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Chesterton's Non-Canonization

I suppose anyone who's interested has heard that the cause for G.K. Chesterton's canonization has been shut down, at least for now. Here's a brief notice about it in the Catholic Herald UK. Sounds somewhat disgruntled, or at any rate gives significant space to a disgruntled voice. 

I must say that I'm more in agreement than otherwise with this decision. I count myself as an admirer of the man and his work, but with a good many reservations. Like a lot of people I was wildly enthusiastic about his writing when I first encountered it, but I soon, or fairly soon, developed a more mixed opinion. At his best, he's great, astonishingly wise and perceptive. "Astonishing" is really not an exaggeration of the initial effect on me of some of his writings, that gift he has of pointing out things both obvious and unnoticed.

For me he's at his best in his essays. I often find his style tiresome at greater length, and don't care much for the fiction, except maybe for the Father Brown stories. And he wrote so very much that it sometimes seems that he is on a sort of GKC auto-pilot, maintaining the style but not so much of the substance.

But even if his writing were uniformly brilliant it would not justify calling him a saint. That hardly needs to be pointed out. I admit that I don't know all that much about his personal life, but though he seems to have been a good man I've never seen evidence of heroic virtue. 

Be that as it may, there's another reason why it's best that this effort not be pursued, and that's the fact that he can be fairly accused of anti-Semitism. 

I say "fairly accused." I've heard the argument made both for and against him on this point. But it does seem to be justified to at least some extent. The most generous thing you can say about some of his views in that line is that they are bizarre and rather creepy. I'm thinking in particular of that passage--I have no idea where to find it--in which he advocates some sort of special dress for English Jews, something by which they could always be identified.

That was pre-Holocaust and it wouldn't have had the same resonance at the time that it does post-Holocaust. And I don't for a moment think he would have had anything but hatred for the Nazi program of extermination. I think he's on record as being anti-Hitler. Nevertheless, that one notion makes the idea of canonizing him here and now a bad one. The Church has had, over the centuries and in some circles still, enough of a problem with anti-Semitism, and is enough of a pariah in the eyes of much of our civilization, that we don't need to do something unnecessary to make that situation worse. I think the British football term for that is "own goal." Nor do we need to suggest to actual anti-Semites within the Church that their animosity is acceptable.

His importance as writer and thinker won't be any the the worse for his absence from the official list of saints. I think the whole process is being misused these days, actually, with popes being canonized, it seems, in almost a pro-forma way. "All have won, and all must have medals" seems like a bad approach.


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Really relieved to hear they shut down the canonization process. I enjoy his writings - rxcept for the deep dyed antisemitism. A few years ago I shared on Facebook a moderate article by a Catholic writer about how Chesterton was a great journalist but his antisemitism disqualified him for canonization. I was shocked to see regular Catholics springing to Chestertons defense, Discounting his anti-Semitism, and treating this like some kind of left wing anti-Catholic propaganda

The author of the article said Chesterton should be thought of as a kind of 'patron saint' of journalists, sitting in the old Fleet Street with his glass ever ready in hand.

Michael Coren in his biography of Chesterton quotes Chesterton saying that Jews should wear special clothing. That's probably where you heard it - or someone talking about the biography. But its everywhere. Why o Why does Chesterton have to ruin a good poem - The Secret People - with these nasty caricatures

Our patch of glory ended; we never heard guns again.
But the squire seemed struck in the saddle; he was foolish, as if in pain,
He leaned on a staggering lawyer, he clutched a cringing Jew,
He was stricken; it may be, after all, he was stricken at Waterloo.
Or perhaps the shades of the shaven men, whose spoil is in his house,
Come back in shining shapes at last to spoil his last carouse:
We only know the last sad squires rode slowly towards the sea,
And a new people takes the land: and still it is not we.

I have very mixed results in setting (as we say) or 'assigning' (as you say) Chesterton. A lot of people really don't understand it - they can't grasp what he is getting at. There's *wonderful* stuff in The Everlasting Man. But the Chestertonian prose is very degressive and the students often cannot see the wood for the trees. I've also tried assigning The Dumb Ox - his life of Thomas Aquinas - and again, I find students sort of pretend to have a clue what he is on about. Students who can read pretty heavy Victorian Edwardian prose - like Newman for instance - seem to come unstuck on Chesterton. Not all of them. But outside of the Chesterton fan club kind of person, there's little spontaneous enthusiasm for his writing.
Im not willing to use Chesterton as a set book.

I personally think the Father Brown stories are very fine literature. They have the same caricatures of Jews. I don't care for it, but it doesn't destroy the fiction as fiction. But to call the guy a saint is problematic.

"Problematic" is a somewhat abused word these days. It seems to be used frequently as a sort of passive-aggresive substitute for "I hate this and will destroy it if possible." But in GKC's case it seems exactly appropriate.

I used to particularly dislike the verb form - 'to problematize'. Curriculae for English students would always have the students' 'problematizing' Shakespeare or the Lake Poets. It seemed to mean reading it or discussing it.

