Melanie McDonagh

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

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

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.