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by Fr Thomas McGovern

If we are cradle Catholics, there is always the danger that we might get accustomed to taking our faith for granted. Consequently we need to have our minds and hearts reawakened regularly to a realization of the riches of Christianity. Our appreciation of the treasures of the faith is a measure of our gratitude for them. This appreciation is reflected in our love for historical Christianity and its institutions, in our willingness to defend the faith as a gift entrusted to our care, and, above all, in our efforts to make the teachings of Christ the guiding principles of our lives.

It has often struck me in reading the accounts by converts of their journey to the faith, that they show a deeper appreciation of the value of Catholicism than most of us who were baptized into it as infants. For them it is certainly the pearl of great price. Often they have had to make great sacrifices, whether family, professional or financial, to take Christ at his word; yet, in every case, it is their firm conviction that they have received much more than they have given up. The story of their discovery of Catholicism invariably gives us new lights on the faith, and can start us on a voyage of rediscovery.

The Church has been enriched down through the centuries by the literature of conversions. St Augustine's Confessions and, to take a later example, Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua, are two of the great classics of this genre. They have been read and reread by succeeding generations of Catholics, and have provided spiritual sustenance for countless souls, including many outside the Catholic fold. They hold a permanent place in the affections of believers because they are stories of the greatest romances in Christian literature. They were written by men who not only had exceptional literary skills, and who in addition were endowed with acute sensibilites of mind and heart, but who, above all, had great love of God and generosity of spirit.

In this article I would like to draw attention to the spiritual aeneid of another great convert because I feel he has a particular relevance to the Church of the present day. For different reasons the vision of the faith of contemporary Catholics is often blurred and undefined; in their minds the great truths lack clarity and focus with the result that their commitment is often anaemic and without conviction.

G. K. Chesterton was received into the Church at about the age of fifty in 1922. His life up to then was a continuous search for objective truth. With his powerful intellect he ranged over the whole panorama of human thought and philosophy. By the time he was twelve, he says he was a pagan, by seventeen an agnostic; yet he was to become, according to Etienne Gilson, the greatest Catholic apologist of the twentieth century. His capacity to explain the faith, and to make it stand out in all its richness and grandeur, is a gift that is uniquely his. We have need of Chesterton s gift today as never before.


It was during his time at the Slade School of Art in London, when he was twenty (1894), that Chesterton began to write down in a notebook his personal philosophy as he discovered it, step by step, over the next five years. His joy and wonder at the mystery of creation and birth find repeated expression here. But it is his discovery of the uniqueness of the human person which is the dominant theme. Everything is a reason for gratitude, and if he feels so deeply the need to be grateful, to whom did he owe that gratitude? It was this need for gratitude, for what to him seemed so many undeserved gifts, that lifted him out of his sceptism and led him to a belief in a personal God.

Later Chesterton published some studies on contemporary writers like Kipling, Shaw and Wells. Because he felt that each of them had erred in some ultimate or religious truth, he gave the book the uncompromising title of Heretics. [1] One reviewer said he wouldn't discuss the theology of the book until Chesterton had stated his own theology. Chesterton accepted this as a challenge and, as he tells us, 'wrote an outline of my reasons for believing that the Apostles' Creed would be found to be a better criticism of life than any of those that I have criticized. I called it Orthodoxy. [2]

He wasn't entirely happy about the title but it had the advantage from Chesterton's point of view, of being provocative, and as a consequence he discovered that 'in all the welter of inconsistent and incompatible heresies, the only really unpardonable heresy was orthodoxy'. He was surprised to find that nearly all the literary and journalistic world of which he was a part took it for granted that his faith in the Christian credo was a pose or a paradox until it discovered that he really meant what he said. 'It was the secularists who drove me to theological ethics', he explains, 'by themselves destroying any sane or rational possibility of secular ethics... It was the Determinist who told me, at the top of his voice, that I could not be responsible at all. And as I rather like being treated as a responsible being, and not as a lunatic let out for the day, I began to look around for some spiritual asylum that was not merely a lunatic asylum'. [3]

Preparation for Orthodoxy

Ideas for Orthodoxy had been gathering in his mind for years. Some had been traced in outline in the Notebook, but they all grew to maturity in the atmosphere of constant literary and verbal controversy in defence of truth which enveloped Chesterton's life.

