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Why G.K. Chesterton shouldn’t be made a saint

He’s one of my favourite writers. But canonising Chesterton would hurt his reputation – and that of the Catholic church

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

The bad news for fans of G.K. Chesterton is that there are moves afoot to make him a saint. The Catholic bishop of Northampton, Peter Doyle, is reportedly looking for a priest to promote his canonisation. Pope Francis is an admirer, too; he supported a Chesterton conference in Buenos Aires and was on the honorary committee of the Chesterton Society.

So why is this a bad idea? Chesterton was, among other things, probably the most engaging apologist for Catholicism, long before he became a Catholic. His little book Orthodoxy is the best personal account of the faith you’ll come across — unabashedly subjective, wildly romantic, fundamentally right. His Napoleon of Notting Hill is a riotous magnificat of the small things which are great things. He was a polemicist for Christianity, and other things, against the likes of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw — both friends — and there is little in what passes for our culture of public debate to come near those encounters. He wrote lots about Christianity, but his extraordinary output was from first to last invested with a Christian take on the world, chiefly respect for the poor and disrespect for the rich. No one who knew him seems to have had a bad word to say about him. There was, by all accounts, colossal kindness and humility in the man as well as the effortless, paradoxical humour which makes him more accessible to modern readers than most of his contemporaries.

The first argument against making him a saint is that he was a journalist (the profession he called the easiest in the world); it’s a contradiction in terms. And canonising the man would make his output unreadable. It would invest all the pieces he wrote in railway waiting rooms and Fleet Street bars with the leaden quality of official sanctity. He wrote some of the best literary criticism of the last century — give The Victorian Age in Literature a go — and it would forever be burdened with the approbation of the Catholic Church, which would put a great fat halo between the reader and the text.

I hate even the secular canonisation of the writers I love best — Flann O’Brien is a recent victim — with all the rites of summer schools, conferences and journals. It puts too much weight on their lightest utterances, ossifies their personalities and turns their perfectly lucid writing into the stuff of PhDs. In the case of Chesterton this phenomenon has an especially deadly quality, because the conferences and journals are bound up with contemporary Christian apologetics, a bit like what happened to C.S. Lewis. You might still just about be able to read the Father Brown stories with pleasure if they were billed as being by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton — but it would be despite the billing, by pushing it to the back of your mind. It would be a downright hurdle for secular readers.

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But that may be just me. As a journalist, I find it impossible to take seriously the notion of canonising a journalist, at least one who was any good; it just doesn’t go with the territory. There is, however, a more serious argument, which is that it would be inexpedient. G.K.’s views on Jews make him unapt for sainthood. Most of the biographies of Chesterton deal uneasily with this aspect. His supporters blame his brother, Cecil, an unpleasant anti-Semite; they put it down to the Marconi scandal, an insider-trading case with big political ramifications which pitted the Chestertons against the Jewish Isaacs brothers; they point to his (perfectly genuine) longstanding friendships with Jews, including schoolfriends at St Paul’s (G.K. uses this defence in his autobiography); they blame the prejudices of the time. You could point out (again correctly) that his anti-Jewish animus was directed not against individuals but against Jews as international financiers, such as the Rothschilds, who, he felt, had a vested interest in pacifism.

None of it washes. His views, which crop up in the most unexpected contexts, were most fully expressed in an essay called ‘The Problem of  Zionism’ — that’s where he suggests that Jews holding high public office should dress as orientals, to remind people of their allegiance and origin — in which he says: ‘It is normal for the nation to contain the family. With the Jews the family is generally divided among the nations. This may not appear to matter to those who do not believe in nations…. But I literally fail to understand anybody who does believe in patriotism thinking that this state of affairs can be consistent with it. It is in its nature intolerable from a national standpoint, that a man admittedly powerful in one nation, should be bound to a man equally powerful in another nation by ties more personal even than nationality.’

In other words, the fact that Judaism is transnational, spread among different states, meant that Jews could not patriotically identify with any single country. Even without hindsight, it’s repugnant. Funnily, it’s reminiscent of the argument against Catholicism (articulated at John F. Kennedy’s election) that Catholics cannot identify with the state because their primary allegiance is to Rome. It was also the reason why Chesterton himself was a Zionist. And he was, by anyone’s reckoning, an intemperate opponent of Germanic racism, appeasement and Nazism, which he identified at the outset for what it was.

Yet this essay should be enough to put paid to Chesterton’s cause. Hand it to the Pope; job done. It simply doesn’t square with the spirit of modern Catholicism, which sees Judaism, as the Vatican Council put it, as elder brother to the Catholic Church. The question really is whether it should be an impediment to reading Chesterton at all. And this, I think, would be fundamentalist and silly. If we weed out every author whose prejudices do not square with our own, we’d be left with thin pickings. I don’t myself feel obliged to avoid anti-Catholic authors in my reading — Bunyan, Milton et al — on the basis it’d be my loss. There’s too much good stuff in Chesterton — really good stuff — to eschew him on the basis of one aspect of his world view when he was right about so much else.

I’m as sure he’s in heaven as I’m sure anyone is; I just don’t think the Church should canonise him, because it’s a public act, the making of an exemplar.

