Is he or is he not on the road to being canonized?
In the coming weeks, the fate of Gilbert Keith Chesterton will be known.
Soon, all eyes will turn upon Canon John Udris as he presents his written report to the bishop of Northampton, England, with, thereafter, a decision being made.
For the past five years, Canon Udris has been the man tasked by Bishop Peter Doyle to explore whether Chesterton was a saint. Before embarking on this latest investigation, Canon Udris was already well-acquainted with the life and writings of the author, not least because the cleric had been the parish priest of Beaconsfield, the English town approximately 25 miles northwest of London, where Chesterton lived with his wife, Frances, from 1909 until his death in 1936.
Beaconsfield is also the reason why the Catholic Diocese of Northampton is involved. It is within its boundaries that that town lies, and it is in the town’s cemetery where Chesterton’s grave is found.
To be clear, Chesterton has not cleared the first hurdle of the process necessary to declare someone a saint. Currently, the ongoing preliminary investigation revolves around simply what Chesterton’s contemporaries thought of him — did they sense sanctity in the writer?
Needless to say, Canon Udris has spent many hours browsing over records, press reports and Chesterton’s countless works, papers and notebooks in the British Library and elsewhere. Letters to the author’s wife shortly after Chesterton’s death have been especially important in establishing the immediate response to that news and people’s then-unfiltered views of the writer.
It would be fair to say Chesterton remains a giant in English Letters, and even more so a towering figure in today’s Catholic literary world. The debate about his sanctity may be of great significance to the Church in general, but to Catholic writers, it is of particular significance.
In his lifetime, Chesterton was a controversialist. So, perhaps not surprisingly, there have been voices raised in favor and against this proposition of canonization. Both sides claim to be devotees of the author’s work; both sides claim to have Chesterton’s legacy to the fore in arriving at their differing positions.
The Case for the Prosecution
There are two main objections raised against the cause of Chesterton going forward.
The first is the most straightforward. In short, there is no local “cult,” or following.
As Canon Udris told the Register, “An unusual aspect about this potential cause is a distinct lack of local cult, though a similar thing could be said about Newman until relatively recently. But this is certainly changing.”
There are many who admire Chesterton the writer, the stylist, the literary character — but this is not the same as a cult around his holy intercession.
Canon Udris remembers that, in all his years in Beaconsfield, many would come to his presbytery door asking directions to the grave of Chesterton or where to find the house he shared with Frances. Invariably, those asking these questions would be doing so in North American accents. Father Udris remembers one priest visiting from the United States prophesizing that Chesterton’s “tomb shall be a sacred shrine for many an American.”
Unlike North America, though, in England today Chesterton is chiefly remembered as the creator of the Father Brown stories and little else. Some literati would recognize Chesterton as a great stylist of the early 20th century, but even they are a minority.
The recent news reports of a possible declaration on Chesterton’s process being opened was met with some amusement in the British press, but not much else, as he is no longer a household name. Any resultant debate about his possible canonization has occurred within the world of Catholic journalism. The main bone of contention being that Chesterton’s cause cannot, must not, advance, due to the writer’s alleged anti-Semitism.
Whereas the first problem with the Chesterton cause, lack of local cult, is a local issue, the other accusation is a universal one that will spark debate and reaction from quarters not normally interested in the cause of saints.
Writing in The Daily Telegraph, journalist Melanie McDonagh pointed out, “For the Catholic Church to declare someone a saint says something about the Church as well as about the individual concerned. And if the bishop of Northampton has any sense, he’ll park the matter of G.K. right there. Because Chesterton, for all his merits, was anti-Semitic.”
She goes on to add, “[Chesterton] felt that Jews were fundamentally not English, that Judaism mattered more to them than the countries where they lived.”
She concludes, “This view, which Chesterton articulated before the Holocaust, was most fully expressed in his hair-raising suggestion that Jews in public life should wear Oriental dress, by way of reminder that they were not really English. It’s not acceptable, not now, not then, for a man, no matter how great in other ways, to be declared a saint who says as much. It is a flaw which all his other merits cannot put right. Canonizing him would be, to put it mildly, impolitic.”
The Case for the Defense
There are many Catholic writers influenced by Chesterton — some more so than others. A number have been converted to Catholicism or had their conversion process started by reading Chesterton’s work.