It was typical of the way his mind worked for him to be able to say that he first learned Christianity from its opponents; his reasons for being a Christian were the reasons atheists proffered for not so being. Whether they were attacking the Incarnation, Christian asceticism, or the possibility of biblical revelation, their arguments were self-contradictory. He goes on to talk about the positive arguments for Christianity, for 'this religious philosophy which was, and will be again, the study of the highest intellects and the foundation of the strongest nations, but which our little civilisation has for a time forgotten'. [4]

Belloc compared his apologetic method to that of illumination by parables, as in the Gospel:

'He made men see what they had not seen before. He made them know. He was an architect of certitude, whenever he practised the art at which he excelled. His unique, his capital genius for illustration by parallel, by example, is his peculiar mark... No one whatsoever that I can recall in the whole course of English letters has his amazing, I would say almost superhuman, capacity for parallelism. Parallelism consists in the illustration of some unperceived truth by its exact consonance with the reflection of a truth already known and perceived... Always, in whatever manner he launched the parallelism, he produced the shock of illumination. He taught. Parallelism was so native to his mind; it was so naturally a fruit of his mental character that he had difficulty in understanding why others did not use it with the same lavish facility as himself'. [5]


Chesterton wrote Orthodoxy when he was thirty-four. It records the history of the development of his philosophy. It recounts, he informs us, 'my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious'. It is the story of his discovery of Christianity as the only adequate explanation of reality. His purpose he says is 'to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarised in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics'. Increasingly he had come to realise that the prophets of his time such as Whitman, Shaw and Wells had taken up only one aspect of truth and promoted it as the whole truth. During the previous twenty years his experience had taught him that truth was many-sided; Orthodoxy is his attempt to make a synthesis of all these different strands. His great delight was the discovery that the truth of Christianity confirmed all his basic intuitions about creation and existence, about life and love.

Ethics of Elfland

He felt there was much more sanity in the world of fairy tales than in the explanation of the cosmos offered by the intellectuals of his day. While they philosophised about a world governed by the iron laws of necessity, Chesterton was convinced that there was a providence at work shaping the outcome of events. The following paragraph from the chapter Ethics of Elfland, in which he describes his own basic intuitions, is perhaps one of the most characteristic passages of Orthodoxy:

'I felt it in my bones; first that the world does not explain itself. It may be a miracle with a supernatural explanation; it may be a conjuring trick, with a natural explanation. But the explanation of the conjuring trick, if it is to satisfy me, will have to be better than the natural explanations I have heard. The thing is magic, true or false. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently. Third, I thought this purpose beautiful in its old design, in spite of its defects. Fourth, that the proper form of thanks to it is some form of humility and restraint. We should thank God for beer and Burgundy by not drinking too much of them. We owed, also, an obedience to whatever made us. And last, and strangest, there had come into my mind a vague and vast impression that in some way all good was a remnant to be stored and held sacred out of some primordial ruin... All this I felt and the age gave me no encouragement to feel it. And all the time I had not even thought of Christian theology'. [6]

At first it never occurred to him that Christianity could provide an answer to all the deep questions he was asking about life and reality. Since he grew up in a world that called itself Christian, he presumed, without enquiring further, that it was just another failed philosophical system:

'All I had heard of Christian theology alienated me from it... I did indeed retain a cloudy reverence for a cosmic deity and a great historical interest in the Founder of Christianity. But I certainly regarded him as a man. I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time. I never read a line of Christian apologetics'. [7]

However, it was only as he discovered that the answers he was finding himself resonated with, and were confirmed by, the Christian world view, that he started to turn towards it and to study it more systematically. In particular it was the Church's doctrine about creation and original sin which gave him the key to the great mystery of human existence.

