The Apology for Catholicism in Selected Writings by G. K. Chesterton

by Maciej Reda (Author)
©2016 Monographs 244 Pages


This book focuses on G. K. Chesterton’s apology for Catholicism in the context of his epoch. It shows how he portrays Catholicism as English and universal at the same time and thus seeks to put an end to its isolation from England's mainstream culture. Organized around four thematic issues (transcendence, mystical materialism, valuation of the childlike, and universality), the book illustrates Chesterton’s case for Catholicism as a case for romance and adventure, and as a challenge to modern modes of thought inimical to Catholic Christianity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: The Case for Transcendence
  • Chapter Two: The Case for Mystical Materialism
  • Chapter Three: The Case for the Childlike
  • Chapter Four: The Case for Universality
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited

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Gilbert Keith Chesterton became a recognizable figure in the journalistic and literary world of London at the turn of the 20th century. He grew up in the decadent fin de siècle and reacted against it with his newly-found Christian convictions. As P. N. Furbank observes, Chesterton was a “refugee from the fin-de-siècle, and yet he borrowed almost all his equipment as a writer from it.” He “took over the paradox from Wilde, in order to turn it against him” (18). Chesterton was a sort of anti-decadent, anti-modern, and anti-modernist enfant terrible, who surprisingly defied the predominant culture of the day and became a champion of Catholic Christianity. As Holbrook Jackson points out:

Equally surprising and unexpected to all but the most patient observers of intellectual revolutions was the completion of the somersault of ideas at the very dawn of the twentieth century, when intellectual consciousness landed on its feet, as it were, becoming wildly English and frankly Christian in the genius of G. K. Chesterton (111).

Chesterton combined Englishness with Catholicism, two qualities which for four centuries had seemed incompatible. Though critical of contemporary luminaries, he was on a friendly footing with some of them (e.g. G. B. Shaw and H. G. Wells), and was able to make his distinctive voice heard, gaining as he did a wide renown as a journalist, author, literary critic, debater, and speaker. Obviously, Chesterton’s religious views were far from the mainstream, but he did try to integrate them into it. As the Hungarian philosopher Aurel Kolnai points out, Chesterton was

English to all intents and purposes – valodi angol (genuine English), to quote a ritual Hungarian phrase – without sharing at all the distinctive beliefs and traditions of, say, Mill or Spencer, Wells or Shaw: here was an English genius who actually countenanced Popery, at which even Johnson seemed to have drawn the line (152).

As other English converts to Catholicism, who had made their presence felt since the 1840s, Chesterton “tried to dazzle [his] readers with wit, erudition, and ostentatious orthodoxy” (Allitt 11). He strove to “make a closer fit between ‘Catholic truth’ and ‘intellectual respectability’ ” (15) in an attempt to “shift the zone of respectable ideas in the society at large, in order that Catholic truth and respectable ideas might coincide more fully” (ibid.). He was, however, “the reverse of apologetic” (Chesterton, Autobiography 80) (in the sense of deprecatory) and was proud of Catholic doctrine in its totality, unpopular as it was. Thus, he significantly contributed to what Thomas Woodman calls “Catholic ←7 | 8→chic,” making unabashed Catholicism intellectually convincing and even fashionable.1 As Chesterton explains:

So far as a man may be proud of a religion rooted in humility, I am very proud of my religion; I am especially proud of those parts of it that are most commonly called superstition. I am proud of being fettered by antiquated dogmas and enslaved by dead creeds (as my journalistic friends repeat with so much pertinacity), for I know very well that it is the heretical creeds that are dead, and that it is only the reasonable dogma that lives long enough to be called antiquated (ibid.).

