Chesterton’s prophetic voice, now increasingly being heard once more, is still relevant to the new age

What Anglicans say about former major Anglicans who become Catholics is interesting. The two most obvious examples are Chesterton and Newman. As with Newman, so with Chesterton: what you say about them tends to depend on whether you are an Anglican or a Catholic. Anglicans tend to focus on the works written before conversion, Catholics on those which appeared after it. For the Anglican A L Maycock (Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, where as an Anglican I was once one of the clergy), the decade beginning in 1904 (he was converted in 1922), “the decade of Heretics and Orthodoxy, of The Ballad of the White Horse, of … the Charles Dickens, the first two volumes of Father Brown, of The Victorian Age in Literature and much else shows him at the summit of his powers”.

The view, nevertheless, that Chesterton reached the summit only with The Everlasting Man, St Francis and, above all perhaps, with St Thomas Aquinas, is probably more generally held. Etienne Gilson, one of the most substantial Thomist scholars of the last century, remarked to a friend of Chesterton’s friend and biographer Maisie Ward on the appearance of St Thomas Aquinas that “Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book”. Gilson, nevertheless, also thought Orthodoxy “the best piece of apologetic the century [has] produced”, and this is a view that other (Roman) Catholic commentators tend to accept.

What puzzles some Roman Catholics unacquainted with the Anglican post-Tractarian intellectual tradition (within which Chesterton’s theological ideas were formed), is the question of where Chesterton can possibly have come by such ideas. Partly, this confusion comes from the Anglican Chesterton’s obvious warmth towards Rome. He described himself as a Catholic long before he was in communion with the Holy See, as Bishop Charles Gore (one of the major influences on Orthodoxy) would have done: but Gore was one of those Anglo-Catholics who were intensely hostile to the claims of Rome. When the Anglican Chesterton talks of the Catholic tradition he sees it as being embodied by European culture. As he says in Orthodoxy, “the very word ‘romance’ has in it the mystery and ancient meaning of Rome”. There is no residual trace in his early Christian writings of his youthful hostility to Roman dogma and priestcraft; on the contrary, these things are now seen as embodying and defending the whole Chestertonian vision of life. Ultimately, he sees “Rome” and “Christianity” as synonymous, and the Reformation as a great historical disaster for English culture; as he puts it in Orthodoxy:

Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground… We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

I repeat: that was written by an Anglican: the kind of Anglican, incidentally, also represented by many of those who are now coming over the Tiber into the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (to whom Anglo-Catholics have a particular devotion: the wonderful Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, of which I remain very fond, explains that). Chesterton, it should always be remembered, had a deep reverence for Our Lady even before he was a full believer in basic Christianity.

But I digress. Just as Anglicans and Catholics view Chesterton from a rather different angle, so do those Anglicans who are definitely not Anglo-Catholics differ from the Catholic-minded when it comes to judging his importance as a writer. Catholics see Chesterton as a major figure. Non-Catholics (including unbelievers) see him today as a minor figure, but one from contemplating whom much innocent amusement may be derived. This emerged very vividly when Fr Ian Ker’s major biography of Chesterton was published recently. Fr Ker’s principal thesis is that “Chesterton should be seen as the obvious successor to Newman, and indeed as the successor to the other great Victorian ‘sages’… Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold”.

In his book he triumphantly establishes this. As I wrote at the time, in my review of the book in this newspaper, it ought to have been possible to say that after the publication of this definitive work it would now no longer be possible to dismiss Chesterton as an author of minor poetry and fiction and source of amusing anecdotes. However, in an astonishing attack on the book (and on Chesterton himself) A N Wilson did just that in a Spectator review: Ian Ker’s book, he said, is an “attempt to make Chesterton seem like an important thinker” (my italics), and he implied that Chesterton’s achievement could be best summed up in such writings as his Old King Cole parodies, the Father Brown stories and the Man Who Was Thursday. Wilson himself appeared on the evidence of his review –and reviewers tend to show off how much of a writer they know about – to have read nothing else. Catholic reviewers (notably Christopher Howse in the Tablet) accepted Fr Ker’s assessment: non-Catholics did not.

In his own time, there was no such controversy. He was seen increasingly as a prophetic figure: and it was certainly his intention to pronounce with as much persuasiveness as he could on the ills of his own age and on the nature of human life itself. Chesterton, wrote his brother Cecil, ‘is primarily … the preacher of a definite message to his own time. He is using all the power which his literary capacity gives him to lead the age in a certain direction.”

This became more and more accepted. He defended the Catholic cause, certainly; but he was seen as very much more than a Catholic apologist. “The very sound of his name,” the historian Sir Arthur Bryant put it at the time when he died in 1936, “is like a trumpet call… If any literary name of our age becomes a legend, it will be his… He was the kind of man of whom Bunyan was thinking when he drew the picture of Mr Greatheart.” His premature death was seen as the stilling of a prophetic voice at a time when it was desperately needed: Eliot wrote of his sense of loss at Chesterton’s “disappearance from a world such as that we live in”.

By the end of the last century, his prophetic voice was being rediscovered. Chesterton’s distaste for state socialism, his suspicion of monopoly capitalism, and his support for the independence from imperial domination of small nations like Poland had once more become understood as being at the centre of Catholic thinking, and they were validated by the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet bloc. His anti-modernism was paralleled by Pope John Paul’s counter-revolution against the theological liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s, a liberalism even more powerful (as it had also been during the first decade of the century) within Protestantism; here, too, Chesterton’s transcendentalist arguments against the immanentism of his own day seem almost uncannily prescient. Chesterton’s ideas on marriage and the family, on eugenics, above all on the dignity of the human person and the central importance of the defence of free will in a determinist age, all became uncannily relevant to the world of the 21st century.

It is now time for Chesterton’s prophetic stature to be assessed once more for its relevance to the new age. That is why the Chesterton Society (in which I have an interest to declare, since I am its chairman) is holding a one-day conference next week in Oxford on the theme of “Chesterton’s Prophetic Voice”. The main speakers are Lynette Burrows, who will deliver the keynote address, Fr Ian Ker, who will speak on Chesterton and the Figure of Christ, and Dale Ahlquist, chairman of the American Chesterton Society, and author of many popular books on Chesterton, who will speak about Chesterton’s many accurate predictions about the future of the 20th century. I will also say a few words myself: and I hope to meet as many of you as possible there. Details of the conference can be found by clicking here.