Chesterton saw that Christian orthodoxy defended the unity of the whole truth and prevented any one of the great ideas of Revelation obscuring the rest. Given the wilfulness of man and his tendency to latch on to a particular aspect of truth, this was an exercise of the utmost delicacy. Hence the need for councils and definitions, and even wars of religion, to maintain that precarious balance. The Church, he said went in for 'dangerous ideas'; 'the idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, anyone can see need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious... Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless. This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity;... the orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable'. It would have been easy for it to have accepted the earthly power of Arianism, the predestination of Calvinism, or the subjectivism of the Modernists. 'It is always simple to fall', he reminds us; 'there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect'. [8]

This is a powerful passage which gives us one of the keys to Chesterton's thinking not only as expressed in Orthodoxy, but in all the rest of his writing as well.


The secularist argument that Christianity was anti-family was undoubtedly a strong influence in pointing him towards the faith. The argument was self-contradictory; on the one hand some secularists said that the Church was anti-family because it encouraged celibacy and showed contempt for women, while others argued that Christianity had forced the family and marriage upon us, condemning women to the drudgery of their homes and the care of children. 'And then', he tells us, 'in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a thunderbolt... Perhaps after all it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad'.

It was at this point that a fundamental key to the paradoxes and contradictions of Christianity entered fully into his mind - the fact that orthodox theology insisted the Christ was God and man, both things at once, and both things thoroughly. Thus he saw how it was true that historical Christianity had at the same time emphasised celibacy and the family. He would have been delighted with John Paul II's affirmation of this teaching: 'Virginity and apostolic celibacy not only do not contradict the dignity of marriage but presuppose it and confirm it'. More specifically, 'Virginity keeps alive in the Church the awareness of the mystery of marriage and defends it against all attempts to impoverish it or reduce its importance'. [9]

His marriage was a happy one and it confirmed for him all those fundamental intuitions which he had about the permanence of the marriage bond. He grasped instinctively the pauline notion of marriage as a great sacrament, and the mystery of the insoluble bond resulting from a man and woman becoming one flesh in Christ.

Chesterton had established a friendship with an Irish pastor in the north of England who, as is well known, inspired the idea for the Fr Brown detective stories. A letter to Fr John O'Connor gives us an insight into his marriage, as well as telling us something of Chesterton's gift for humour and friendship; he is writing to explain why himself and Frances are unable to go to Yorkshire for a planned visit:

'I would not write this to anyone else, but you combine so unusually in your own single personality the characters of (1) priest, (2) human being, (3) man of the world, (4) man of the other world, (5) man of science, (6) old friend, (7) new friend, not to mention Irishman and picture dealer, that I don't mind suggesting the truth to you. Frances has just come out of what looked bad enough to be an illness, and is just going to plunge into one of her recurrent problems of pain and depression. The two may be just a bit too much for her and I want to be with her every night for a few days - there's an Irish Bull for you! One of the mysteries of marriage (which must be a Sacrament and an extraordinary one, too) is that a man evidently useless like me can yet become at certain instants indispensable. And the further oddity (which I invite you to explain on mystical grounds) is that he never feels so small as when he knows he is necessary'. [10]


During a severe illness in 1915 he had spoken about joining the Catholic Church, but for various reasons didn't take the final step. He visited Jerusalem in 1919 and returned via Rome. Arriving home he wrote to a friend that his thought 'came to an explosion in the Church of the Ecce Homo in Jerusalem'. As his biographer has pointed out, this experience established a resonance with something deeply hidden in the soul of Chesterton. Over the years he had fought the fight of the Happy Warrior, in an endless succession of articles, books and reviews, illuminating and defending the truth as he saw it. He could have taken the easier way out and opted solely for literature, poetry and fantasy for which he was so eminently endowed. But he persevered in his basic resolve to be an apologist for Christian truth, often feeling that he was fighting alone; and it was his experience in the Holy City that gave him a renewed discovery of Christ and revitalised his commitment to continue writing as did. He records his experience of this vision in The New Jerusalem (1920). It was a turning point on the road to Catholicism.

Chesterton says that there are only two fundamental reasons why a man would join the Catholic Church. One is that he believes it to be the solid objective truth, which is true whether he likes it or not; the other that he seeks liberation from his sins.

The strongest intellectual force with attracted him to the faith was that for him, by comparison with other faiths, it was a religion that refused to grow old; he saw that it had within itself the seeds of its own renewal. This was illustrated repeatedly in the history of the Church, in particular in the struggle against Arianism and Islam; for Chesterton the Church of the Dark Ages brought about the rejuvenation of Europe.

