G. K. Chesterton stands as a colossal figure in 20th century Catholicism – literally and figuratively.
But just as he was not always the “young man mountain” (as George Bernard Shaw called him), Chesterton was not always Catholic.
He was barely even a Christian.
He was baptized as an infant, but the baptism was more a matter of convention than belief. He was raised, as he later said, in a basically agnostic environment.
Indeed, he declared in Orthodoxy, “I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen.”
Early on, he even wrote anti-Catholic poetry. In one poem, “The Hero” (from when he was about 11 or 12) he wrote:
He had chased all Holland’s navy
Back into the Zuyder Zee
As he smote the Papish tyrant
On the Spaniard’s native sea.
But he also evidenced signs of Catholic/Christian spirituality as a youth. In 1892, for example, he won the Milton Prize at his school with a poem about St. Francis Xavier. He also wrote a poem in praise of Mary, and, foreshadowing one of his later literary achievements, one about St. Francis of Assisi.
A second source of spirituality and latent Christianity was his love of Christmas. This developed in him, he noted, “an affection for the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Family, for Bethlehem and the story of Nazareth.”
That spirituality found support and nourishment though Frances Blogg, whom he began courting in 1896, and married in 1901. She was a devout Anglo-Catholic, and she helped him to grow in his appreciation for Christianity.
“She actually practiced a religion,” Maisie Ward quotes him in her biography of GKC. “This was something utterly unaccountable both to me and the whole fussy culture in which she lived.”
In 1911 in his dedication to The Ballad of the White Horse, he thanked Frances for the gift of faith she’d given him:
Therefore I bring these rhymes to you,
Who brought the cross to me.
He had already become a defender of Catholic teachings by this time. But it was to be 11 years before he became a Catholic. The delay was due in part to not wishing to separate himself from his Anglican wife in any way.
At the same time, though, the more he studied and read and thought, the more he came to the conclusion that only Catholicism offered the completeness of faith.
“The Catholic philosophy is a universal philosophy found to fit anywhere with human nature and the nature of things,” he wrote in The Catholic Church and Conversion.
He noted in the Toronto Daily Star that he had really been Roman Catholic in his orientation for nearly 20 years prior to his conversion, and had been struggling to discern whether Anglo-Catholicism really was a branch of Catholicism that had the authority of Catholicism. He ultimately determined it was not.
“But the point is that the Church of England does not speak strongly. It has no united action. I have no use for a Church which is not a Church militant, which cannot order battle and fall in line and march in the same direction.”
He found himself sitting outside where he felt he belonged. As he wrote to his friend Maurice Baring in 1920:
“I used to think one could be an Anglo-Catholic and really inside it; but if that was (to use an excellent phrase of your own) only a Porch, I do not think I want a Porch, and certainly not a Porch standing some way from the building. A Porch looks silly, standing all by itself in a field.”
By 1922, Frances finally gave her consent. Gilbert was baptized a Roman Catholic September 30, 1922. Frances followed him into the Catholic Church on November 1, 1926.
After his conversion, he was asked repeatedly why he had done it. He game many responses, including this one in the essay, “Why I am a Catholic,“ from Twelve Modern Apostles and Their Creeds:
“The difficulty of explaining `why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true. I could fill all my space with separate sentences each beginning with the words, "It is the only thing that . . ." As, for instance, (1) It is the only thing that really prevents a sin from being a secret. (2) It is the only thing in which the superior cannot be superior; in the sense of supercilious. (3) It is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age. (4) It is the only thing that talks as if it were the truth; as if it were a real messenger refusing to tamper with a real message. (5) It is the only type of Christianity that really contains every type of man; even the respectable man. (6) It is the only large attempt to change the world from the inside; working through wills and not laws; and so on.”
In The Thing, he notes simply, “Those who know the Catholic practice find it is not only right, but always right when everything else is wrong.”
Indeed, as he concludes “Why I am a Catholic,” the Church is “the trysting place of all the truths in the world.”
In a letter to Baring dated Feb. 13, 1923, he said, “Of course there are a hundred more things to say; indeed the greatest argument for Catholicism is exactly what makes it so hard to argue for it. It is the scale and multiplicity of the forms of truth and help that it has to offer.”
Quite simply, he contends only authentic Catholicism offers the “arsenal” and the authority to battle whatever “potential enemies” to faith the world might offer.
Needless to say, at new of his conversion, Catholic friends were overjoyed, and non-Catholics were dismayed (though the more knowing ones recognized he had long been a Catholic anyway). But he defended his conversion in a series of essays and books.
He contended that many of the objections raised to Catholicism simply misunderstand what the religion is about.
In response to those who argued to Catholicism involved blind obedience and lack of reason and thinking, for example, he counters in he Catholic Church and Conversion, that, “To become a Catholic 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.”
In the New Witness he countered arguments that what the world need is a religion that will “move with the world.” That, he said, is precisely what we do not need.
“We want a Church that will move the world. We want a Church that will move the world. … It is by that test that history will really judge, of any Church, whether it is the real Church or no.”
For Chesterton, that real Church was the Roman Catholic Church. He would spend the rest of his life defending it, and through his writings, the rest of our lives.