Gothic; but as a Catholic I am proud of the Baroque.
The Catholic Church and Conversion, p.93.

It is said by some that the Catholic Church is violent because it has been a source of wars and conflict. Chesterton admits the human habit of fighting for what is precious, and asks us to examine what we find precious enough to fight for. Why is waging war over oil beneath the sand or imaginary boundary lines on a map more excusable than fighting for souls and salvation? Medieval wars and crusades were conducted when the stakes were eternal beatitude; why is an idealistic battle more forgivable than a religious battle? “The mere flinging of the polished pebble of Republican Idealism into the artificial lake of eighteenth century Europe produced a splash that seemed to splash the heavens, and a storm that drowned ten thousand men. What would happen if a star from heaven really fell into the slimy and bloody pool of a hopeless and decaying humanity? Men swept a city with the guillotine, a continent with the saber, because Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were too precious to be lost. How if Christianity was yet more maddening because it was yet more precious? . . [Thus] when the learned skeptic says: ‘Christianity produced wars and persecutions, we shall reply: ‘Naturally.’”

It is said by some that the Catholic Church is exclusive. This belief “is symbolized in the sort of man who says, ‘These ruthless bigots will refuse to bury me in consecrated ground, because I have always refused to be baptized.” Chesterton wonders why, if such a person “thinks that baptism does not matter, he should think that burial does matter. If it is in no way imprudent for a man to keep himself from a consecrated font, how can it be inhuman for other people to keep him from a consecrated field?” It is as though the revolutionaries insist upon the queen’s blessing as they behead her. Why is someone nettled by being excluded from the intimacies of a community he or she thinks is a mockery? “It is surely much nearer to mere superstition to attach importance to what is done to a dead body than to a live baby. I can understand a man thinking both superstitious, or both sacred; but I cannot see why he should grumble that other people do not give him as sanctities what he regards as superstitions.” Perhaps what annoys such a person is Catholicism’s adamantine (and, to them, antiquated) belief that where something is right, something can be wrong. Chesterton never fully understood what was meant by crediting the Reformation with obtaining a Promethean freedom to different points of view, when the value of possessing different viewpoints was to permit everyone to charge Rome with their favorite reproach. When the reformer boasts that, unlike Rome, Protestants grant many and varied free points of view, “he means that they give freedom to the Universalist to curse Rome for having too much predestination and to the Calvinist to curse her for having too little. He means that in that happy family there is a place for the No Popery man who finds Purgatory too tenderhearted and also for the other No Popery man who finds Hell too harsh. He means that the same description can somehow be made to cover the Tolstoyan who blames priests because they permit patriotism and the Diehard who blames priests because they represent Internationalism.”

It is said by some that the Catholic Church is extravagant, wasteful, too mystical. The very Church accused of having too worldly a polity is, on the other hand, denounced for having cathedrals that are too otherworldly. In the letter Chesterton writes to Frances during their engagement where he reckons up the estate he has to offer her, he includes as number six on the list a box of matches, and writes, “Every now and then I strike one of these, because fire is beautiful and burns your fingers. Some people think this a waste of matches: the same people who object to the building of Cathedrals.”

It is said by some that the Catholic Church suffers guilt by association with a medieval Church which is guilty of being exactly that: medieval. Very well, let it be as the Renaissance would have it, and let the Middle Ages be called the dark ages, brutal and in need of governance. Why, then, denounce the Church for trying to govern that society?

Seemingly from the dawn of man all nations have had governments; and all nations have been ashamed of them…The religious basis of government was not so much that people put their trust in princes, as that they did not put their trust in any child of man. It was so with all the ugly institutions which disfigure human history. Torture and slavery were never talked of as good things; they were always talked of as necessary evils. A pagan spoke of one man owning ten slaves just as a modern business man speaks of one merchant sacking ten clerks: “It’s very horrible; but how else can society be conducted?” A mediaeval scholastic regarded the possibility of a man being burned to death just as a modern business man regards the possibility of a man being starved to death: “it is a shocking torture; but can you organize a painless world?” It is possible that a future society may find a way of doing without the question by hunger as we have done without the question by fire.
What’s Wrong With The World, p135

Did any interrogator involve himself in the Inquisition with the determined purpose of obfuscating the truth, and making the dark ages darker. Or were these admittedly misdirected methods employed in the hope of finding a way out of the dark? “The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first.”45

It is said by some that the Church opposes reason, and with it, science. But how does it happen that the very Church called an enemy of scholarship is also accused of suffering from scholasticism? Perhaps it is due to a general blur about those Middle Ages by a bleary mind which sees every previous century as backward because it is behind us. But by what anachronistic reading of history can the Church of any previous century be expected to know what the Church of the succeeding century knows? The proper question would be to examine how the Church judged science in comparison with others in its own century, not in comparison with persons in our own.

Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that the medieval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards. It is very nearly the opposite of the truth. The world sometimes persecuted them as wizards, and sometimes ran after them as wizards; the sort of pursuing that is the reverse of persecuting. The Church alone regarded them really and solely as scientists. Many an enquiring cleric was charged with mere magic in making his lenses and mirrors; he was charged by his rude and rustic neighbors; and would probably have been charged in exactly the same way if they had been Pagan neighbors or Puritan neighbors or Seventh’Day Adventist neighbors. But even then he stood a better chance when judged by the Papacy, than if he had been merely lynched by the laity. The Catholic Pontiff did not denounce Albertus Magnus as a magician. It was the half-heathen tribes of the north who admired him as a magician.
St. Thomas Aquinas, p55

When the critic impugns the medieval Church for not having lived up to its ideals, he thereby advocates the very ideals which the Church holds. “My point is that the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. . The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

It is said by some that Catholicism risks blasphemy for honoring Mary. This is accounted for by the general Protestant confusion of Mariology with Mariolatry, and it results in a ‘mad vigilance that watches for the first faint signs of the cult of Mary as for the spots of a plague; that apparently presumes her to be perpetually and secretly encroaching upon the prerogatives of Christ.” But the fantastic stories told in the Middle Ages of the Mother of God interceding for the sinner on judgment day do not mean there is any other way to heaven than by Christ. It is not as if Mary has an alternate set of keys than Peter (maybe only an additional set) and the power of the keys has only ever been Christ. Above the binding and loosing power entrusted to the Church on earth stands the Church of heaven, over which Mary is Queen in communion with the will of Christ. She is always in communion with the will of Christ, always inseparable from Christ. Mary does not change Christ’s will when she is spiritually filled by him, as once she was literally filled with him. The human Mother and the incarnate babe are inseparable ever since she said, “Let it be.”

When I was a boy a more Puritan generation objected to a statue upon my parish church representing the Virgin and Child. After much controversy, they compromised by taking away the Child. One would think that this was even more corrupted with Mariolatry…But the practical difficulty is also a parable. You cannot chip away the statue of a mother from all round that of a new-born child. You cannot suspend the new-born child in midair; indeed you cannot really have a statue of a new-born child at all. Similarly, you cannot suspend the idea of a new-born child in the void or think of him without thinking of his mother. You cannot visit the child without visiting the mother. If we are to think of Christ in this aspect at all, the other idea follows as it followed in history. We must either leave Christ out of Christmas, or Christmas out of Christ, or we must admit, if only as we admit it in an old picture, that those holy heads are too near together for the haloes not to mingle and cross.
The Everlasting Man p.303.

Finally, it is said by some that Catholicism is detachment from the world, and so Catholics are detached from real life. This position supposes that the most characteristic Catholic act, were one not too cowardly to do it, would be retreating from the world to a cloistered celibacy (monastic or clerical). Chesterton received quite a different impression from his en­counter with a certain celibate. In The Autobiography he relates the circum­stances under which he conceived the Father Brown mysteries, a set of detective stories revolving around a priest whose detective powers arc enhanced by a knowledge of human nature accrued over years of hearing confessions. Chesterton was already thinking of a possible storyline, though not yet with a clerical detective, when he shared the plot of vice and crime with Father John O’Connor during a walk. To his surprise, the priest pointed out some incredibilities in the plot line due to a naiveté on Chesterton’s part about the perverted practice. “In my own youth I had imagined for myself any amount of iniquity; and it was a curious experience to find that this quiet and pleasant celibate had plumbed those abysses far deeper than I. I had not imagined that the world could hold such horrors.”

When the two reached the house, Chesterton watched Father O’Connor chat with some of his other friends, a conversation of a completely different, lighter variety. When it had finished and the priest had left the room, Chesterton overheard one of his peers remark, ‘All the same, I don’t believe his sort of life is the right one. It’s all very well to like religious music and so on, when you’re all shut up in a sort of cloister and don’t know anything about the real evil in the world. But I don’t believe that’s the right idea. I believe in a fellow coming out into the world, and facing the evil that’s in it, and knowing something about the dangers and all that. It’s a very beautiful thing to be innocent and ignorant; but I think it’s a much finer thing not to be afraid of knowledge.” The coincidence of having just been taught something about wickedness by Father O’Connor and then hearing the opinion that the priest’s sheltered life made him naive about the ways of the world, in a pitiable sort of way, struck Chesterton as such an irony that he confesses to having nearly laughed out loud. “I was surprised at my own surprise. That the Catholic Church knew more about good than I did was easy to believe. That she knew more about evil than I did seemed in’ credible.”48 The charge that the priest’s knowledge of evil was unrealistic because Catholics are called upon to be innocent and ignorant could be met by the same reply Chesterton gives to his contemporaries who accuse the Victorians of being prudish. The Victorian was accused of trying to pre­serve innocence by averting his or her eyes from a realistic view of the world. This does not quite have it right. “What disgusted him, and very justly, was not the presence of a clear realism, but the absence of a clear idealism. Strong and genuine religious sentiment has never had any objection to realism; on the contrary, religion was the realistic thing, the brutal thing, the thing that called names.

Chesterton refuses to say with the unrealistic optimist that there is nothing wrong with the world, but he also refuses to say with the unrealistic pessimist that the world is too evil to be enjoyed. The world can be enjoyed ideally, under the rules of conditional joy, and Catholicism preserves the conditions in order to protect the joys.

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