He was also struck by the paradox of the Faith that in one sense it is the simplest of religions, yet in another it was by far the most complex: 'Any one Catholic peasant, while holding one small bead of the Rosary in his fingers, can be conscious, not of one eternity, but of a complex and almost a conflict of eternities; as, for example, in the relations of Our Lord and Our Lady, of the fatherhood and the childhood of God, of the motherhood and childhood of Mary'. [11]

Chesterton also liked to say that one of the very important reasons why he became a Catholic was to get rid of his sins, because the Church of Rome was the only religious system that professed to do so. He went on to explain:

'It is confirmed by the logic, which to many seems startling, by which the Church deduces that sin confessed and adequately repented is actually abolished; and that the sinner does really begin again as if he had never sinned. When a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into the dawn of his own beginning, and look with new eyes across the world... He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has already remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. Thus the Sacrament of Penance gives a new life, and reconciles a man to all living, but it does not do it as the optimists and the hedonists and the heathen preachers of happiness do. The gift is given at a price, and is conditioned by a confession. In other words, the name of the price is Truth, which also may be called Reality; but it is facing the reality of oneself'. [12]

He admits that psychoanalysists and other groups have rediscovered the advantages of a secular form of confession, but, he points out, not without irony, 'none of them professes to provide the minor advantage of Absolution'.


Chesterton describes the immediate concerns of the potential convert in The Catholic Church and Conversion. [13] In this he draws attention to a few fundamental truths about the faith which cradle Catholics don't often appreciate sufficiently. For him the whole of Catholic Theology can be justified if we are allowed to start with the two ideas of Reason and Liberty, to which, historically, the Church is popularly supposed to have been antagonistic. 'To become a Catholic', he tells us, 'is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think. It is so in exactly the same sense in which to recover from palsy is not to leave off moving but to learn how to move'. [14]

He wrote to explain his reception to his mother: 'I think that the fight for the family and the free citizen and everything decent must now be waged by the one fighting form of Christianity'.

Three years after his reception he published The Everlasting Man (1925), an outline of history as seen from a Christian point of view. It is Chesterton's statement of what he found in the Church after conversion. In it he gives an overview of Christianity from the outside and shows, with all the reach of his imaginative and intellectual power, the profound difference the Church of Christ has made to human history. Many scholars of Chesterton regard it not only as his greatest work, but see it as perhaps one of the most important works of Christian apologetic ever written.

Devotion to Our Lady

It is instructive, and indeed very moving, to see the interaction of devotion to our Lady in the mind and heart of a man of the intellectual reach of Chesterton. Belloc wrote to him, fifteen years before he was received, encouraging him to put his quest for the truth under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin:

'She never fails us. She has never failed me in any demand... If you say 'I want this' as in your case to know one way or the other - She will give it to you: as She will give health or necessary money or success in a pure love. She is our Blessed Mother'

It says much for Belloc's own devotion to Our Lady that he could write in this fashion about the Mother of God; it was a recommendation which Chesterton took to heart. Towards the end of his life, as he reflected on his conversion, he had this to say about the influence of Mary on his conversion:

'Now I can scarcely remember a time when the image of Our Lady did not stand up in my mind quite definitely, at the mention of the thought of all these things... But whether the figure was distant, or was dark and mysterious, or was a scandal to my contemporaries, or was a challenge to myself - I never doubted that this figure was the figure of the Faith. The instant I remembered the Catholic Church, I remembered her. When I tried to forget about the Catholic Church I had to forget her! When I finally saw what was nobler than my fate, the freest and the hardest of all my acts of freedom, it was in front of a gilded and very gaudy little image of her in the port of Brindisi that I promised the thing that I would do, if I returned to my own land'. [15]

One aspect of his devotion to Our Lady has a particular relevance to the anti-life culture of our time. As he meditates on the mystery of the Virgin Birth, he sees God making holy purity creative. In past centuries, through her intercession, the great heresies had been overcome. Now in the twentieth century, he has no doubt that it is in a special way through devotion to Mary that the heresy of birth prevention, in all its hideous forms, will be successfully combated.

