The Chesterton problem

It is a rare issue of the Catholic Herald that doesn’t contain some reference to GK Chesterton, who died 80 years ago but who remains one of our most quoted writers, and not only in the Catholic press.

His jokes have lasted better than Oscar Wilde’s – “The only way of catching a train I have discovered is to miss the train before”; “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘LORD JONES DEAD’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive.” Though it has to be admitted that his most frequently quoted saying, that when people cease to believe in God they do not then believe in nothing but in anything, he never actually said.

To Catholics, Chesterton occupies a special place and he has often been described as the most important convert since John Henry Newman. His religious books, such as Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, have had an immense influence not only on Catholicism but also Christianity in general. The greatest Christian apologist of modern times, CS Lewis, has acknowledged the influence of Chesterton in his conversion from atheism to a religious outlook.

But perhaps because America is more notably a Christian country, Chesterton’s appeal has been far greater there than in Britain. And it is from America that a call has come that this gentle, charitable, deeply religious man should be canonised. The move has many supporters, including most notably Pope Francis himself, and the Bishop of Northampton has appointed a postulator to look into his credentials.

To date there have been no claims of any Chestertonian miracles. But a more serious obstacle is the charge of antiSemitism, an allegation that Chesterton and his disciples have never been able to shrug off.

Some have argued that when so many of his contemporaries, men like Rudyard Kipling and John Buchan, were guilty of the offence, it is unfair that Chesterton should be singled out.

But it is right that devout Christians like Chesterton should be judged by different standards. And it is impossible to ignore the vehemence of his feelings, inspired as they were by his uncritical devotion to his violently racist younger brother Cecil and his friend and hero Hilaire Belloc.

From both men Chesterton imbibed the notion of a “Jewish problem” consisting of their often-stated belief that British Jews were “aliens”, incapable of loyalty to the Crown. (They missed the irony that exactly the same sort of argument was used against Catholics.)

It was a problem ignored by the majority of their fellow citizens and discerned by only a few like-minded fanatics – the most notable, in Germany, being Adolf Hitler, who in due course was to impose a variety of “solutions” to the problem, ending with the Holocaust.

If there is a problem today, as judging by recent publicity there appears to be, it is a very different one, largely created by the way in which the charge of antiSemitism is levelled not only against racists, who are few, but also against the critics of Israel, many of whom are themselves Jewish. Having been a columnist on the Independent for some years, I am familiar with this particular problem as the paper, in its exceptional coverage of the Middle East, has been a persistent critic of successive Israeli governments and particularly the colonisation of the West Bank – thereby incurring frequent accusations of anti-Semitism, and not just from the poisonous “trolls” on the internet.

I remember in particular, along with the former ambassador to Libya, Oliver Miles, being dubbed an anti-Semite by the late historian Sir Martin Gilbert, when we both claimed that, as an ardent Zionist who had compared Bush and Blair to Roosevelt and Churchill, he was not best fitted to sit on the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq invasion of 2003.

But now the Independent has ceased to exist as a printed newspaper. It is sad news for us, the readers, but it may have come as a relief to the hardliners in Israel and their supporters in Britain.

Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and The Oldie