The other thing is, he’d have hated the notion of being a saint. But that’s an argument for, not against.

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Show comments
  • John Dale

    Hey anything that further “hurts the reputation of the Catholic church” is OK by me. Lets hope they drag all the other anachronistic cults down with them.

  • Guest

    “G.K.’s views on Jews make him unapt for sainthood.” – This isn’t true historically. As far I’m aware, there are examples of Catholics whose caustic opinions about Jews did not prove to be an obstacle during the canonization process. St. John Chrysostom is one notable example, and I don’t think Chesterton ever said anything quite as scathing anything that can be found in St. John’s homilies:

    “Many, I know, respect the Jews and think that their present way of life is a venerable one. This is why I hasten to uproot and tear out this deadly opinion. I said that the synagogue is no better than a theatre and I bring forward a prophet as my witness. […] Indeed the synagogue is less deserving of honour than any inn. It is not merely a lodging place for robbers and cheats but also for demons. This is true not only of the synagogues but also of the souls of the Jews…”

    “When brute animals feed from a full manger, they grow plump and become more obstinate and hard to hold in check; they endure neither the yoke, the reins, nor the hand of the charioteer. Just so the Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil…”

  • http://www.gnomi.co.uk/ William Vincent

    “G.K.’s views on Jews make him unapt for sainthood.” – This isn’t true historically. As far I’m aware, there are examples of Catholics whose caustic opinions about Jews did not prove to be an obstacle during the canonization process. St. John Chrysostom is one notable example, and I don’t think Chesterton ever said anything quite as scathing as that which can be found in St. John’s homilies:

    “Many, I know, respect the Jews and think that their present way of life is a venerable one. This is why I hasten to uproot and tear out this deadly opinion. I said that the synagogue is no better than a theatre and I bring forward a prophet as my witness. […] Indeed the synagogue is less deserving of honour than any inn. It is not merely a lodging place for robbers and cheats but also for demons. This is true not only of the synagogues but also of the souls of the Jews…”

    “When brute animals feed from a full manger, they grow plump and become more obstinate and hard to hold in check; they endure neither the yoke, the reins, nor the hand of the charioteer. Just so the Jewish people were driven by their drunkenness and plumpness to the ultimate evil…”

  • http://www.gnomi.co.uk/ William Vincent

    It’s also curious that the article seems to be written on the ’24th August 2013′ even though today’s date is the 22nd.

  • Mike Wyatt

    ohhhhhhhhhhhh go on let him be a saint.

  • David Lindsay

    Shame on The Spectator for giving house room to the old canard that Chesterton was anti-Semitic.

  • margaret Allain

    Thank you Melanie for this, it rather sums up the queasiness I have been feeling since this was muted.

  • Simon Mayers

    It will indeed be interesting to see if Chesterton’s stereotypes and caricatures of greedy, usurious, capitalist, bolshevist, cowardly, disloyal and secretive Jews, which appeared not only in his fictional works but also in his journalism and articles in the New Witness and G.K.’s Weekly, will be taken into account when considering his worthiness to be considered a saint. It is of course not my place to venture a theological judgement on the holiness of Chesterton and his suitability for beatification. A number of individuals recognised by the Church as saints also wrote texts and sermons which contained hostile images and stereotypes of “the Jew” (for example, John Chrysostom’s Adversus Judaeos). Whilst I decline to advance a religious or theological opinion, I would venture a purely social one. Considering Chesterton’s discourse about “the Jew” and the so-called “Jewish Problem”, which was replete with ugly deprecating stereotypes, the appropriateness and wisdom of considering him a saint or a prophet is, from the perspective of promoting understanding rather than misunderstanding between Christians and Jews, at the very least questionable.
    Dr Simon Mayers. Author of Chesterton’s Jews. http://simonmayers.wordpress.com/chestertons-jews/

  • mumble

    “Jews as international financiers, such as the Rothschilds” seem to face the choice of being accused of having a vested interest in pacifism and being accused of having a vested interest in warmongering. I wonder what they do with their spare time.

  • mumble

    Being pitted against the Isaacs brothers because of what they did is not anti-Semitism: it is a political disagreement.

  • benkz1
  • James Morris

    Do we really believe that Chesterton of all people would be swayed by the ‘the prejudices of the time’. Also, he was about criticising, exposing the diseased world of high finance many Jewish people have gotten into.
    The fact that Judaism is ‘transnational’ is a problem still.
    Cecil was a nasty anti-semite, Gilbert was a nice one. I have never read Cecil but I am sure it would be in the spirit of Belloc’s ‘The Jews’-a reasoned analysis and considered solution to the problem.
    (High Finance corrupts Jews and the Gentiles alike. The real EVIL is capitalism).
    I think of the poor east end Jew -a talior making his pittance, maybe fighting for Britian, paying his taxes, dues. Contrast his with the luxurious internationalist Jew manipulating the market (Soros in our own time) making money from money (still the sin of usury) and Chesterton points this evil out and HE is held to be repugnant. And Belloc’s The Jews tries to find rememdies for it-and it is deemed an anathema.