Take, for example, Joseph Pearce, writer and broadcaster, who penned a biography of Chesterton in 1990s.
Speaking to the Register, Pearce sees no problems with the ongoing process of investigation or what it may turn up: “I’m delighted that Chesterton’s cause might be opened, not least because he is indubitably the most eloquent defender of the faith since Newman.”
Pearce is not concerned about any potential fallout from this process, saying, “I doubt that Chesterton’s cause, should it be opened, will alienate many readers. Non-Catholic readers of Chesterton are already aware of his vibrant Catholicism; on the other hand, many Catholics who have not read Chesterton will be more likely to do so were his cause to be opened.”
From a personal perspective, Pearce added, “Chesterton, under grace, was the most important influence on my conversion to Catholicism. As such, I have an unpayable debt of gratitude to him.”
It is worth remembering that that journey of which Pearce speaks began when he was in a London prison cell, as he was then a leading force in far-right extremism. Pearce points to Chesterton’s work as helping him move away from his then-prejudices.
Another witness for the defense is also a writer whose conversion process was influenced by Chesterton.
Dawn Eden Goldstein, bestselling author and a Jewish convert, told the Register, “I credit Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday with sparking my conversion. With its powerful treatment of the meaning of suffering, it opened me up to an understanding of what Christian faith is about.”
Goldstein sees a bigger picture than just that of a process initiated by an obscure English diocese.
“G.K. Chesterton was in many respects a great witness for the faith, so I have no objection to his cause being opened,” she said. “That said, there are questions concerning whether his writings and way of life as a whole displayed the heroic virtue required for sainthood. The canonization process will necessarily entail an investigation into those questions.”
For Goldstein, the whole process is one of faith, both Chesterton’s and for today’s Catholics.
“Given that formal canonization is generally considered to be an infallible act of the magisterium, I trust the process,” she said. “The ultimate outcome is up to divine Providence.” She added, “If Chesterton becomes a saint, it will be because God wants the faithful to see him as a model and to ask his intercession. If not, the beauty and wisdom of the best of Chesterton’s writings will remain important for the Church.”
So the defense could point to the “spark” of conversion from a former violent racist and a Jewish convert to Catholicism, both influenced by the pen of Chesterton. Given the claims against him, this is a paradox the Englishman would have relished.
On the subject of anti-Semitism, Canon Udris told the Register, “Let’s be clear that if the alleged anti-Semitism can’t be credibly countered, there will be no cause. It’s an allegation he had to defend himself against in his lifetime. Yes, there are things he wrote that now make us wince. Yes, there are things that now sound offensive to us. But the more I read Chesterton, the more I see he could have no truck with any kind of hatred, except the hatred of ideas; eschewed those that espoused any kind of ethnic hatred. More than that, he sought to defend with his pen the victims of such ideas.”
Some Catholics have reservations about Chesterton the “saint” simply on account of that putting off potential readers or allowing the writer to be used in ways against the Church.
This is a concern shared by Dale Ahlquist, the president of the American Chesterton Society. Speaking to the Register, he said, “There are some who think that beatification will somehow make Chesterton smaller, make him the ‘property’ of the Catholic Church. There are others who don’t know anything about Chesterton, but still manage to get him wrong: They portray him as an unrighteous man, a bigot, a lush, a glutton. They will use their misunderstanding to attack the Catholic Church. They are already alienated, but they will further alienate themselves. And there are those who have a very limited idea of what sainthood is, and they will be alienated because Chesterton breaks the mold.”
Whatever the decision on the sanctity of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, one thing is clear — his life and writings have already influenced many for good.
As Ahlquist explained, “Chesterton brought me to the Catholic Church. Along the way, I started a literary society, a school and a publishing company, all inspired by him. I’ve written five books on Chesterton. But the point is: He became a permanent friend, a happy daily presence in my life. He inspires me to be more patient with my enemies, more humble, more charitable. His eloquence is a great pleasure, his wit a great boost, and his certitude a great comfort.”
As his investigation draws to a close, reflecting on his five years immersed in all things Chesterton, Canon Udris told the Register, “I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey. The protracted contact with G.K.’s words, ideas and influence has been such a blessing.”
Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.
This story was updated after posting.