Saturday, July 19, 2014

G.K. Chesterton's "The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic"

Our Wichita chapter of the American Chesterton Society is reading The Thing: Why I am a Catholic from Volume III of the Ignatius Press editions of G.K. Chesterton's Collected Works. As the publisher describes the volume, it is:
A collection of five powerful essays by Chesterton in defense of Catholicism and the Catholic Church. Unique because most of his writings do not deal specifically with religion or the Catholic Church. However, here he directly addresses the teachings of the Church and objections to them. It also includes his inspiring and moving commentary on the Stations of the Cross, along with the drawings of the stations he used for his meditations. Another essay explains why he converted to Catholicism.
As with all of his writings, these are just as germane today as they were in his time. Today's reader can revel in the same delight GKC's contemporaries felt, for he always presented the Church's best face to an antagonistic and indifferent world. The introduction and footnotes are written by another convert and author, James J. Thompson, Jr.
Last night we discussed chapters 20, 21, and 22--and in August we look forward to discussing chapters 23, 24, and 25--meeting on Friday, August 22 at Eighth Day Books, since August 15 is the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady. As Dale Ahlquist describes the collection of essays in The Thing, Chesterton is writing to a Catholic audience:
The essays in this collection were originally written for Catholic publications and are somewhat different from his other journalism because here Chesterton is writing for a specifically Catholic audience. And yet his vigorous defense of the Catholic faith seems to invite all comers. But as for addressing Catholics, there is one passage that is strikingly relevant to modern Catholics who seem intent on “reforming” things in the Church, whether it be the liturgy, the moral teachings, or the fundamental doctrines of the faith: “In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them,” says Chesterton, there are two kinds of reformers. “Let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, ‘I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.’ To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”

The modern reformer is especially guilty of trying to do away with things he does not understand rather than trying to understand them. Reformers throughout history have done away with elements of the Catholic Church only to find that they soon need to replace them. But the replacement is always an inferior version, as psychotherapy, for instance, has proved to be a disastrous replacement for the Confessional. And so Chesterton defends the Catholic things that both Catholics and non-Catholics may not understand. They may be simple things, but as Chesterton says, “The mind must be enlarged to see the simple things — or even to see the self-evident things.” One of Chesterton’s greatest gifts is to explain to us what we already know but have never been able to explain.

Chesterton says that all the revolts against the Church, from even before the Reformation until now, tell the same strange story. Every great heretic has always exhibited three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picks out some mystical idea from the Church’s balance of mystical ideas. Second, he uses that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third, he seems generally to have no notion that his own favorite mystical idea is a mystical idea, as mysterious or dubious or dogmatic as any of the Church’s other mystical ideas that he rejects. Thus Calvinists are obsessed only with the Sovereignty of God, Lutherans with the Grace of God, Methodists with the sin of man, Baptists with the Bible, Quakers with simplicity. The list goes on, it even includes religious and political movements outside of Christianity. Muslims are obsessed with the Oneness of God, Communists with the equality of men, Feminists with the equality of men and women, Materialists with creation apart from the Creator, Spiritualists with the rejection of materialism, and so on. In every case, these sects have taken one of the Church’s mystical ideas and exalted it above the rest, even against the rest. They have lost all the moderating and balancing measures of the Thing, the Catholic Faith.

The chapters we discussed last night included a comparison between Bunyan's allegory in Pilgrim's Progress and Dante's in The Divine Comedy; the Protestant superstition of Anti-Catholicism, and the common but mistaken notion that Catholics have no intellectual freedom in the Church: "On Two Allegories", "The Protestant Superstition", and "On Courage and Independence", respectively. If you are in Wichita, come next month to our discussion of "The Nordic Hindoo", "A Spiritualist Looks Back" and "The Roots of Sanity". Refreshments are served!

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