1997 Conference Address


The following is an edited version of the talk given by Stratford Caldecott at the 'Prophet of Sanity' conference (26-8 June 1997) – the official launch of the G.K. Chesterton Institute in the UK. Other speakers at the conference included Aidan Mackey, Agneta Sutton, Fr Ian Ker, Russell Sparkes, David Lord Alton, Aidan Nichols OP, Kevin Grant and John Saward.

Those of you who have come hoping for an academic conference are going to be disappointed by this one. But I make no apology on that score. Why should we be bound by the conventions that govern an academic conference? There is something radically wrong with modern academic life, and with the way our lives and interests are compartmentalized by the educational system.

I felt that when I was a student in the University down the hill, and I feel it now. England after all is a good place to feel it, for at least we have a distinguished tradition of gentlemen and lady 'amateurs' in this country. G.K. Chesterton is a good example; a journalist and man of letters unencumbered by university degrees, but who was admired by the more perceptive philosophers and literary critics of his time as much as by the men and women who were privileged to know him when he lived in Beaconsfield. He was no Renaissance Man, but he was an integrated man, of a type all too rare, and rarer now than before the Second World War.

In defence of the amateur I want to quote the following brief passage from Chesterton's chapter on 'female education' in What's Wrong with the World:

There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the colour of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face.

To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education; and closest to the child comes the woman – she understands. To say what she understands is beyond me; save only this, that it is not a solemnity. Rather it is a towering levity, an uproarious amateurishness of the universe, such as we felt when we were little, and would as soon sing as garden, as soon paint as run.

So do not think of this as an academic conference. Think of it more as a kind of retreat: prayer and meditation combined with friendship and conversation. We have much to reflect on together, things that concern ourselves and our children. It is a retreat that takes place under the influence of G.K. Chesterton: a man who represents many things. To some of us, he represents the best of a civilization that is passing away.

He represents Dante, and Shakespeare, and Dickens. To some he represents the spirit of unfailing good humour and courtesy, and even of that brightly-cloured chivalry which we remember from the books of childhood. He represents Robin Hood and Maid Marion; he represents St Thomas (intelligence in the service of wisdom) and St Francis (the Holy Fool). He represents love of friendship, and love of life, and love of God. He represents all that is wholesome and sensible. In a word, he represents sanity.

To call Chesterton a 'symbol' of all these things is not to say that he was perfect, or even a perfect exemplar of these particular qualities. It is not to make him a plaster saint. But it does make him a suitable emblem for an Institute dedicated to the revival and renewal of Christian culture in the modern world. Chesterton recognized that our modern civilization, though it appears on the surface to be going from strength to strength (mainly because of the ever-increasing speed of technological innovation), is in reality decadent and in decay, to the extent that secularism cuts it off from its source of life. He was, perhaps, rather too optimistic in The Well and the Shallows (1935) when he wrote as follows of a 'return to religion' in the near future:

We have done far less than we should have done, to explain all that balance of subtlety and sanity which is meant by a Christian religion. Our thanks are due to those who have so generously helped us by giving a glimpse of what might be meant by a Pagan civilization. And what is lost in that society is not so much religion as reason; the ordinary common daylight of intellectual instinct that has guided the children of men' [my emphasis].

Since Chesterton's day, England has had more than a glimpse of that post-Christian paganism. Ours is now a culture obsessed with sex, money and violent death. Each stage in the process of moral decline since the 1930s has numbed our sensibilities in readiness for the next, and the final end is not yet in sight. The work of the sceptic for the past century and a half has been, as Chesterton described it rather vividly in the same essay, 'very like the fruitless fury of some primeval monster; eyeless, mindless, merely destructive and devouring; a giant worm wasting away a world that he could not even see; a benighted and bestial life, unconscious of its own cause and of its own consequences.'

Yet we must be grateful, as Chesterton also says, 'for this public experiment and demonstration; it has taught us much. We did not believe that rationalists were so utterly mad until they made it quite clear to us. We did not ourselves think that the mere denial of our dogmas could end in such dehumanized and demented anarchy.' The eventual result of all this waste of life and beauty must surely be, as Chesterton prophesies, that man will 'take to himself again his own weapons; will and worship and reason and the vision of the plan in things.' Then the shadows will flee at the rising of the sun, and 'we are once more in the morning of the world.'

I have been quoting Chesterton at his most rhetorically sublime, of course. But even at his least rhetorical he never sounds academic. A more scholarly presentation of many of Chesterton's intuitions may be found in the historical works of Christopher Dawson, to whom we dedicated the first conference (and book) of the Centre for Faith & Culture. Like Chesterton, Dawson was no 'prisoner of the present'. But he was a professional academic, and necessarily expressed himself in more sober tones. Nevertheless. in one of my favourite of his books, The Judgment of Nations (1943), provoked by the spectacle of the war against fascism, he wrote almost as boldly as Chesterton:

What we are facing today... is not the breakdown of the traditional culture of Christendom, it is the catastrophe of the secular culture which has taken its place. For the failure of our civilization to satisfy man's deeper needs has created a spiritual vacuum, a heart of darkness and chaos beneath the mechanical order and the scientific intelligence of the modern world. Hence the demand for a new order, for a total solution of our social problems, for a replanning of society which will transform human life and remake man himself.