As this quotation shows, Chesterton’s strategy was to turn the tables on his opponents. Rather than argue with anti-Catholic prejudices, he would put them to good account by showing that in fact they pointed the other way. At the same time, he was keenly aware that Catholicism was unpalatable to his countrymen and had to be “smuggled” through the back door, as it were, if it was ever to gain acceptance. The English had to be convinced that the Catholic faith was not inimical to their Englishness and that it had something to offer. To this end, Chesterton sought to show that Catholicism is quintessentially English and universal at the same time. He presented Catholic doctrine as close to ordinary human experience and the “man in the street” in order to show that it answered basic human needs and that it was on the side of the people (of all ages and cultures) as opposed to the smart set, a truly popular religion. He addressed an audience for whom religion had become a social convention or whose religion had been shaken by rationalism, evolutionism and an unqualified belief in progress, coupled with English vagueness and compromise. In such a climate (Catholic) Christianity was often dismissed as mythology, while “myths themselves had been so rationalised and reduced that their symbols had been emptied of sense” (Oliver, “Chesterton and Primitive Religion” 50). For Chesterton, England was no longer a Christian country, but “a heathen country to be conquered and redeemed” (Chesterton, “The Future of Religion” 287). Like Matthew Arnold before him, he attacked a utilitarian materialism dominating English life and culture. As E. J. Oliver points out, Chesterton restored for his generation “a passage between earth and heaven” (op. cit. 49). His influence was so great because

[h]ardly any public figure, apart from Chesterton and Belloc, asserted that religion was the underlying reality of life and death – and Belloc was more often regarded as ←8 | 9→a foreigner. Chesterton was indisputably British and shared not only the feelings of his countrymen but that primitive awe and astonishment at Creation which they had largely abandoned (48).

Chesterton sought to bring it home to the English that the religion that had been taken away from them at the Reformation was all-important. He set out to oppose the narrowing of the Christian spirit in the name of modernity which rejected basic Christian doctrines, and engaged in a dialogue with his contemporaries whereby he asserted the presence of a distinctly Catholic voice. He reacted against modernity,2 whose attack on Christianity, and especially on the Catholic Church, was in his eyes an attack on ordinary human things, such as reason, common sense, freedom and dignity. His response, however, was not a purely personal reaction. As he quipped in Orthodoxy, he made a heresy of his own, and then discovered it was orthodoxy. His position was Christian and he was particular about not manufacturing his own philosophy. His views were not (so he claimed) his invention: “I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me” (Orthodoxy 211). Thus, although his work was highly idiosyncratic, he sought to make it part of a larger tradition of Catholicism. As Anthony Burgess points out, “[t]he literature produced from about 1880 to 1914 is characterized either by an attempt to find substitutes for a religion which seems dead, or by a kind of spiritual emptiness – a sense of the hopelessness of trying to believe in anything” (207). Chesterton addressed both, and offered a remedy, namely the abovementioned heresy of his own, which was Christian tradition expressed in a new language. He combined two tendencies of which the first was typical of early and the second of later twentieth-century English literature. As Burgess makes it clear, the early twentieth century saw attempts “to manufacture something to believe in,” while it was only the later twentieth century that “has demanded something deeper… the sense of a continuous tradition, the sense of being involved in a civilisation” (215). For Chesterton, this civilization was Christendom which Aidan Nichols defined as “Catholic Christianity in its fullest possible manifestation in culture” (The Realm 31). Chesterton’s argument for Catholicism was also cultural and he was an “enthusiastic proponent of the values of a synthesis between faith and culture” (Daly 81). As Nichols observes, Chesterton played the role of a sage or a critic of culture, and his Orthodoxy “remains for the English the best introduction to Gospel religion” (Chesterton, Theologian xiv). This is not to ←9 | 10→say that Chesterton reduced Catholicism to its cultural manifestations. He simply appreciated that without transforming culture religion cannot take root in society. Burgess holds that “an artist has to have subject matter – a civilisation, a religion, a myth, and the emotions of people who belong to these things, but it should not have to be the artist’s job to create his subject matter – it should be ready, waiting” (215). It seems, however, that for Chesterton the necessity of having to explain to the reader what he was writing about was not, as Burgess claims, a constraint. Rather, it stirred his imagination and brought out his apologetic skills. Had his audience been able to “look back to a few hundred years of continuous belief and tradition based on belief, and take it for granted” (ibid.) he probably would never have embarked on his apologetic endeavour.

