Friday, July 17, 2009

"Blessed" GK Chesterton?

A few days ago, Zenit reported that there is now a serious movement under way to push for a beatification of GK Chesterton. I had always heard rumors of a Chesteron beatification, but they were always kind of tongue-in-cheek. Apparently, this new resolution is serious. Paulo Gulisano, author of the first Italian language biography of Chesterton, had this to say:

Many people feel there is clear evidence of Chesterton's sanctity: Testimonies about him speak of a person of great goodness and humility, a man without enemies, who proposed the faith without compromises but also without confrontation, a defender of Truth and Charity. His greatness is also in the fact that he knew how to present Christianity to a wide public, made up of Christians and secular people. His books, ranging from "Orthodoxy" to "St. Francis of Assisi," from "Father Brown" to "The Ball and the Cross," are brilliant presentations of the Christian faith, witnessed with clarity and valor before the world.

According to the ancient categories of the Church, we could define Chesterton as a "confessor of the faith." He was not just an apologist, but also a type of prophet who glimpsed far ahead of time the dramatic character of modern issues like eugenics. The English Dominican Aidan Nichols sustains that Chesterton should be seen as nothing less than a possible "father of the Church" of the 20th century.

The whole Zenit article is pretty interesting and worth reading. I'm as big a Chesterton fan as anyone, but I don't know how I feel about this. I think it is exciting, certainly, but I'm just not sure. The problem is, sanctity is not the same thing as being a good person or a profound writer, nor is it even the same thing as being virtuous. You can be virtuous and not have sanctity - sanctity consists in practicing these virtues to a heroic degree. When asked what Chesterton's heroic virtues were, Gulisano replies:

Faith, hope and charity: These were Chesterton's fundamental virtues. Moreover, he was innocent, simple, profoundly humble. Though having personally experienced sorrow, he was a chorister of Christian joy. Chesterton's work is a type of medicine for the soul, or better, it can more precisely be defined as an antidote. The writer himself had actually used the metaphor of antidote to define the effect of sanctity on the world: The saint has the objective of being a sign of contradiction and of restoring mental sanity to a world gone crazy.

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.

One problem with modern canonizations is the fact that it is increasingly difficult to gauge sanctity. You would think that with modern means of record keeping, video, writings, etc. it would be much easier nowadays to determine if a person is truly saintly, but I think it is more difficult today for three reasons.

1) No Accountability. This is especially the case with lay people who are candidates for canonization. In the case of St. Dominic, and of St. Therese of Lisieux, for example, among the persons interviewed in the canonization proceedings were the confessors of each of these saints. St. Dominic retained the same confessor for most of his adult life, as did St. Therese. In the proceedings, both were able to say with certainty, "Yes, I can testify that so-and-so never committed a mortal sin." I don't know if Chesterton had a regular confessor or not; if so, he's long dead. But for a regular lay person going to multiple different priests for confession, anonymously, how can anybody come forward and say anything comparable? This makes us fall back on subjective testimony like "he had a very innocent demeanor," which may be a valid observation but is not the same as a confessor saying he never committed a mortal sin.

2) Private nature of modern life. Consider this: in the medieval village, it was impossible for a sinner to hide is sins, or for a virtuous person to go unrecognized. Everybody knew one another, life was predominantly social and collective, and each person had a reputation. If a priest was a whore-monger, everybody knew it. If an old widow was prayerful and charitable, this was evident, as well. Every peasant knew each other's foibles. Granny is cranky. The guy at the edge of town is insane. Miller Jones' daughter got pregnant out of wedlock. These type of things were impossible to hide, and the reality of medieval social life served as a kind of social testimony to a person's sanctity (or lack thereof). It was extremely hard to fool everybody; i.e., much harder to live a "double life." But now, where most people's co-workers, friends, family and neighbors are all separate groups of people who may never interact, how is there any collective testimony?

When a man can come home to his private house, go inside and look at Internet porn, then go to his job on Monday like normal, how can anyone say what is going on? The same Mr. and Mrs. Johnson who are so nice at the office party may in fact be depraved swingers who, because of things like the Internet, can indulge in their disorders anonymously and without exposing themselves. What I am saying is that in the modern world, with its compartmentalization, its individualism and the capacity for excessive privacy and anonymity, how can anyone say anything with certainty about anyone else? There is a much, much greater ability for people to lead double-lives, which is why such statements like "he was innocent and joyful" don't hold a lot of weight nowadays. The serial killer is always the normal one, right? I'm certainly not saying Chesterton in particular had any such private vices, but Chesterton would be the first to admit that such a potentiality was highly possible in our world.

