Home » Antisemitism » Chesterton, Jews and Sainthood: Bishop approves investigation of G. K. Chesterton’s Cause

Chesterton, Jews and Sainthood: Bishop approves investigation of G. K. Chesterton’s Cause

Many of G. K. Chesterton’s admirers fervently deny the presence of anti-Jewish hostility in his writings. For example, in 2008, a special double issue of Gilbert Magazine, the periodical of the American Chesterton Society, devoted sixty pages to “Chesterton & the Jews.” According to the editor, Sean Dailey, the aim of the issue was to “deal in a thorough and forthright manner with the oft-repeated accusation against G. K. Chesterton, that he was an anti-Semite.” According to Dailey, in the various essays and reviews in the issue of Gilbert Magazine, “we take the ‘mean and wretched lie’ that Chesterton was an anti-Semite, and tear the entrails out of it.” According to Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, the accusation of antisemitism is “poisonous.” Ahlquist later stated that “it’s an unfair charge, and it gets repeated and repeated.” The accusation, he concluded, “has to stop.” See Sean P. Dailey, “Tremendous Trifles,” Gilbert Magazine 12, no. 2&3 (November/December 2008), 4; Dale Ahlquist, “Chesterton and Anti-Semitism: A Personal Reflection,” Gilbert Magazine 12, no. 2&3 (November/December 2008), 6-7; Dale Ahlquist, “I am Fond of Jews,” Gilbert Magazine 12, no. 2&3 (November/December 2008), 20-27; “Chesterton and the Jews,” Chesterton Review XXXV, no.1&2 (Spring/Summer 2009), 216.

In his booklet on Chesterton as a prophet for the twenty-first century, Aidan Mackey described it as “deplorable that it is still sometimes necessary to deal with the empty old charge that G.K.C. was anti-Jewish.” He argued that Chesterton did attack Jews, “but not for being Jews, but only as individuals, for what they did or for what he genuinely thought they had done.” Mackey concludes that Chesterton was not anti-Jewish, and that he wrote in “more open days when differences could be discussed without incurring the wrath of the Politically Correct.” “Only Jewish people,” he suggests, “are to be held exempt from any criticism at all.” See Aidan Mackey, G. K. Chesterton: A Prophet for the 21st Century (IHS Press, [2009]), 23, 28.

Chesterton however did not confine himself to discussing religious or cultural differences, or the faults of particular Jews as individuals. My recent book, Chesterton’s Jews: Stereotypes and Caricatures in the Literature and Journalism of G. K. Chesterton, reveals that he repeatedly stereotyped and caricatured the Jew qua Jew in his fictional and non-fictional works and journalism. This began in the early twentieth century. Before the twentieth century, Chesterton expressed sympathy for Jews and hostility towards antisemitism. He was agitated by Russian pogroms and felt sympathy for Captain Dreyfus. However, from circa 1906 onwards, he started to fear the presence of Jews in Christian society. He frequently repeated antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish greed, usury, capitalism, bolshevism, cowardice, disloyalty and secrecy. Rather than defending Dreyfus, as he had at the end of the nineteenth century, he started to argue that there was evidence that Dreyfus had obtained a passport for Italy and then secretly gone to Germany, where he had been seen in German uniform at German army manoeuvres. He also argued that the Jewish Problem was an intrinsic fact that needed to be recognised and addressed.

One explanation for the heated language of some of Chesterton’s defenders is that some believe that Chesterton was an important figure within the Church, perhaps even a prophet or a saint. In fact, a growing number of people would like to see Chesterton canonised as a saint, and no doubt some are concerned that the accusation of antisemitism might prove an obstacle to such efforts. The holiness of Chesterton was raised at least as early as 1986, when Cardinal Emmett Carter, the Archbishop of Toronto, stated that “there is no dearth of holy lay persons, many of whom have exercised a truly prophetic role within the Church and in the world. Such, in my opinion, was Gilbert Keith Chesterton.” He did not suggest starting a Cause for Chesterton’s beatification, but only because of the problems he believed it might create. One such problem was that “if Chesterton ever starred in a canonisation process,” some of his remarks “might upset the whole ecumenical movement.” However, according to William Oddie, Cardinal Carter subsequently “withdrew his reservations.” See Gerald Emmett Carter, “Homily for the Mass of Anniversary of the Death of G. K. Chesterton,” Chesterton Review XII, no.4 (1986), 439-440; William Oddie, “A New Kind of Saint?”, Catholic World Report, June 1995, 59.