He did, of course, frequently come up against the usual Protestant complaint of Catholics giving too much honour to Our Lady at the expense of the worship due to God alone. Chesterton takes up this theme in his Autobiography. It was agreed in his village to put up a cross as a memorial to those who had died in the first World War. However, when the cross turned out to be a crucifix, it caused consternation among the nonconformists and other Protestants in the village. Chesterton found this doctrinal schizophrenia about the Incarnation incomprehensible. He commented:

'And if anyone wants to know my feelings about a point on which I touch rarely and with reluctance: the relation of the Church I left to the Church I joined, there is the answer as compact and concrete as a stone image. I do not want to be in a religion in which I am allowed to have a crucifix. I feel the same about the much more controversial question of honour paid to the Blessed Virgin. If people do not like that cult they are quite right not to be Catholics. But in people who are Catholics, or call themselves Catholics, I want the idea not only liked but loved and loved ardently, and above all proudly proclaimed. I want it to be what the Protestants are perfectly right in calling it; the badge and sign of a Papist'. [16]

Intellectual Freedom

It was suggested, as in the case of Newman before him, that as a result of his conversion to Catholicism his intellectual freedom had been circumscribed. His response not only gave the lie to his critics, but was in itself a clear expression of the new-found intellectual freedom which the faith bestows:

'A thinking man can think himself deeper and deeper into Catholicism...; the great mysteries of the Blessed Trinity or the Blessed Sacrament are the starting point for his train of thought. To accept the Logos as a truth is to be in the atmosphere of the absolute, not only with St John the Evangelist, but with Plato and all the great mystics of the world... To exalt the Mass is to enter into a magnificent world of metaphysical ideas, illuminating all the relations of matter and mind, of flesh and spirit, of the most impersonal abstractions as well as the most personal affections. Even what are called the fine doctrinal distinctions are not dull. They are like the finest operations of surgery; separating nerve from nerve but giving life'. [17]

A number of his journalist friends were dismayed and grieved by him becoming a Catholic. He upset them even more by his reaction:

'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). I am very proud of what people call Mariolatry; because it introduced into religion in the darkest ages that element of chivalry which is now being belatedly and badly understood in the form of feminism. I am very proud of being orthodox about the mysteries of the Trinity or the Mass; I am proud of believing in the Confessional; I am proud of believing in the Papacy'. [18]

Chesterton has often been accused of overusing paradox as a method of literary expression. In his own defence he explained how paradox must be of the very nature of things because of God's infinity on the one hand, and the limitations of the world and man's mind on the other. As a consequence God can only reveal himself to us in a fragmentary way. We can bring together apparent contradictions in these fragments which suggest a greater truth. If this is done in an unexpected or incongruous manner, it has the effect of jolting the mind into a position to see the new truth more clearly. Some, however, perhaps reluctant to assimilate the implications of the new perspective, cry 'paradox' as a form of self-defence. Chesterton felt that the world had forgotten some basic truths and that people needed to be reawakened to them. But there was so much more to Chesterton than mere paradox. He had wit and humour, and was a master of English literature. It was these qualities which gave such vigour and attractiveness to this writings, and which as a result led many people to the faith. They can still do so today.


1. London 1905

2. Autobiography, London 1937, p.177

3. Ibid., p.180

4. Ibid., p.176

5. Belloc, H., On the Place of Chesterton in English Letters, London 1940, pp.36-41

6. Orthodoxy, London 1939, pp.101-102

7. Ibid., pp.136-137

8. Ibid., pp.166-169.

9. The Christian Family in the Modern World (Familiaris Consortio) no.16

10. O'Connor,Monsignor J., Fr Brown on Chesterton, London 1937, p.123

11. Where all Roads Lead, Catholic Truth Society, London 1963, p.10

12. Autobiography., pp. 329-330.

13. CTS, London 1926

14. Ibid., p.86

15. The Well and the Shallows, London 1935, pp.176-177

16. Autobiography, pp.243-244

17. The Thing, London 1929, pp.205-207

18. Autobiography, pp.80-81

Section Contents Copyright ©; Fr Thomas McGovern 1997-2000

This version: 17th January 2003

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