Friday, August 02, 2019

Chesterton's Cause is Dead

This week his Excellency Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, U.K. announced that he would not be opening a Cause for the beatification of G.K. Chesterton. The bishop listed three reasons, two of which are excellent and the third of which is nonsense:
"That conclusion is that I am unable to promote the cause of GK 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" (source).

I want to address these concerns one at a time before offering my own opinion on the matter.

The first reason given by Bishop Boyle is lack of a local cult. This is actually one of the best reasons to not advance a candidate to the altars. Remember that the entire process of canonization is supposed to begin with the existence of a stable local cultus. The process of canonization is essentially supposed to take that cultus as a starting point for proposing that the candidate's cultus be extended to the Church Universal (for an extensive study on this, please see our article "Canonization and the Early Church"). The lack of any local cultus really is an exceptionally strong reason a person should not be advanced to regional or universal veneration. A universal cultus is proposed to the faithful based on the existence of a stable underlying local cultus. And it makes clear that Chesterton's universal popularity does not equate to a religious cultus. So I absolutely approve of this rationale.

The second reason given is that the bishop was "unable to tease out any pattern or personal spirituality." My goodness, if this isn't a great reason for not opening someone's Cause, I don't know what is. I have to say, based on his writings and based on what I know of his life, GKC never struck me as a man with a disciplined spiritual life. He struck me as incredibly insightful, capable of perceiving profound beauty, and of elucidating timeless truths in a manner unparalleled, but he never struck me as a personally holy man. His writings are treasured beyond question; but if we are considering him for sainthood, then I am more interested in questions like how often did he go to confession? How often did he pray? What kinds of penances did he do? Did he go to daily Mass? Adoration? What were his personal devotions like? Was his spiritual life orderly? What was his spiritual reading like? Did people who knew him consider him holy—not just good-natured, jovial, or charitable, but holy? And here the man in charge of investigating GKC says that he can't find any pattern of personal spirituality. If that's true, then that's a pretty darn good reason for not proposing Chesterton for veneration. Have we lowered the bar so much that a person who has no pattern of personal spirituality is considered a good candidate for sainthood?

I often hear proponents of Chesterton's sainthood arguing that his profound writings are sufficient evidence for his sanctity. "His insights are astonishing! What more proof do we need?" This reasoning is naive. Way back in 2009 I wrote an article on Chesterton's beatification ("Blessed GK Chesterton?"), and even then I had reservations due to the fact that people were tending to misunderstand the nature of sanctity, substituting instead the idea of a Chesterton as a "role model" and citing Chesterton's writings in lieu of any evidence of real holiness. Ten years ago I said:


I appreciate the praise of Chesterton's work, but a beatification is about the man, not is work. I once heard (I think on EWTN, maybe on some Catholic Radio station) a certain lay apologist make the errant claim that St. Thomas Aquinas was canonized solely by virtue of his writings and not because of his personal holiness. Anyone who has studied the canonization proceedings of any saints from the 13th or 14th centuries knows that everything revolves around personal sanctity. Saying Chesterton was innocent and humble, and then going on to praise his writing, is really not enough for me to jump on the bandwagon, however much I love Chesterton...
I love G.K. Chesterton. His writings have moved me profoundly and have been very formative in my intellectual and spiritual development, both when I was a young man and to this day. Furthermore, I know countless souls who have similarly benefited from his works. But the writings do not the whole man make. This is about supernatural virtue, not profound writings. It does not matter whether it is Chesterton, or Cardinal Newman, Fulton Sheen, Mother Teresa or Paul VI. We should not be afraid of asking questions about these people, because ultimately we want God to be glorified, and God is glorified by true sanctity, not by papering over or dismissing valid objections. (source)

Now, the third reason the bishop gives is a nonsense reason. The issue of "anti-Semitism", which he goes on to say is a "real obstacle particularly at this time in the United Kingdom." With this comment, he is admitting that this might not have been an obstacle in another time or place, but because of the current socio-political climate with its endemic political correctness, Chesterton's comments on Jews—even understood in the context of their timemake him persona non grata in the milieu of modern, hypersensitive 21st century Britain. This is especially ridiculous because we expect a beatification or canonization to be about the objective state of a person and whether or not they can be considered holy and worthy of veneration. When the bishop cites things like the current sensitivity level in a specific country, he is moving the discussion from the objective realm to one of pure subjectivity. Is Chesterton a saint or not? Depends on the zeitgeist I guess. So I think this argument is a bad one. And I don't believe Chesterton was actually anti-Semitic. But the bishop thought opening his Cause might upset some Jewish Brits. So there it is.