There is a vein of deep admiration for Chesterton in Argentina, and Basil Hume, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster from 1976 to 1999, was approached in the early 1990s by a number of important people from Argentina with a proposal to have Chesterton beatified. The letter that was sent to the Cardinal Archbishop, which asked for the initiation of procedures that would lead to the beatification of Chesterton, was signed by politicians, diplomats and an archbishop. According to a report posted in the Daily Mail Online  just a few days ago (11 August 2013) by Jonathan Petre: “Just days before he was elected Pope in March, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, wrote to a Chesterton society in Argentina approving the wording of a private prayer calling for his canonisation.” According to the report, “Pope Francis is known to be a fan of Chesterton’s work.”

A number of Chesterton’s current admirers and defenders embrace a similar hagiographic discourse. William Oddie has argued that Chesterton should be recognised as a saint on a number of occasions. Dale Ahlquist refers to Chesterton as “the apostle of common sense,” but like Aidan Mackey, he suggests that he could also be called “a prophet.” One of his “prophecies,” Ahlquist suggests, was his warnings about Hitler and the violent persecution of the Jews. Like William Oddie, Ahlquist has also argued that Chesterton should be recognised as an important saint whose Cause for beatification needs to be moved forward. See William Oddie, “A New Kind of Saint?”, Catholic World Report, June 1995; William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010), 1-19, 124-140; William Oddie, “The Holiness of Chesterton,” Catholic Herald, 5 June 2009, 8; Dale Ahlquist, G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), 173-174; Dale Ahlquist, “St. G.K.C.?”, an episode of G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense, EWTN Global Catholic Network.

The Catholic Herald reported in June 2009 that Chesterton’s reputation for holiness was going to be considered by a number of scholars at a conference in Oxford in July 2009. The Chesterton Society has produced prayer cards with a prayer for the intercession of Chesterton. These have been well received in America, have been translated into Italian and Spanish, and according to Oddie, “indications are emerging that the prayer is being widely used, sometimes in circumstances of grave illness.” A website for “the Catholic G. K. Chesterton Society” has taken the text from the prayer cards and produced a version for people to print out. The prayer cards were distributed and well received at a one-day symposium at Beaconsfield in October 2010. The question of the holiness of Chesterton was again raised at this gathering. The main focus of the symposium was G. K. Chesterton and Cardinal Newman. Newman was recently beatified and it seems that one purpose of the symposium was to suggest that Chesterton was the natural successor to the Cardinal. In June 2009, Oddie observed that there could be no Cause towards Chesterton’s beatification until evidence of a cult could be demonstrated, though he suggested that such a movement was emerging in America. He suggested in 2010 that a similar movement is emerging in England, and that “a cult of Gilbert Chesterton” has existed for many years in other countries such as Italy and Argentina. See “Scholars to meet in Oxford to discuss Cause of Chesterton,” Catholic Herald, 5 June 2009, 1; William Oddie, ed., The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton (Leominster: Gracewing, 2010), 1-19, 124-140; William Oddie, “The Holiness of Chesterton,” Catholic Herald, 5 June 2009, 8.

A flurry of twitter posts, blog posts and news reports in the past few days suggest that the Cause of Chesterton has just been moved forward significantly. According to these reports, which can be found on the online reporting and blogs for the Daily Mail, Catholic Herald and Catholic News Agency, the present Pope is sympathetic to the Cause of Chesterton (having approved the wording of a prayer for Chesterton’s intercession), and the Bishop of Northampton, Peter Doyle, has ordered an examination of Chesterton’s life which may be the first step in a formal campaign for his canonisation. According to William Oddie’s recent blog posting in the Catholic Herald  (7 August 2013), the Bishop has given the Chesterton Society permission to say that he “is sympathetic to our wishes and is seeking a suitable cleric to begin an investigation into the potential for opening a cause for [G K] Chesterton”.

It is of course common to find some faults with any potential saint. In fact it has been common practice for “the Promoter of the Faith” – or ‘Devil’s Advocate’ – to present reasons against the Cause proceeding. Cardinal Carter’s original reservations were principally that the Devil’s Advocate would bring to light narratives that might upset ecumenical movements. However, the proposition that Chesterton only disliked particular Jews (the argument of his defenders) is problematized by a detailed examination of his discourse, with its proposed solutions to the so-called Jewish Problem and its antisemitic stereotypes and caricatures of greed, usury, capitalism, bolshevism, cowardice, disloyalty and secrecy, which were generalised not to a handful of particular Jews but to the Jews in general. It seems fair to conclude that from the perspective of promoting understanding rather than misunderstanding between Christians and Jews, the wisdom of considering Chesterton a saint is at the very least questionable.


2 Comments

  1. Masha says:

    Nice posting. In light of all the reports that Chesterton’s Cause for canonisation is about to be investigated, your new book is a timely and welcome resource.

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