    • Kell Brigan

      Chesterton ignored the deaths and maiming of women working in factories who were working for women’s suffrage, and instead indulged in hateful jokes about his cleaning lady’s lack of intellect. Because all women are “cleaning ladies.” Kind of down there with claiming Dr. King would have been happier raising watermelons for a living instead of worrying about all that civil rights nonsense. Chesterton was a CRUEL, NAIVE, PRIVILEGED, SHALLOW, SELF-INDULGENT ASSHAT.

  • James Morris

    I remember in the seventies when the police were called ‘facist pigs’. How quaint that sounds now. Father Ted; ‘I hear your a racist now father’ another sign. I believe the charge-‘anti-Semite’ is becoming so over-used that it will also sound ridiculous soon.
    If I could say-that line-that they had to become money lenders because that’s all they were allowed to do in the middle ages. Undoubtedly true. But it is time to move on. . That was many hundreds of years ago now. Judaism needs to reform. Or rather there should be a movement amongst jews to get out of this unwholesome world of High Finance. So that it becomes an anathema to them. It gives Jews a bad name.
    It’s a cultural problem.
    God bless Jews

  • Aaron Siering

    What a stupid argument. Chesterton should be recognized as Saint if the Church believes he’s made it to heaven. That’s the only valid criteria. What happens to our image of the man good or bad because of it is not particularly germane to the question. The author also seems to be laboring under the faulty impression that Saints are somehow perfect persons, consequently the author’s claim to be well acquainted with Chesterton’s writing strikes me as suspect. I would make the quip that maybe Chesterton wasn’t as good an apologist as she believes, but I don’t believe the fault here is Chesterton’s.

    In the Catholic Church Saints are simply people who have recognized to a profound degree what sinners they actually are.

    Also what is the spirit of “modern Catholicism”? There is only orthodoxy and heterodoxy in Catholic theology, and modernism itself is a diametrically opposed worldview to that of Catholicism, i.e. Christian Realism.

  • Oliver Wood

    G K Chesterton was the greatest writer of the 20th century – not mentioning him because he was anti-semetic? Sure, if you like. And let’s never mention Kipling for his xenophobia and H. Miller for his sexism while we’re at it too.

  • KC

    This article is full of nonsense. I have not read much into the question of Chesterton’s position on the Jews; however, “the spirit of modern Catholicism” is very revealing of this writer’s perverted mindset. The Catholic Church, being instituted by God (which modern Catholics do believe, right? one has to wonder…) has no “spirit” in subordination to the times. Her position on Jews has been quite clear for ages. They are in error.

    “I’m as sure he’s in heaven as I’m sure anyone is”: I can only hope this isn’t sympathy towards universalism, a heresy.

    Being a saint means being in heaven, and I highly doubt Chesterton was a practicing Catholic with a hatred for “the notion of being a saint.” While I understand your meaning, you are politicizing sainthood and elevating secular culture throughout this faithless piece.

  • KC

    This article is full of nonsense. I have not read much into the question of Chesterton’s position on the Jews; however, “the spirit of modern Catholicism” is very revealing of this writer’s perverted mindset. The Catholic Church, being instituted by God (which modern Catholics do believe, right? one has to wonder…) has no “spirit” in subordination to the times. Her position on Jews has been quite clear for ages. They are in error.

    “I’m as sure he’s in heaven as I’m sure anyone is”: I can only hope this isn’t sympathy towards universalism, a heresy.

    Being a saint means being in heaven, and I highly doubt Chesterton was a practicing Catholic with a hatred for “the notion of being a saint.” While I understand your meaning, you are politicizing sainthood and elevating secular culture throughout this faithless piece.

  • RP BARNES (IPSWICH)

    The point is sir, that all modern day Catholics are called to be saints (canonised or otherwise). The popes have canonised several saints in the 20th century. The definition of a saint is that of person who is living , and practicing heroic Christian virtue – which is precisely the calling of all true Christians. The values and transient amoral mores of the secular world cannot comprehend what the attorney general (Quentin Hogg) once said: ” saintly objectivity” is alien to inward looking, subjective cynical minds.

  • JoFro

    So don’t make him a Saint because bigoted secular journos can’t handle reading him with the title of Saint in front of his name – those same journos are not even reading him now, why should we care what they do after he is sainted? If anything, sainting him might make more Catholics read him, which is why there is a movement to saint G.K.

    As for his views on the Jews – so what? There are greater saints compared to him that have said even more vile things towards the Jews – yes, the Second Vatican Council called the Jews the elder brother of Christianity but it has never denied that the Jews remain in error for not accepting Jesus as the Messiah.

    His views on the Jews hardly is a reason to not canonise him!

  • Kell Brigan

    Women are not mentioned once in this article. Chesterton’s HATEFUL, ABUSIVE “jokes” about women’s suffrage are more than enough to keep this naive, leather-upholstered hypocrite off the saint list.

    • Louise

      LOL!

  • http://www.readingintentionally.com Keith Buhler

    Isn’t the question of whether he should be canonised just the question of whether or not he was actually a saint? I’m not sure what the expediencies you mention before the anti-semitism bit have to do with the process of canonisation.

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