They are, in fact, symptoms of the fundamental religious need – the need of salvation manifesting itself in new forms which correspond to the purely secular culture in which they have arisen. But if, as we have argued, the failure of modern civilization is directly related to its secularism and its loss of spiritual values, it is useless to set our hopes in remedies, however drastic, which ignore this fundamental problem. Therefore there is more occasion than ever before to assert the Christian alternative of spiritual renewal and spiritual order, for it here and not in the region of political and economic organization that the real centre of the problem is to be found.

That last point is worth stressing, because we will be speaking during this conference at times precisely about questions of political and economic organization. Those questions are important, but we must never forget that the heart of the problem lies elsewhere. Dawson goes on to say that 'the words of the Bible and the Fathers, and the dogmas of theology, have become a dead language to the majority of men today. And this means that the great fundamental realities – the truths on which everything depends and which are more real than the things we see and touch – are dismissed as words, mere pious formulas that have no relevance to modern life.' These are some of the reasons it is increasingly important to continue Chesterton's tradition of attempting to communicate in a lively and engaging way those truths and principles on which civilization depends.

To Chesterton and Dawson could and should be added a host of other names, male and female, of Christian thinkers who saw clearly through the confusion of their times, from John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams to Frank Sheed, Eric Gill and David Jones, Dorothy L. Sayers and Caryll Houselander. It is this broad movement of orthodox Christian Romantics (if one may call them that) to which the Centre for Faith & Culture has mainly turned for inspiration. To the British contribution must be added the Continental, including the French, with Georges Bernanos, Charles Peguy, Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac.

Finally, in the Swiss German writer Hans Urs von Balthasar we find the basis for a theology of culture and of cultural history that takes the intuitions of all these other nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers a step further, in terms of the most profound understanding of the relationship of nature to grace and of human nature to divine vocation.

With Balthasar, at last, it becomes possible to see how Chesterton's insights may be developed and applied. They no longer seem so eccentric, like the words of a sane man in a lunatic asylum, but have a modern context in which they may be seen to make sense. Absorbing what is of value in the Enlightenment and then transcending it, he rallies intellectual forces that had long been on the retreat. For the first time we can glimpse a way forward for Catholicism, and not just back. It is this achievement of Balthasar and his teacher de Lubac that lies partly behind the vision of a new springtime of faith, which we associate with Pope John Paul II.

I have broadened this discussion beyond G.K. Chesterton because the work both of the Centre here and of the new Chesterton Institute must always be broader than Chesterton (broad though he undoubtedly was!). To be 'Chestertonian', in fact, is to be interested less in Chesterton than in truth. This is the understanding that lay behind last year's decision to create a G.K. Chesterton Institute. Fr Ian Boyd, the founder of The Chesterton Review, saw the Institute as a way of keeping the Chestertonian tradition alive and growing. The very dynamism of Chesterton's thought means it would be a pity if those who are attracted to it devoted themselves exclusively to its repetition and celebration. What needs to be done is to learn from Chesterton, to draw inspiration from him, and then to do one's own thinking.

The Institute in its American incarnation has a Board that oversees its work, which includes Fr Boyd himself, and a Director: Mr Christopher Corkery. It also has an endowment, and a friendly association with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), making possible regular conferences and publications.

The Institute in America must be distinguished, however, from the Institute in England, which we have now established as a charitable Trust. Here the Institute grows not only out of the work of The Chesterton Review, and my work with Fr Boyd at the Centre for Faith & Culture over the last three years, but also out of the long labours of Mr Aidan Mackey, the foremost Chestertonian amateur of these islands. The new Institute has in fact risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of Aidan's 'Study Centre' Trust, which was originally set up in an (unsuccessful) attempt to purchase Chesterton's house, Top Meadow. The Trustees of the Institute include Aidan himself, Fr Boyd, Russell Sparkes, myself, Dr Michael Nevell, Peter Cullinane and Lord Alton.

What is the Institute intended for? What are its hopes and plans? In essence, the task is to try to do in our time the work G.K. Chesterton was doing in his time: the work of evangelizing, of communicating – in a small way of converting culture; that is, converting it wherever possible to Christian common sense, to sanity. We want to do this in his spirit – which means, without rancour or bitterness, with humour even in adversity, and without hatred for any person. We want also to be noticeably open-minded, but not so open that everything falls out at the bottom.

The work of the Institute will, of course, include the development of a Research Library devoted not to Chesterton alone, but also to the Catholic literary revival as a whole and to other Christian authors – especially the writers of the nouvelle theologie and ressourcement tradition of European Catholicism, of Claudel, Guardini, Congar, Bouyer, de Lubac and Balthasar, and great Thomists such as the Maritains and Yves Simon. Selections of this material will, from time to time, be made available in the form of audiobooks or cassettes designed for broadcast on radio both in the West and in Eastern Europe.