Chesterton set out to counter the cultural crisis of his times from a position not strictly Catholic, and ended up by being an outspoken apologist of Catholic orthodoxy. It may, then, seem anachronistic to speak of his apology for Roman Catholicism in the period preceding his conversion to the Catholic Church, but in fact this event does not mark any significant watershed in his work, and such a distinction would be useless and artificial. Chesterton became a Roman Catholic in 1922 but his work was Catholic in outlook long before, even as early as 1908 when Orthodoxy was published. He was Catholic in his intellect and imagination, even though at the time he refused to address the question of where is the seat of authority in the Church. It should be pointed out that his concept of the Catholic Church was for many years broader than that defined by the Roman Catholic Church, and this must be borne in mind when one reads his earlier texts. Like John Henry Newman before his conversion, Chesterton believed that the Anglican Church was part of the Catholic Church and would undoubtedly have agreed with him that “she was nothing, unless she was this” (Newman, Apologia… 50). The branch of Anglicanism to which Chesterton adhered was Anglo-Catholicism, issued from the Oxford Movement whose proponents considered Anglicanism to be the heir of the primitive Church and who were opposed to the Reformation insofar as it was in conflict with this view. The Tractarians believed that “Antiquity was the true exponent of the doctrines of Christianity and the basis of the Church of England” (45). They developed the doctrine of the Via Media to the effect that Anglicanism was a middle course between the extremes of Romanism and Protestantism. What Newman and his friends were doing was to reinterpret Anglicanism in the spirit of Catholicism:

we were upholding that primitive Christianity which was delivered for all time by the early teachers of the Church, and which was registered and attested in the Anglican formularies and by the Anglican divines. That ancient religion had well-nigh faded away ←10 | 11→out of the land, through the political changes of the last 150 years, and it must be restored. It would be in fact a second Reformation: – a better reformation, for it would be a return not to the sixteenth century, but to the seventeenth (61).

Before he came to the conclusion that the doctrine of the Via Media was untenable, Chesterton, like Newman before him, had stayed in the Anglican Church for years, but he did not approve of the Reformation and was attracted to Roman Catholic doctrine. Indeed, a case could be made out for Chesterton’s “proto-Roman Catholicism” since even in his Anglo-Catholic period he was not an apologist of Anglo-Catholicism in the sense of pitting is against Roman Catholicism as once Newman did (so much so that after his conversion he thought it proper to retract his anti-Roman Catholic statements). Chesterton, by contrast, did not criticize Rome and basically would have had nothing to retract. Naturally, it might be objected that being an Anglo-Catholic does not necessarily involve attacking Rome, but merely believing that the Anglican Church has been Catholic despite the Reformation. It seems, however, that Anglo-Catholicism does imply an inherent sense of separateness from Rome; if it did not, there would be no reason to keep away from it. Now this sense of separateness is not noticeable in Chesterton’s pre-conversion writings. On the contrary, he appears to pass over the division in silence and most of the time focuses on what is common to Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics. There are, however, some explicit references to Roman Catholicism in his pre-conversion works which show his sympathy towards it. Thus, in Orthodoxy he says:

The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority… these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all – the authority of a man to think (237).

Clearly, he is referring here to the Roman Catholic Church. Further on, he refutes the charge that Catholic doctrine and discipline are oppressive, a statement which can hardly refer to Anglo-Catholicism since it is followed by a praise of European Catholic countries, which have been able to preserve authentic human joy:

[t]hose 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 (350).

Again, the word “Catholic” undoubtedly means “Roman Catholic” here. Moreover, it seems to refer to Pope Pius X’s anti-modernist campaign, launched one year earlier, for which Rome was attacked as reactionary. Chesterton was strongly opposed to modernism, both Anglican and Catholic, and in a text from 1909, in which he argued with Robert Dell, a Catholic modernist, he wrote: “About the seat of this Catholic authority I do not disguise from any one that I am still in ←11 | 12→some doubt; and I agree much more with the high Anglicans than the Roman Modernists” (qtd. in Boyd, “Chesterton’s Anglican Reaction to Modernism” 31). This shows that Chesterton was close to Catholic doctrine, though still not quite convinced of the Pope’s claim to authority. Nevertheless, he spoke in Orthodoxy of a Church which was “a living teacher” and had always new things to teach, which strongly suggested the Catholic Magisterium. In the same work, as he commended the Church’s successful avoidance of errors throughout the centuries, Chesterton contended that “[i]t would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination” (305). This allusion to the condemnation of Jansenism shows that he was writing with the Roman Catholic Church in mind, especially as he was referring to post-Reformation times.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (June)
Dogma Revelation Demythologization Realism Conversion Modernism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 244 pp.

Biographical notes

Maciej Reda (Author)

Maciej Reda holds a PhD from the Institute of English Studies, Warsaw University. He has translated several works of G. K. Chesterton into Polish.


Title: The Apology for Catholicism in Selected Writings by G. K. Chesterton
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246 pages