Catholic Intellectual Giants in our midst – G.K. Chesterton

By Jordan Grantham, 14 June 2018
Karl G Schmude and GK Chesterton. Photo: Supplied.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, more commonly known as G. K. Chesterton, was a prominent English journalist in the early 20th century. He died on 14 June 1936. Catholic Outlook looks into the life of this remarkable convert to Catholicism.

“G.K. Chesterton ranks among the greatest Catholic intellectual figures in the past century, ” Karl Schmude, President of the Australian Chesterton Society, told Catholic Outlook in an interview.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a prolific author, producing an unending flow of articles over several decades, and nearly 100 books, on subjects from philosophy, theology and biography to Distributist economics, politics, poems, plays, novels and short stories. He also converted to Catholicism while a prominent journalist.

G.K. Chesterton’s famous Father Brown stories are currently adapted to television in a BBC production broadcast on ABC television in Australia.

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“He was also an exemplary man who attracted the love and loyalty of many people, even those with whom he disagreed most profoundly, such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells,” Karl said.

“His claims to sanctity are reflected in the fact that his cause for canonisation is currently being advanced,” he said.

“His writings are famous for illustrating a truth in unexpected ways.”

Chesterton’s most constant message is that, as human beings, we are hugely affected by familiarity so that we take life and all its blessings for granted – when, as he put it, we should take them “with gratitude”, Karl said.

Chesterton maintained that adults needed to recover the sense of wonder experienced as children.

“In all his writings, he strived to reawaken in his readers a sense of awe and surprise in response to truth and reality.”

“His writings are famous for illustrating a truth in unexpected ways.”

A powerful example of this is Chesterton’s description of St Peter’s crucifixion, that by being crucified upside down, St Peter saw the world as it really is, “with the stars like flowers, and the clouds like hills, and all men hanging on the mercy of God.”

Chesterton’s reputation grew when he began publishing books on every conceivable subject.

“He became prominent as an author who took religious faith seriously, and could write in a compelling way about its significance as a source of truth and meaning in human life,” Karl said.

“He was particularly notable for his ‘paradoxes’, by which he gave fresh insights into Christian truth and virtue.”

“He suggested that the Christian faith was revolutionary in its effects because it went beyond the merely rational demands of life to embrace a supernatural calling – which meant, for example, that we have to love not just the lovable but also the unlovable, if we are to be true to Christ.”

The principal works in Chesterton’s vast and varied output include his classic outline of Christian belief, Orthodoxy (1908); his exploration of Christian history and anthropology, The Everlasting Man (1925); more than fifty Father Brown stories and entertaining novels, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) and The Man Who Was Thursday (1908).

Karl also appreciates Chesterton’s poetry, “from long historical works like Lepanto to the delicate reflections of By the Babe Unborn, in which Chesterton brings to life the imaginings of a child waiting to be born.”

This appreciation began during Karl’s teen years at the University of Sydney.

“My personal favourite has always been Orthodoxy because I happened to read it at a testing time in my life. My Catholic faith was being challenged by different ideas, and my father wisely recognised that I needed the guidance of a great teacher, G.K. Chesterton!”

“I read Orthodoxy and was totally absorbed by the scintillating way Chesterton shed light on the truths I’d been taught but now needed to penetrate more deeply. It was a life-changing experience for me,” he said.

At the same time, Chesterton was most at home as a practising journalist. His weekly newspaper featured his essays and was almost entirely written by himself. Such was Chesterton’s prominence in London literary circles that George Orwell broke into journalism writing in G.K.’s Weekly. Karl recommends these essays, often republished in book form, as a good place to start understanding Chesterton’s work.

“Chesterton bears out T.S. Eliot’s definition of the Christian journalist – as one who finds ‘the topical excuse for writing about the permanent’. In this way, Chesterton converted works that are by their nature ephemeral into something of enduring value.”

Karl Schmude’s work as President of the Chesterton Society involves the organisation of the Australian Chesterton conference at Campion College each October.

“My intellectual debt to Chesterton has been so enormous that it has always induced in me a desire to inspire as many people as possible to read him.”

“It’s been heartening to see young people at these conferences and sense their excitement when they learn about Chesterton and want to explore his writings.”

Chesterton’s legacy endures in the profundity of his writing and a global network of many appreciators, including Pope Francis, who supported the Argentinian Chesterton Society as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and approved a prayer for Chesterton’s canonisation shortly before becoming Holy Father.


Further Information

The Australian Chesterton Society has members across Australia and actively promotes interest in Chesterton’s thought through the quarterly newsletter and the annual Australian Chesterton conference. The 2018 Australian Chesterton conference, “Chesterton and the Child: Fostering the Family Today” is scheduled for 20 October 2018 in Toongabbie.

Karl Schmude is President of the Australian Chesterton Society and author of multiple works on G.K. Chesterton.

Mr Schmude is also a Knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great, a co-founder of Campion College Australia, Toongabbie and was longtime University Librarian at the University of New England.

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