There will be no St Gilbert of Beaconsfield – at least for now. Bishop Peter Doyle has decided not to proceed with GK Chesterton’s Cause for canonisation, after a thorough inquiry into Chesterton’s life, works and reputation, carried out by Canon John Udris.
The result of that investigation was revealed in a letter to the American GK Chesterton Society at the beginning of their annual conference last week.
In his letter, Bishop Doyle said that he based his decision on the facts, as he saw them, that there was no “local cult”, that he found no “pattern of personal spirituality” in Chesterton’s life and there was an issue of anti-Semitism which he deemed to be an obstacle, “particularly at this time in the United Kingdom”.
The bishop acknowledged that there was devotion to Chesterton around the world and that he had inspired many people, which made it a difficult decision.
This is a disappointing moment for devotees. But they should thank the bishop for the attention he has given to their petition. He has weighed up the issues in conscience, and the decision is his to make. He has also said that things could change in future – and those who hope for Chesterton’s canonisation can be grateful for that too.
Whatever one thinks of the decision, this moment could be an opportunity to reassess Chesterton. Bishop Doyle’s decision may be a most providential one, as it will encourage devotees to address the issues the bishop raised – and so bring Chesterton into greater focus.
For instance, the bishop suggested that Chesterton lacked a “personal spirituality”. A constructive response to this would be to try and explain what Chesterton’s spirituality consisted in. A St Gilbert would certainly challenge the usual view of holiness. But then, saints often do. St Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way” was something new. Blessed John Henry Newman, who will be canonised in October, told his correspondents that he could not be a saint because “Saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales.” Whether or not Chesterton ever joins those two, studying his spirituality might also reveal something new about the many ways God’s grace works in the lives of different people.
Perhaps many in the Church see him as the property of the bookish. The gentle Christian who loved the poor and simple may have to be introduced to the Church at large. Catholics need to see the man who prayed and suffered, who had to deal with the difficulties of life with faith and trust, who sought to reconcile as much as he engaged in debate. Even if Chesterton is never canonised, we can be edified by knowing more about his virtues.
The most disturbing issue of all is Chesterton’s alleged anti-Semitism – a charge strongly denied by his supporters, but one which demands real consideration. Perhaps the many Chesterton societies around the world could initiate a formal investigation and include Jewish scholars and commentators in that exercise. Within that forum, given to light rather than heat, issues can be teased out and the conclusions published.
Realistically speaking, a Cause will not proceed until this accusation is addressed. Chesterton is not unique in this regard. In 2013 the beatification of the founder of the Sacred Heart Fathers, Fr Léon Dehon, was postponed by Pope Benedict XVI and the Cause suspended because of such accusations; further examination of Dehon’s writings is ongoing. The Church, quite rightly, takes this question with the utmost seriousness.
Perhaps the many Chesterton societies around the world could ask the bishop for a copy of Canon Udris’s original report, to help them identify what they need to work on. There is no doubting Chesterton’s importance: apart from anything else, a great many converts have found their way into the Church under his influence. (Dale Ahlquist claims in a recent anthology on the subject, My Name is Lazarus, that he could name a couple of thousand Chestertonian converts.)
Canon Udris said last week: “Getting to know Chesterton better has certainly changed me for good (I hope in both senses!).” The Church will also benefit from closer study of this remarkable figure – whatever the end result.