Interestingly enough, the bishop did not bring up what I consider to be another good argument against Chesterton's canonization, and one that was discussed a lot a few years back
—namely, Chesterton's famous intemperance with food and drink. No, I am not saying that just because he was large. No, I am not saying this because he smoked and drank liquor. I am saying this simply because existing biographical accounts present him as a man who lacked temperance when it came to food and drink. Now, I know there is going to be some ignorant commentator who says, "Uhhhhh...yeah but St. Thomas Aquinas was overweight...duhhhhh." THIS. IS. NOT. ABOUT. CHESTERTON'S. WEIGHT. I do not look at an overweight person and go, "Ugh, they must be intemperate." Weight may be an indication of intemperance, but cannot establish it. Rather, this is about the well-documented anecdotes of his intemperate and even gluttonous behavior when it came to food and alcohol.

Back in 2014, I wrote an article about this ("This is Not About Chesterton"); a person who lacks a fundamental cardinal virtue cannot be considered saintly, and based on the extant biographical and anecdotal evidence about Chesterton, the man certainly did not possess temperance when it came to food and drink. Or if he did possess it, it was certainly not in a heroic degree. I wrote then:

"Remember, a saint possesses not only natural virtue, but supernatural virtue. This means, of course, faith, hope and charity to a heroic degree, but it also means that even the saint's natural virtues are elevated and oriented towards supernatural ends. For example, a virtuous man has formed the habit of prudence, which is the virtue of being able to identify and pursue the good in particular circumstances; i..e, of making good decisions. The saintly man, however, not only exercises natural prudence, but also demonstrates supernatural prudence; i.e., the virtue of prudence ordered towards supernatural ends, meaning exceptional discernment and good sense in spiritual matters.
Now, since supernatural virtue is a requisite of sainthood, and since grace builds on the natural virtues, it follows that a person who lacks even one of natural cardinal virtues cannot be "saintly" in the strict sense. Natural virtue is the foundation of supernatural virtue; if a natural virtue is obviously lacking, they cannot possess the supernaturalized version of that virtue which is built upon the natural. We may still have an exceptionally virtuous person, but nevertheless one with a major defect that makes it inappropriate to classify them as a saint. A person certainly cannot possess supernatural temperance if they lack even the natural virtue of temperance" (source).
I recommend reading the above cited article in its entirety as a background to this essay. Needless to say, my own position on this matter is that G.K. Chesterton, regardless of his indisputably brilliant writings, is not a suitable candidate for sainthood. I think Bishop Peter Boyle made the correct call in refusing to open a Cause, even if one of his reasons was specious. And I think people who want to ignore this and push through with a GKC canonization need to step back and consider all these matters and actually address them rather than just dismissing them. This isn't about ramming through "our guy." I adore GKC. He was an exceptional man and one of the greatest English writers ever. But not a saint. You don't need to be saintly to be a great writer. All you need to be is...a great writer. Heck, I'm no shabby writer myself, but that doesn't mean I'm an upstanding, exemplary Catholic. I'm just a so-so Catholic who happens to be good at explaining things. Get that concept through your heads.

Some objections:

"You can't trust a modernist bishop like Boyle to make the right call."

I know nothing about Boyle, but the fact is it's his call to make. And if God wants this to happen, then it will happen someday, regardless of Bishop Boyle. Also, you can't complain about the laxity of modern canonizations and then simultaneously complain that in this case the bishop was too strict with his criterion. To do so makes it look like we are only complaining about canonizations we don't like, which is what most Trads do, to be honest. "We mistrust modern canonizations, unless they are of someone we approve of." Are the canonization criteria too strict, or aren't they? If they're not strict enough, then you should rejoice that they screened out GKC. If they're already too strict, then that applies for Paul VI and John Paul II and Romero as well and these candidates all legitimately passed muster.

"It's just because Chesterton smoked and smoking is bad now."

No, the bishop doesn't mention that at all. Actually deal with the arguments put forward instead of obfuscating them.

"Oh, so you don't think G.K. Chesterton should be canonized but you accept the canonizations of men like Paul VI?"

Irrelevant. This is about GKC, not whomever else was canonized. Also, Paul VI is already canonized, while GKC never even made it to a beatus, so they are certainly in two different categories. And when Paul VI was not yet canonized I argued against his canonization as well. The fact that Paul VI made it to canonization is no argument that GKC should.

"Saints aren't perfect."