The stuff about special clothing for Jews is in his book, The New Jerusalem, which is all about what he terms "the Jewish problem". Makes for disturbing reading. Don't understand how that can be dismissed by his fans.

Right, Marianne. That just seems too much to be ascribed to the conventional prejudices of the time and the culture. This is something he gave active thought to, dreamed up, and published to the world.

I don't have any difficulty in believing that he is in heaven. But canonization is a public statement, and in this case it would not be a good one.

Grumpy, I'm puzzled by the difficulty your students have with him. I've always thought that clarity was one of his strengths (usually).

"Chesterton should be thought of as a kind of 'patron saint' of journalists, sitting in the old Fleet Street with his glass ever ready in hand."

It would fitting that the patron saint of old-school heavy-smoking, heavy-drinking, cynical journalists would be someone who's actually not a saint.

As I'm not a Catholic I don't really have any skin in the GKC sainthood game, but I agree with Mac on the literary side. I think Chesterton's much better in small doses, and I too like the essays and the Fr. Brown stories much better than the rest. I've read several of the novels, but the only one I really enjoyed was The Napoleon of Notting Hill. It's been 35 years since I read it however, and I don't know what I'd think of it today. Lots of people like The Man Who Was Thursday, but I've read it twice, once when I was in college and then again more recently, and didn't really care much for it either time.

I love Chesterton, but I agree with you on all this, Maclin.

Glad you think so. I don't feel like there's any contradiction in loving GKC and thinking that his canonization would be a bad move.

I meant to remark on Grumpy's observation of fans who react to the latter view as "some kind of left wing anti-Catholic propaganda." I've run across that, too. Very misguided.

"Lots of people like The Man Who Was Thursday, but I've read it twice, once when I was in college and then again more recently, and didn't really care much for it either time."

Same here. I read it once in the '80s, maybe early '80s, with great anticipation, because I loved GKC's non-fiction. My reaction could be crudely summed up as "wtf?". I didn't get it all. Probably 20 years later I tried it again and still felt like I didn't really understand it and definitely didn't especially like it. But speaking for the opposite view are people like Dawn Eden Goldstein, who read it when becoming Catholic was far from her mind, loved it, and was greatly influenced by it.

My reaction was about the same as your first one. I got the annotated edition with great hopes, but no joy.


Do you mean "no joy" about getting it, or "no joy" after having read it? I notice the phrase used a lot in British detective shows meaning more or less "failure."

"Did you check for fingerprints?"

"Yeah, no joy."

That's it. Bill and I say that all the time as a joke.


Mac, part of the problem might be the students, but I really doubt if its the whole problem. Chesterton really is not all that clear in his intention. Plus he is a very topical writer, ie a journalist, as Melanie McDonagh said. Read the chapter on Manicheanism in the Thomas book, or the chapter on Hegelianism, and if you are a 20 year theology student you have no idea why he is telling you any of these things. In a book about Thomas Aquinas.

Odd, because I've always thought clarity is one of his strengths. I would have expected the charge to be that he over-simplifies, which he certainly does sometimes. I read the Thomas book many years ago and thought it was pretty clear. So it occurs to me to wonder now whether I and others without any or much theological knowledge are the problem--thinking we understand when we really don't. Maybe the fact that I've never read more than 10 or 20 pages of Aquinas (a generous estimate), much less Hegel, made me just accept uncritically whatever Chesterton seemed to be saying.

Or...maybe Chesterton didn't actually understand it all that well?

Janet, another one I don't think I've ever heard outside of those shows: "early days." As in "We don't have a suspect yet, but it's early days." I noticed Lewis saying it several years ago (probably longer ago than I think) and now it seems to turn up all the time.

Students have the same 'WFT' reaction to the Aquinas book and Everlasting Man as you did to
The Man Called Thursday. I don't normally think that students don't understand something just because they are dumb or ignorant. My experience over the years is that student understanding is as good a test as any of an author. Of course there are good books and movies they don't like or enjoy. But when they are not seeing the point at all, there's a problem in the book or movie.

Yeah, I'm not suggesting that it's their fault. Just trying to figure out why my reaction (and others) is so different. If I have time this evening I think I'll read the Manicheanism chapter and see how it strikes me now.

I find Chesterton's non-fiction writing to be a little byzantine and bazaar, so I see where your students are coming from. He writes probably just how he spoke, and it takes re-reading to gain any clarity (for me, of course). I have never read any of his fiction.

I have heard "early days" all my life. It seems odd to me that you haven't. Maybe it came from my father's family.


No idea. I guess I could have heard it earlier but I don't think it would have caught my attention the way it did if I had.

Stu, it would be interesting to hear your reaction the The Man Who Was Thursday.

You could have heard it early on.

It's funny, I just wrote that in a note earlier this week.


"early on" is familiar.

Shoot. That is how fast I forget what I am talking about. But I did mean "early days" originally.


"Stu, it would be interesting to hear your reaction the The Man Who Was Thursday."

I am proud to say we have a copy in our library here, Mac. Now that I am at a state school I did not expect it, but there looks to be lots of Chesterton upstairs!

I just read that there is going to be a LOTR TV series - have you seen that news?

