The ways of Rome

September 25, 2007

Where All Roads Lead (1922)
G. K. Chesterton (Ignatius Press, 1990)
33 p. First reading.

Chesterton, who had long been a vocal defender of the Catholic foundations of Western civilization, was himself received into the Church in 1922. Shortly thereafter a series of short columns were published on both sides of the Atlantic in which he briefly set forth his reasons for converting. Those reasons were expanded and elaborated in his later books The Catholic Church and Conversion and The Thing, but the initial columns themselves were collected into this small volume entitled Where All Roads Lead.

He acknowledges at the outset that there are really only two fundamental reasons for a man to become a Catholic:

One is that he believes it to be the solid objective truth, which is true whether he likes it or not; and the other that he seeks liberation from his sins. If there be any man for whom these are not the main motives, it is idle to inquire what were his philosophical or historical or emotional reasons for joining the old religion; for he has not joined it at all.

Chesterton did himself affirm both of those reasons, which freed him to discuss his own philosophical, historical, and emotional reasons as well. He begins by remarking on the surprising historical resilience of the Church, which does not simply outlast its many challengers, but does so through recurring bursts of vitality and freshness. As an example he takes the challenge that Christianity faced from Islam in the Middle Ages, the response to which was the Crusades and a renewal of devotion and confidence: “The actual effect of danger from the younger religion was renewal of our own youth. It was the sons of St. Francis, the Jugglers of God, wandering singing over all the roads of the world; it was the Gothic going up like a flight of arrows; it was a rejuvenation of Europe.”

In his own day, Chesterton saw the Church as in the midst of another such revival, and it is true that those decades before and between the great wars saw a number of prominent European intellectuals, not to mention many lay people, crossing over to Rome. The Second Vatican Council has intervened between then and now, and it is not clear how much of the momentum Chesterton observed survived the upheaval that the Council caused in the Church’s inner life. The revival of Thomism, for instance, which Chesterton so much admired, appears to have wilted away, and the elaborate ritual element he loved has taken a steady beating, and in many respects the communal, visible Catholic culture has suffered serious attrition in the face of an aggressive secular culture, such that many Catholics ignore and even deny the Church’s teachings, and are ignorant of the reasons for them. But even this may, paradoxically, be part of a revival. As Chesterton himself said, “There has been a happy increase in the number of Catholics; but there has also been, if I may so express it, a happy increase in the number of non-Catholics; in the sense of conscious non-Catholics.” We are living through a time of clarification in which the moral and spiritual vision of Catholicism is increasingly distinct from, and therefore increasingly a challenge to, the advance of secularism. It is up to each person to choose, but at least the choice is evident. The result, as Pope Benedict has often said, is likely to be a smaller, but more unified and dedicated Church. To the extent that she lives her calling faithfully, how can she help being an attractive alternative to her sterile competitors?

Chesterton draws our attention to the range and subtle variety of Catholic thought, contrasting it favourably with the simple doctrines of modern movements. To Chesterton’s mind these modern movements are oversimple; they are “too simple to be true”. Be they political or religious in nature, they are born out of particular circumstances, often in reaction against particular circumstances, and when those circumstances pass the movements pass along with them. Catholicism, too, was born out of a particular historic situation, but its founding ideas were of such richness and variety that it was able to survive the great changes that brought the world of its origins to an end, and it has over the centuries built up a wealth of resources that equip it to deal with whatever may come. By approaching the matter in this way, Chesterton evinces some of the joyful swagger to which Pascal alluded when, in a very similar context, he remarked that there was a special pleasure to be had in sailing through a violent storm when you know that the ship cannot sink. The winds may blow and the waves may pound, but the tempest never lasts, or the wind changes direction so often that it can never seriously threaten to overturn the vessel.

The Church cannot change quite so fast as the charges against her do. She is sometimes caught napping and still disproving what was said about her on Monday, to the neglect of the completely contrary thing that is said about her on Tuesday. She does sometimes live pathetically in the past, to the extent of innocently supposing the modern thinker may think today what he thought yesterday. Modern thought does outstrip her, in the sense that it disappears, of itself, before she has done disproving it. She is slow and belated, in the sense that she studies a heresy more seriously than the heresiarch does.

He says that he himself became a Catholic in order to pass into possession of this rich heritage of thought and devotion, which he saw could not but enlarge his own heart and mind. He was well aware of the danger that the modern world faces when it takes a half-truth for the whole truth, as it so often does. (It is a simple matter to enumerate the half-truths that animate our political and moral discourse: “war causes suffering”, “a pregnancy is life-altering”, “diversity enriches us”, “democracy is good”, and so forth.) In his own youth, Chesterton had reacted against the then-fashionable pessimism of the cultured classes by stressing the foundational goodness of life and existence itself. This was a truth: existence is a great good. But it was only a half-truth, for he realized that if not balanced against other goods it could become an instrument in the hands of tyranny, as when a despot says that the people should be happy just to be alive. He found in the Catholic Church a teacher who refused to grasp one truth alone, or pit one truth against another, but instead patiently elaborated and held in concert a great web of truths. She has, he said, proved herself to be “a truth-telling thing”, and a man in possession of a half-truth should turn to her to have it completed.

He should take his half-truth into the culture of the Catholic Church, which really is a culture and where it really will be cultivated. For that place is really a garden; and the noisy world outside, nowadays, is none the less a wilderness because it is a howling wilderness. That is, he can take his idea where it will be valued for what is true in it, where it will be balanced by other truths and often supported by better arguments. In other words, it will become a part, however small a part, of a permanent civilization…

2 Responses to “The ways of Rome”

  1. Jm Says:

    Hi Craig,

    Hope all is well in Ottawa. It is probably dangerous for me to be reading your Chesterton post — despite my enjoyment of it. I’m wondering if you know a source for the ‘Pope Benedict’s desire is for a smaller, but more unified, church point.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Jm. I hope I didn’t say that Pope Benedict desires a smaller, but more unified, church; no Pope could really want fewer Christians. But I think he expects a smaller, more unified church, which is a very different thing. He has spoken of this expectation a number of times, but perhaps this example, from his book Salt of the Earth (1997), will do:

    “The task to believe completely out of freedom and in freedom and to believe while witnessing against a weary world also contains new hopes, new possibilities for expressing Christianity. Precisely an age in which Christianity is quantitatively reduced can bring this more conscious Christianity to a new vitality.” (p.268-9)

    Shortly after his election in 2005, there were a number of articles (such as this one in the Herald Tribune) that picked up this theme. Sometimes it was implied that the Pope wished to bring about the smaller church by purging the half-hearted, but this is incompatible with Benedict’s own words. For instance, in God and the World (2002) he said:

    “The consciousness of not being in a closed club, but of always being open to everyone and everything, is an inseparable part of the Church… I have nothing against it, then, if people who all year long never visit a church go there at least on Christmas Night or New Year’s Eve or on special occasions, because this is another way of belonging to the blessing of the sacred, to the light… The Church has to be inwardly open.” (p.442)

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