Saturday, August 3, 2019

Reflections on Reactions to the Chesterton Decision

The decision of Bishop Peter Doyle to not pursue the cause of GK Chesterton at this time has stirred up a lot of emotion from his supporters. Bishop Doyle [§] gave three reasons as to why he felt he could not:

“...I am unable to promote the cause of GK Chesterton for three reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no local cult. Secondly, I have been unable to tease out a pattern of personal spirituality. And, thirdly, even allowing for the context of G K Chesterton’s time, the issue of anti-Semitism is a real obstacle particularly at this time in the United Kingdom”.

If you’ve seen the comments on social media, you’ll know that some Catholics have responded to the decision by bashing the Church or the bishop, accusing him of being politically correct, a leftist or a Freemason. Others have accused him of saying Chesterton was evil. Most of the responses focus on the concern about possible anti-Semitism. The American GK Chesterton Society, for example, issued some statements and past articles about the charge. So let’s deal with this, even though the bishop thought the biggest problem was of the lack of a local cult [*].

I’m a fan of Chesterton’s non-fiction writing. He certainly made good insights into the attitudes of the world and defended the Catholic Church with a rapier wit. But as soon as I saw the article blurb, I knew which book the bishop had in mind—The New Jerusalem. I’ve read it, and I found his statements on Jews to be jarring, sometimes offensively so.

Unfortunately, the term “anti-semitism” is an equivocal term. It can be used to describe a range of attitudes from Adolf Hitler to people who have misgivings about the policies of modern Israel. If the bishop intends it one way and the reader interprets it another way, then people will be fighting over different issues.

Chesterton’s defenders bring out the fact that he opposed the Nazis and said he would die to defend the Jews. That is laudable. It certainly defends him from an accusation that he supported Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. But it would be an error to think that this means none of his statements were offensive.

Personally, I think that if there is a valid concern about his writings about the Jews, it would be of the patronizing kind that sees negative things in their culture and assumes that “they can’t help it, so we need to help them.” [#]. In my reading of The New Jerusalem, I had a sense of Chesterton assuming that the problems among Jews were because of their culture and not because of some of the more shameful elements of European history keeping them apart from the rest of society.

For example, while his defenders make much of his saying he supported a nation for the Jews, less is said about why he supports it. On page 289 of my version of The New Jerusalem, he explains:

Patriotism is not merely dying for the nation. It is dying with the nation. It is regarding the fatherland not merely as a real resting-place like an inn, but as a final resting-place, like a house or even a grave. Even the most Jingo of the Jews do not feel like this about their adopted country; and I doubt if the most intelligent of the Jews would pretend that they did. Even if we can bring ourselves to believe that Disraeli lived for England, we cannot think that he would have died with her. If England had sunk in the Atlantic he would not have sunk with her, but easily floated over to America to stand for the Presidency. Even if we are profoundly convinced that Mr. Beit or Mr. Eckstein had patriotic tears in his eyes when he obtained a gold concession from Queen Victoria, we cannot believe that in her absence he would have refused a similar concession from the German Emperor. When the Jew in France or in England says he is a good patriot he only means that he is a good citizen, and he would put it more truly if he said he was a good exile. Sometimes indeed he is an abominably bad citizen, and a most exasperating and execrable exile, but I am not talking of that side of the case. I am assuming that a man like Disraeli did really make a romance of England, that a man like Dernburg did really make a romance of Germany, and it is still true that though it was a romance, they would not have allowed it to be a tragedy. They would have seen that the story had a happy ending, especially for themselves. These Jews would not have died with any Christian nation.

That’s not far off (albeit more eloquent) than Ilhan Omar’s accusation that Jews have a dual loyalty, and Catholics who were offended by Omar should consider the above passage in that light.

Another thing to be aware of are the arguments that Jesus Himself, not to mention St. John Chrysostom, would be equally scandalous. It’s an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, but it doesn’t work. Jesus did not condemn Jews because they were Jews. Jesus condemned prevalent attitudes among prominent Jews and called for their conversion. St. John Chrysostom did say some appalling things about Jews [~]. But his views were based on an anger that the Jews had rejected Christ and a concern that some in his diocese were embracing Jewish practices as a novelty, putting themselves at risk of losing their faith. But, if you read St. John Chrysostom, you will see that he thought Jews could and should become Christians, while Chesterton gives the impression that Jews can’t be fully part of a nation. But that’s also what anti-Catholics in Britain and the US have said about Catholics—a fact that we rightfully find offensive.

It is important to remember that the decision of Bishop Doyle does not mean that Chesterton is evil. It does not mean he’s not in Heaven. It doesn’t even mean that his case is permanently blocked. The formal declaration of sainthood by the Church means that the person is held up by the Church as an exemplar of Christian life.

In Chesterton’s case, these obstacles may or may not be solved. Certainly we should pray that they are if we want him to be declared a saint. But let’s not condemn the bishop for raising the concerns he is obligated to raise. That doesn’t help the Church or the cause of sainthood. It only serves to divide the Church—something Chesterton wouldn’t approve of.

[§] Curiously, though his letter was read at the American GK Chesterton Society conference, nobody has provided an actual text of the letter at the time of my writing this. The only citation Catholic media like CNA and Catholic World Report have used for the letter is a column by Rob Dreher who says he was sitting in the back and couldn’t hear everything. That’s hardly professional reporting. They should have made an effort to get a text of the letter.

[*] It’s a valid concern. He has the obligation to investigate and only start the cause if he sees it justified. But if the people of his own diocese didn’t develop a cultus, he can’t go forward with the cause. The popularity of Chesterton among American Catholics is irrelevant in his determination.

[#] Similar to how some American supporters of civil rights treat problems in minority communities as inevitable. The character of Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman exemplified this mindset.

[~] See his Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, for example.

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