Yes, I've heard it, but I didn't pay much attention. I'm not really in the market for more Tolkien dramatizations. Though I guess with the freedom of long-form tv there might be a chance that it would be good...

Very strange about the quantity of Chesterton there.

Fun blog fact: the very first LODW piece was about the Tolkien movies.


We say ‘its early days’ all the time in GB

Your police certainly do. :-)

There was an article in the Daily Telegraph about an Amazon serialization of a Tolkein book. Seemed to be set in a place with a name like Numedor (?). The article said the Tolkein estate won't let them change anything in Tolkein's narrative. That was the interesting thing.

I never link to the Telegraph any longer because everything seems to be behind a paywall, all the time. No freebies before they bill you.

Yes, that is what I read too. I have no plans on watching any of it, but mainly because I don't stream or watch any TV shows.

That's how many of these newspapers are now. Friends are constantly posting links on facebook to NY Times or Washington Post and I can't read any of it, and certainly don't care enough to give any periodical money. It does make you wonder where "print" journalism will eventually end up. Most people probably feel like it should all be free.

Print journalism, like the recorded music industry, has been in serious trouble for the best part of 20 years now. The internet has been referred to as "an extinction event" for a lot of newspapers. Only a slight exaggeration.

"won't let them change anything in Tolkein's narrative. " I wonder how precise and how binding that is. The original 3 Tolkien movies didn't change Tolkien's narrative all that much, but it was enough to make a difference. At least for a lot of fans, not all.

Try dealing with academic publishers. Talk about trades facing an extinction event

Indeed. Publishers of encyclopedias are probably another. We have two sets and most of a third, and although we rarely consult them and could very much use the shelf space for other books, I can't quite bring myself to dump them, either.

I read the Manicheanism chapter in the Aquinas book and am puzzled as to why theology students would be puzzled by it. It seemed pretty clear to me, and I'm sure I'm not any smarter than they are, and definitely not as knowledgeable in theology. I can well understand their not liking his style, but I don't see why it would be especially hard to understand. Is it possible that Chesterton's references to his contemporary culture have become inaccessible to them? For someone my age some of it is obsolete but still intelligible.

I'm not so sure that Chesterton is *right* about everything he says, but I think I understand him. It's in a sense kind of cartoonish, kind of in the way that Flannery O'Connor talks about, drawing large crude figures for people who can't see very well. It's like somebody painting a picture of red-faced man where the face is not just flushed pink but flaming red.

I was not really disappointed by the news that Chesterton's cause is not going forward, but I was sad to see that his alleged anti-Semitism was one of the grounds. In my heart of hearts, I truly do not think he was an anti-Semite, though I grant that he had a way of leaning on stereotypes (not only of Jews) too readily. I can certainly understand how some of his language upsets us today, post-Holocaust, but I think that in his own time a more benign construction could be put on it.

Marianne mentions his book The New Jerusalem. I wrote some notes about that book, including some reflections on its alleged anti-Semitism, here (near the bottom).

I would need to re-read it myself! I just remember two successive years in which MTH students drew a blank on the whole book, and then I dropped it

It does sound like an interesting book, much more interesting than the circulation of the
um controversial bits made it seem, though I have to say it's not very likely that I'll read it, for the usual too-much-else-on-my-plate reasons. In truth I had no idea what the book itself was about.

When I've done my best to take the "special clothing" etc bit in the best light, I still can't escape the sense that there is something suspicious and hostile in it. That's what makes it hard to overlook.

In case it's not obvious, I cross-posted with Grumpy. I was responding to Craig about The New Jerusalem.

I came across this update on Amazon's Tolkien adaptation for the screen:


They've hired Tom Shippey to patrol their plans, which is a good sign, but it sounds like they'll also have considerable leeway to create new characters, etc. It was such freedom that sunk Peter Jackson's Hobbit films.

I am watching Our Boys which is the latest Israeli miniseries

Saw an ad for that on Netflix and had no idea at all what it was about. Is it good?

Craig, my initial reaction to that occurred at the first sentence. A *billion* dollars? My next reaction is more less "nothing good will come of that." They can stick to the essential plot and still do unworthy things, which I guess is more or less how I came to feel about the LOTR trilogy.

I never even gave the Hobbit films a chance. By the time they came along I had soured on the trilogy films. Not that they didn't have many good points. But....

I did see a bit of one of the Hobbit films at someone else's house. It was a long fight scene of the sort that I didn't like in the trilogy, but worse.

Our Boys is gripping.

I saw one hobbit movie and it really was truly awful

Apparently I was confused. There's no Our Boys on Netflix.

Our Boys is on amazon prime.

They blur in my mind.

Speaking of "gripping," that Jack Ryan thing they keep pushing on Amazon is.

Since we are talking about Tolkien movies, has anyone seen the movie about Tolkien?


I read a couple of very dismissive reviews so didn't pursue it. They said his Catholicism was mostly ignored.

That's what Bishop Barron said, although he liked it all right.

He also said almost the exact same thing you said about the action sequences/fights in superhero movies.


Smart man.

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