In Divisive Times, Chesterton Inspires Unity Among Catholics, Author Says
THIS ARTICLE BY JUNNO AROCHO ESTEVES WAS ORIGINALLY FEATURED IN THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT HERE.
“At a time when Catholics seem to be split between conservative or progressive factions, the life and works of English writer G. K. Chesterton can inspire men and women in the church to rise above conflict,” said U.S. scholar Dale Ahlquist.
“People on the left and right both find things to connect to Chesterton,” Ahlquist told Catholic News Service March 22.
“Chesterton is a unifier,” he said. “I think he did see the potential for the schism that is going on right now, the great division between people. But it’s just a general splitting of society because we’ve lost our roots.”
Ahlquist’s latest book, titled “Knight of the Holy Ghost,” is “designed to introduce people to Chesterton,” who lived from 1874 to 1936.
This is the cover of “Knight of the Holy Ghost,” by Dale Ahlquist. The book highlights the life and works of English writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton. CNS
“There are some excellent biographies out there that are very good. But sometimes, Chesterton can get lost in the details and I wanted to bring out the highlights, some of the most important features of his life so that he stands out,” he said.
Ahlquist, who serves as president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a Catholic lay apostolate inspired by the early 20th century writer, also makes the case for Chesterton’s sainthood cause.
In 2013, Bishop Peter Doyle of Northampton, England, appointed Father John Udris, a priest of the diocese, to conduct an investigation into Chesterton’s life and writings. The report, Ahlquist told CNS, has been completed and “recommends that the cause be opened.”
Now it is up to the bishop to request Vatican permission to open the cause.
In his book, Ahlquist dispels misunderstandings or falsehoods that some have cited as obstacles to Chesterton’s canonization, including the misconception that he was “rabidly anti-Semitic.”
“It’s one of those things that the more it gets repeated, the more it is believed,” Ahlquist said.
Chesterton, he argued, spoke out against eugenics, the controlled breeding of the human race to promote or eliminate certain traits, which rose to prominence in the United States and Europe, especially Nazi Germany.
The policy is believed to have been the precursor to the Nazi’s “Final Solution” resulting in the genocide of an estimated 6 million European Jews.
Chesterton “was the one who attacked eugenics and all the great racial theories. He attacked Nazism in its nascent stage and was someone who really respected the Jews and defended the Jews,” Ahlquist said. “And so, it’s a completely unfair charge.”
Others, he added, object to his canonization because he enjoyed drinking, or they accuse him of being a “glutton because he was fat.” The latter charge, Ahlquist quipped, was not made against St. John XXIII or St. Thomas Aquinas before their canonizations.
“Chesterton has a great line,” Ahlquist told CNS. “He says, ‘I’m sure that the thin monks were holy, but the fat monks were humble.’ So, we deal with the fat objection, too.”
As for imbibing alcohol, he added, Chesterton argued against “the puritanical approach to drinking, which is that drinking is evil.”
“No, it’s not that wine and beer are evil things, they can just be abused like any good thing,” Ahlquist said. “He called puritanism the ‘righteous indignation about the wrong things.'”
The Catholic writer and philosopher may also find a kindred spirit in the current occupant of St. Peter’s chair.
As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis opened a conference sponsored by the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture in 2006 and also approved a prayer for Chesterton’s intercession.
However, several coincidences point to a greater connection between the pontiff and the philosopher, the author said.
Both share an affinity for St. Francis of Assisi: The pope adopted the saint’s name following his 2013 election while Chesterton took the name Francis when he was baptized. Like their namesake, both men shared a way of engaging with both Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“Chesterton has a way of appealing to non-Catholics. I was a non-Catholic when I started reading Chesterton and he keeps making converts,” Ahlquist told CNS. “St. Francis is a saint that appeals to non-believers as well. He’s a universal saint, everybody likes St. Francis.”
Ahlquist also recalled a notable coincidence that points to a papal connection with Chesterton.
In his book, “St. Francis of Assisi,” Chesterton highlighted the importance of St. Benedict’s preservation of Christian culture and learning in the monastic system. On the other hand, he noted, St. Francis took the monastic order to the streets when he founded the Franciscan order.
“Chesterton has this great line,” Ahlquist recalled. “‘What St. Benedict stored, St. Francis scattered.’ When I read that line, it struck me.”
“Wow, we have two popes who are alive right now, one of them is named Benedict and the other one is named Francis,” he said. “So, it’s Chesterton accidentally being prophetic. Pope Benedict was the scholar, the learned one, and Pope Francis is the pope of the people who takes it out into the streets.”
Dale Ahlquist of Holy Family in St. Louis Park says he became Catholic partly because of the influence of G.K. Chesterton.
He is not alone. Others make similar claims.
And in a book published in May titled “My Name is Lazarus,” Ahlquist compiled essays written by him and 33 other people describing Chesterton’s impact on their decisions to convert to Catholicism.
“The title comes from a line in a poem that Chesterton wrote the day he was received into the Catholic Church,” Ahlquist said. “We begin the book with a retelling of his own conversion story.”
Ahlquist’s journey to the Catholic faith began in a Baptist church he attended while growing up. Chesterton’s writings drew him into exploring Catholicism during his adult years, even though he didn’t think he was open to conversion at the time he started reading Chesterton.
“The last person that I ever expected to become Catholic was me,” Ahlquist said. “And, I found that Chesterton had a way of making me think about the Catholic Church before I realized I was thinking about it.”
Ahlquist said his book includes essays by former Jews, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and Protestants. Some of them, he noted, now are priests, and one is a bishop. In some cases, reading just one line written by Chesterton was enough to start their conversion process, Ahlquist said.
“It ends up being a book of Catholic apologetics because a lot of the problems that people have with the Catholic faith are addressed in this book,” he said. “Every convert has had those same questions, and how they’ve had to deal with them (is) dealt with in this book.”
Ahlquist said he thinks the book could help anyone who is thinking of joining the Church. He calls it “very much a textbook for RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).” The book is published by ACS Books, The American Chesterton Society’s publishing division, and available for $16.95 at chesterton.org.
— Dave Hrbacek