We also hope eventually to provide facilities for visiting scholars and students to study the Catholic tradition represented by these authors; furthermore, to study it not as a dead thing, but as still living and vibrant in contemporary discourse. For the time being our major preoccupation remains the printed word. Chesterton was a journalist and a newspaper man. The Institute has a growing involvement in the editing and distribution of The Chesterton Review, and is already, through the Centre for Faith & Culture, linked to several other magazines and journals, including Communio, Catholic World Report and Inside the Vatican, in which its work will be reported and developed.

Finally, I must naturally mention Distributism. This was the economic and social theory developed by Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, which was then applied in a practical way by Distributist groups around the country in the first half of the century. It was based on Catholic social teaching, and in turn it has influenced interpretations of that teaching throughout our century.

The Big Idea of the distributists was a 'third way' between Capitalism and Socialism: private property distributed as widely as possible through society, placed in the hands of individual landowners and families who could form the basis for a stable and wholesome social order. It was an attempt to maximize true freedom and enterprise, at the expense of the collectivist totalitarianisms proposed by both Right and Left.

Despite having had an indirect influence on the New Economics of E.F. Schumacher and through him on today's Green movement, Distributism is widely regarded as one of the many failures of the Romantic movement. Its very name was held to be an important reason why it never caught on. 'Much too complicated.' The concept of a 'third way' was suspect, and deemed by some to have been completely discredited by the collapse of Communism.

Today the situation is rather different. The term 'Communitarianism' might also have seemed too complicated to catch on in 1990, but the movement started by Amitai Etzioni has run like wildfire through policy debates in the Western democracies, and (according to the New Statesman, anyway) 'achieved for Etzioni the status of a modern seer', influencing among others, Tony Blair – who has spoken openly about the need for a 'Third Way' beyond Socialism and Conservatism.

Now from what I understand of Communitarianism, it seems to be a second-rate substitute for Distributism. Its apparent success indicates that the time has come to re-present the ideas of Chesterton and Belloc. Regionalism, too, has suddenly become a live issue again in Britain and in Europe. But in keeping with its intention not merely to represent but to develop the ideas associated with Chesterton and other writers, our Institute is not bound to one particular ideology, even Distributism.

We are looking for – and have already begun to find – economists from a variety of backgrounds and points of view who are prepared to work together and to study new approaches, including radical approaches, to putting sanity back into the workplace, and into our public and social life. The Sane Economy Project grows out of the Croatian conference of the Review back in 1993, the particular focus of which was on economic policy for Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism.

The Project is obviously now much wider than that. It will be concerned with the foundations of business ethics, the 'limits of the market', measures of economic growth, sustainability and other topics – in other words, with specific applications in modern circumstances of the principles defined in papal encyclicals such as Centesimus Annus and episcopal documents such as The Common Good. The first phase of the Project will culminate in a conference in 1999, where those who have been working on particular themes will present their conclusions and open up a wider debate. Interim reports on progress will be published in The Chesterton Review.

One of my favourite passages in Chesterton may serve as a manifesto for the Sane Economy. It comes from the end of What's Wrong With the World, where he is remarking on the dictat that little girls whose daughters were poor should have their hair cut short for the sake of cleanliness: that is, on 'the brute fact that a doctor can walk into the house of a free man, whose daughter's hair may be as clean as spring flowers, and order him to cut it off. It never seems to strike these people that the lesson of lice in the slums is the wrongness of slums, not the wrongness of hair.' The point, of course, applies not just to headlice, but to many another social problem of our day – dare I say, even to abortion? The passage concludes as follows:

I begin with a little girl's hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization.

Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home; because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution.

The little urchin with the red-gold hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict's; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down; and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

For Chesterton, as we see in this passionate paragraph, orthodox Christianity is a romantic adventure. It is not a set of beliefs we can keep in a box: the box keeps bursting – the hing is alive. If you will excuse a personal note, when I became a Catholic, my father was particularly upset because he thought I would never be able to think for myself again.

I wish I had been able to explain adequately to him that Catholicism is not, as it appeared to him, a cold and 'dogmatic' religion at all, but a religion of warmblooded freethinkers. It sets us free, in particular, by giving us solid nourishment and by setting our feet on the good earth. To throw in a variation on the metaphor, a man who is suspended in the air may feel free enough, but without wings his ability to move is somewhat restricted.

A man who is falling may be moving rapidly, but not in a direction he would necessarily choose. If our feet are planted on the ground we can walk where we wish, through a kingdom that has a definite shape and geography. The forests and the mountains, the rivers and cities of that land are plain facts, facts that the Creed and teachings of Christianity have always been intended to communicate and describe. It is in that universe that the Chesterton Institute locates itself, that country which it seeks to explore, and that land which it hopes to encourage more people to settle, work and build.