When G.K. Chesterton died in 1936, his achievements were recognized the world over. Msgr. Ronald Knox called him “a prophet in an age of false prophets.” The New York Times described him as “the most exuberant personality in English literature.” George Bernard Shaw said he was “a man of colossal genius,” and Pope Pius XI hailed him as “a gifted defender of the Catholic Faith.”
Since his death, almost every pontiff, following Pius XI, has recognized Chesterton in some significant way. Before becoming pope, Cardinal Bergoglio served as an honorary chairman of a Chesterton conference in Argentina and encouraged the country’s Chesterton Society to continue its fruitful work. Benedict XVI read Chesterton as a young man and is known to have quoted him on numerous occasions. Blessed John Paul II cited Chesterton’s sense of wonder in one of his weekly addresses, and John Paul I actually wrote an open letter to him, commenting:
Dear Chesterton, you and I go down on our knees before a God who is more present than ever. Only he can give a satisfactory answer to the questions which, for everyone, are the most important of all: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going?
Chesterton’s orthodoxy and humor, his love for the Church, and his wonderful sense of mystery is a model for lay Catholics everywhere. Largely under Chesterton’s influence, gifted writers like Dale Ahlquist and Michael Coren have been received into the Church.
In recent years, the Chesterton revival has taken on new dimensions, with calls to explore his possible sainthood. Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, the diocese in which Chestertion lived, recently appointed a priest to investigate Chesterton’s holiness, which could lead to the opening of his official cause for canonization.
The move has caused quite a stir, not least because the image of Chesterton—as a wise-cracking, cigar-smoking witticist—is so contrary to traditional ideas about sanctity. Yet, as Dale Ahlquist told me, “we need to expand our ideas about sanctity, and recognize the saints among us in the ordinary world”—not just mystics and martyrs from centuries past.
Evidence of Chesterton’s holiness begins with his lifelong resolve to heed Christ’s teaching: “Unless you be converted and become as little children, you shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” Throughout his life, Chesterton’s faith retained a child-like quality: Dorothy Collins, Chesterton’s secretary, said that “Chesterton was so excited by meeting the Pope [Pius XI], that he could not work for two days after,” writes biographer Ian Ker. “She also remembered vividly how distressed he was when he lost a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary that he always wore.”
Another virtue of Chesterton was his remarkable ability to make friends with his intellectual opponents. No matter how heated his arguments became, he never lost sight of their common humanity; and proof of that is the emotional tributes his adversaries paid him upon his death.
Yet a third characteristic of Chesterton’s holiness was his recognition of sin—especially his own sins—and the urgency to have them forgiven to receive eternal life. Theologian John Saward believes Chesterton’s autobiography is in the “same noble tradition” of Augustine’s Confessions, and represents a “search for absolution,” and above all a key to “unlock Divine Mercy.” Chesterton’s charity, humility, and passionate love for truth have also been highlighted by Italian scholar Paolo Gulisano, and in a recent anthology, The Holiness of G.K. Chesterton.
And yet, all that being said, the standards for sainthood in the Catholic Church are very high, and Chesterton’s critics question his suitability for sainthood. One concern often heard is that if the name “Saint Gilbert” had appeared on his books, Chesterton never would have attracted as many readers—or as many converts—as he has: It is precisely his approachability as an ordinary person, they say, which has won so many people over to his side; making a him a saint could risk that.
A more serious obstacle Chesterton’s cause will have to overcome is his polemical writings about non-Catholics. While many of Chesterton’s critics make unfair allegations, a number of thoughtful observers correctly note it’s a mistake to issue a blanket defense of everything Chesterton ever said, particularly about the Jewish community. “The answer that his attitude was not uncommon,” writes Alzina Stone Dale, “cannot be used effectively in our post-Holocaust world.”
That said, Chesterton strongly believed in the unity of mankind, and was among the first to condemn Hitler and his persecution of Jews. Moreover, long before the Third Reich arose, Chesterton fiercely denounced racism and eugenics, and prophetically warned where such evils could lead.
The story of Joseph Pearce, an acclaimed literary biographer, illustrates the ongoing importance of Chesterton’s writings. Before he became a Catholic, Pearce was involved in extremist movements promoting every kind of prejudice and bigotry. He recounts his dramatic conversion in his latest work, Race with the Devil, and spoke with emotion with me about how Chesterton helped liberate him from those destructive bonds:
I was a racist, I was an anti-Semite, who went to prison twice for publishing material intended to incite racial hatred, and it was Chesterton who saved me from all that. . . . I owe more to Chesterton than to anyone or anything, under grace, for my conversion from racial hatred to rational love. And it is because of what Chesterton did for me that I wrote my biography of him as an act of thanksgiving—first to God, for giving me Chesterton, and then to Chesterton himself, for giving me God.
Whatever the future holds for Chesterton’s cause, his greatest legacy isn’t about being a brilliant intellectual, or an immortal man of letters, or even a possible saint. It’s that he was a missionary, who had an ability to transform lives and rescue souls who might otherwise have perished—and still does. For any believing Christian pursuing holiness, there can be no greater accomplishment than that.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.