3) Confusion about what sanctity is. The masses at large I think have always had strange ideas about what holiness is; at some points and places, it was whether one did a lot or miracles, or how stomach-turning and violent the penances one inflicted on themselves was. The problem is that today, many in the Church establishment are even confused about what sanctity is. I think many see it as simply setting one forward as a role model, apart from the supernatural reality of their sanctity and intercession before the throne of God in heaven. Nobody can understand what sanctity is if sin isn't preached, and we all know how that topic is treated today. Confusion about what sanctity means renders it even more difficult in determining whether one is truly holy. It is like trying to find something in muddy water without knowing what it is you are looking for.

These problems are common to modern canonizations, I think. I don't know if they apply to Chesterton or not. Chesterton was truly brilliant and deserves every honor that can possibly be legitimately heaped upon him. I hope they find legitimate evidence of his sanctity. If he is beatified, I will be happy. It is different than my attitude towards Bl. Mother Teresa and JPII, both of whom I positively think should not be canonized. Here, I would love to see Chesterton beatified, but I want to make sure he is beatified for the right reason.


Nick said...

I think the 'danger' of modern canonizations is that it is seen too much as a popularity contest and even an entitlement. The Church should take extra care not to give off that impression.

Now, I have a question for you, what do you know about Bl Teresa of Calcutta that leads you to think she shouldn't be canonized? I'd be interested in knowing, because I've not heard anything significantly 'negative' about her.

From my limited understanding of her situation, I'd say if anyone was up for canonization (though it's not a popularity contest) it would first be Pius XII and then Bl Teresa of Calcutta.

People like Newman, Chesterton and JPII wouldnt really be on the list because they were more 'pop icons'.

Boniface said...


My opposition to Mother Teresa's canonization is based on her apparently syncretist beliefs about the interaction of Catholicism and Hinduism, as well as Islam. Please see this post where I lay out this case:

Also, her one miracle is dubious.

Nick said...

Interesting, it's sad to read those quotes. While I'm always careful to put too much weight on isolated quotes like that, I could see something like that being said. They are not helpful quotes for a cause, but not automatically damning because other saints have said dubious things. The canonization - if it were to happen - would have to be more about Christian living than 'theological contribution'.

Jack said...

Interesting post, just out of curiosity does anyone have any idea why excluding martyrs there are so few 'lay saints/blesseds'? The last time I counted I could only come up with severn and three don't really count (St. Monica and Blds Louise and Marie Matin were the parents of Saints).

Alexander said...

I feel the same way you do, Boniface.

It seems that through the advent of relaxing the canonization requirements (which is now being fixed thank God) we have a system now that has more influence on if the person was popular and likeable over true holiness. Not in all cases but rather that the factor of being likeable and doing something people admire has a higher status now than heroic virtue and sanctity. I like Chesterton but I don’t think he is on par with like St. Pio or St. Pius X for example in terms of sanctity.

What we basically have now in some cases are those who are trying to push through individuals whom they like either through a cult of personality, they wrote well, etc.

Boniface said...


I agree that other saints have said dubious or off the wall things, but there is a difference between saying something off the wall and saying something downright heretical - especially if you say it over and over again and put it in writing. Origen and Joachim of Fiore are two great examples of men who were not canonized precisely because what they taught was heretical, even though they had good 'Christian living.'

St. Hildegard is a great example of a saint who just said a lot of weird things, which is different than false or heretical things.

Kris R said...

Thanks for your thoughts on having GK Chesterton canonized. It's easy to be muddled, now, about what it means to be canonized. It's so much more than a popular stamp of approval, as you and the commenters point out. It's a very good thing to promote the knowledge of Chesterton and of his writings, and to indicate he is a "saint" in the sense that St. Paul writes in his epistles, that we are all called to a life, holy and set apart for God. This is the ordinary sanctity that would keep us busy enough trying to achieve. And then canonization would stand out as the mark of a truly extraordinary life of heroic virtue -- without the two ways we use the word "saint" being muddled together. A distinction "with" importance, so to speak.

Boniface said...

That's interesting about lay saints, Jack...I'll look into it.

I think part of the issue with modern canonizations is a deliberate attempt to hide the fact that there are very few saints in the NO age. This doesn't apply to Chesterton, who of course died in 1938. But in the search for "saints for the modern age" we are losing an understanding of what it means to be a saint and covering up the fact that the NO can't churn out saints like the old Mass did.

Curtis said...

In my opinion, we have no business publicly venerating lay people whose most important victories should be centered around the home and hearth, out of the public eye.

Canonizing them has an almost voyeuristic feel to it.