They are certainly not. But too often we can use this phrase to basically drop all standards. Saints are not 'perfect.' They do have sin. But, while they are not perfect, a saint is someone we expect to have attained a degree of victory over their sin. While I would never argue that saints must be sinless, I would also argue that a person who has capitulated to sin in one aspect of their life should not be considered a saint. Saints are those who, while having sin like all of us, labor to attain victory over that sin. There are compelling arguments to suggest that Chesterton fundamentally failed in his battle against drunkenness and gluttony, which signifies a lack of temperance. If this were true, Chesterton did not have victory over these vices but rather succumbed to them—they may even have contributed to his death (see also: "Saints Aren't Perfect", USC, 2013).

Bottom line is we can respect and laud and honor Catholic heroes without insisting that they be canonized. It is good that Bishop Boyle refused to open Chesterton's Cause because he really was not a saintly man. An exemplary writer? A light in the darkness? A bold apologist? Absolutely to all three. A saint? It does not appear so.




10 comments:

Roseanne said...

I have always thought GKC was probably a Saint

Mona Lisa said...

G.K.Chesterton's essay The Emancipation of Domesticity became my manifesto when I read it probably within a year or two after being widowed at 37. Being left the prospect of bringing up children on my own, his vision on the meaning of the woman in the home gave me a picture of what the female truly is. Even though I needed to work outside the home, I did so part-time probably because of G. K Chesterton.

"There is only one way to preserve in the world that high levity and that more leisurely outlook which fulfils the old vision of universalism. That is, to permit the existence of a partly protected half of humanity; a half which the harassing industrial demand troubles indeed, but only troubles indirectly. In other words, there must be in every center of humanity one human being upon a larger plan; one who does not "give her best," but gives her all"

G.K. Chesterton's other essay, Folly and Female Education, also kept me grounded and explained many things about what it is to be truly female. 20 years later, I do think that his ideas in general has helped me to stay grounded in my true calling as a female and mother.

G.K Chesterton had his defects like what has been written about him. He must have had a deep love and understanding of women and children. I wish that the Catholic Church could take on his ideas on the woman and teach it so that instead of women finding their identity in church 'ministry', they would get a vision of the higher dignity of being female and find ways of expressing that in creative ways in the home, and in altruistic activities outside the home, but not in areas where she really shouldn't be concerned about.

G.K Chesterton's essays should be used to develop a truly Catholic education curriculum, primary and secondary. Hopefully many teachers are inspired by his writings to do so but I don't know, as the Catholic Education system seems to also be in a crisis. Maybe if G. K. Chesterton's literary works could be transmitted intentionally in Catholic education, then this would help to create saints even if he himself seems not to be one.

Boniface said...

@Mona Lisa, agreed. The writings of Chesterton need to be much more broadly studied and applied among Catholics. His writing truly life changing.

Olaus Ouisconsinensis said...

"That is, to permit the existence of a partly protected half of humanity; a half which the harassing industrial demand troubles indeed, but only troubles indirectly."

During the Industrial Revolution, much of the industry that women worked in consisted of cloth manufacturing. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, this was still very often done by women, only inside the home. While that might have been better (e.g. the woman could watch the children while spinning), in no way was half of humanity troubled only "indirectly" by "harassing industrial demand." The demand was likely just as pressing on many women. Many historical accounts speak of women carding or spinning wool long into the night.

And, of course, a fair number of the fairer sex has always been in service to their social betters, so they definitely were working "outside the home," or rather, in their master's homes. Just a bit to puncture Chesterton's often overly rosy, Romantic account of everything that happened before the present evils he detested.

Walter E. Kurtz said...

Have you read Msr. Knox's panegyric (The Tablet, 4th July 1936, pp. 26-27)?

Konstantin said...

Anti-semitism has become somewhat of a litmus test for causes since the council (Blessed Innocence XI, Leon Dehon etc.), while doubtful theology is no longer such a problem.

Fr. VF said...

Every person who has died in the state of grace already has a feast: All Saints. GKC is no doubt abundantly satisfied with that.

Lucretius said...

Was his issues with intemperance something he suffered in his old age, or was it more an issue earlier in his life?

Boniface said...

@Lucretius, he struggled with it his entire adult life

Athelstane said...

Well said.

Chesterton was instrumental to my own return to the faith, such as I am. I have long thought he is one of the greatest apologists the Church has produced in the modern era.

But this by itself is not sufficient for canonization.

I like to think that he enjoys the beatific vision after a not terribly long stay in Purgatory.

And yes, the Anti-Semitism concerns are stuff and nonsense.