“Bishop Doyle Declines to Pursue Canonization of G.K. Chesterton,” by S.M. O’Connor

The Right Reverend Peter Doyle, Bishop of Northampton, England has declined to pursue the cause of canonization for the author and orator G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936).  [Canonization is the formal process whereby the Catholic Church recognizes sainthood.]  In a press release on Monday, August 5, 2019 (the Feast of Our Lady of Snows), Dr. Dale Ahlquist, President of The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, announced that on Thursday, August 1, 2019 at the 38th Annual Chesterton Conference, before an audience of 500 people he read aloud from a letter he had received in April from Bishop Doyle in which the prelate declined to pursue the cause of canonization for G.K. Chesterton. On August 2nd, the Catholic Herald in England related the story and the Catholic press worldwide followed suit.

A prolific journalist and author, Gilbert Keith Chesterton published almost 100 books and more than 4,000 newspaper columns and essays.  G.K. Chesterton was a philosopher, lay theologian, literary critic, and art critic, but he is best remembered as author of the Father Brown mysteries.  Fr. Brown, is a Roman Catholic priest and an amateur detective who first appeared in “The Blue Cross,” published in 1910.  Chesterton was an adult convert from High Church Anglicanism to Catholicism in 1922, so he started to write the Fr. Brown stories well before he converted to Catholicism.

The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  It describes itself as “a Catholic lay apostolate, recognized formally as a canonical private association of the Christian faithful.”  The motto of the organization is “RENEWING SOCIETY THROUGH CHRISTIAN JOY AND COMMON SENSE.”  Its mission “is to promote Catholic education, evangelization, and the social teaching of the Church.”  The Society of G.K. Chesterton sponsors The American Chesterton Society,[1] organizations in the Chesterton Schools Network,[2] and the missionary organization Teach for Christ.[3]

The 38th Annual Chesterton Conference took place in Kansas City, Kansas.  The theme was “The Future of the Family.”  The speakers included His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, and Rod Dreher, author of the bestseller The Benedict Option.

Bishop Peter Doyle try to soften the blow in his letter to Dr. Ahlquist with an opening paragraph that concluded, “This is not a letter I find easy to write, and I know that you will not find it easy to receive.”  Bishop Doyle noted that Canon John Udris had finished a precursory investigation into the cause of Chesterton in the summer of 2018, which he described as “a wonderfully thorough and supportive study.” Bishop Doyle reached his conclusion after he prayed over the matter and paid a visit to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints with some fellow Bishops of England and Wales during their Ad Limina visit to the Vatican in September of 2018.

I am very conscious of the devotion to G.K. Chesterton in many parts of the world and of his inspiring influence on so many people, and this makes it difficult to communicate the conclusion to which I have come.

That conclusion is that I am unable to promote the cause of G.K. Chesterton for three reasons.  Firstly, and most importantly, there is no local cult.  Secondly, I have been unable to tease out a pattern of personal spirituality.  And, thirdly, even allowing for the context of G.K. Chesterton’s time, the issue of anti-Semitism is a real obstacle particularly at this time in the United Kingdom.

As a very unworthy servant of the Church, I recognise Chesterton’s goodness and his ability to evangelise but, in my heart of hearts, I believe that he himself would not want any fuss other than asking his prayers for the Church today and praying for him.

I realise that this is very disappointing for you and for the vast number of people around the world who have such a high regard for Chesterton, and I think particularly of the American Chestertonian Society.

I have no doubt that you will seek new ways to promote Chesteton’s cause, and I would not want to stand in the way other than staring, as the local Bishop, my own conclusions.

Be sure of my prayers for you and your family and for the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton and the Chesterton Schools Network.

– Right Reverend Peter Doyle, Bishop of Northampton

Dr. Ahlquist replied he was “disappointed but not discouraged,” and the “Chestertonians would, as he predicted, continue to do everything we can to promote Chesterton’s canonization.  I did add that no saint would ever endorse his own cause, least of all, the humble bard of Beaconsfield.  The bishop immediately responded agreeing with that last point.”  He wrote Bishop Doyle they would discuss the issue at the 2019 Conference to pray for them and Doyle replied he would celebrate a Mass for the Society and the conference.

In reply to Bishop Doyle’s three objections, Dr. Ahlquist stated (in the press release) that there is a both a local cult and a universal cult for G.K. Chesterton.  He pointed out it was “the Senior Deacon (now deceased) of the Diocese of Northampton who first appealed to the Bishop to open Chesterton’s cause,” and there is The Catholic Chesterton Society in London.  That leader of that organization is Stuart McCullough, a convert to Catholicism whose conversion story is related in a book edited by Dr. Ahlquist: My Name is Lazarus – 37 Stories of Converts Whose Path to Rome was Paved by G.K. Chesterton.  If Chesterton was to be canonized, his feast day would be June 14th because he died on June 14, 1936.  This is the context for Ahlquist’s statement, “Every June, pilgrims walk and pray from London to Beaconsfield, culminating at Chesterton’s grave.  The Catholic Chesterton Society has translated the prayer for Chesterton’s intercession into more than 20 languages.”  In terms of a universal cult, the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton has distributed over 25,000 prayer cards and receives requests for more on a daily basis.

As for Doyle’s second objection, the lack of personal spirituality, Ahlquist argued it is hard for a layman to be canonized compared to the founder of a religious order who articulates a rule for everyday living for members of his order.  To this end, at the 38th Annual Chesterton Conference, Ahlquist rattled off five names and asked the audience to identify them to no avail, only to reveal they were all priests who had founded religious orders and had been canonized within the past thirty years.  [Obviously, if not one person out of hundreds who had gathered for a conference on G.K. Chesterton could name these modern saints, they must be really obscure.]  Ahlquist wrote in the press release, “Clearly there is little difficulty in discerning the spiritual pattern, as it were, of the founder of a religious order, telling his followers how they should live.  Rather, he revealed his spirituality in his writings and in his life, in his love for the Sacraments, in his abiding sense of wonder and joy, and in his tireless labor for social and political reform.  He lived a theology of thanks.  He is the model of lay spirituality.”  Furthermore, Ahlquist has led spiritual retreats “based on Chesterton’s very coherent spirituality for some years.”

Regarding the third objection, Ahlquist countered, “Chesterton was not anti-Semitic.  A man who not only physically defended the Jews when they were attacked (read his Autobiography) but repeatedly spoke out against their persecution in Germany, in Russia, and in England, who said ‘The world owes God to the Jews,’ and ‘I will die defending the last Jew in Europe,’ should not have this poisonous epithet anywhere near his good name.  I am pleased that the Bishop does not make this accusation, but he says that there is an ‘issue.’  While Chesterton’s writings are amazingly fresh and vital, there is no question that he occasionally says things that are awkward by modern standards of political correctness (and the Bishop makes this allowance as well).  However, an issue being ‘sensitive’ should not stand in the way of proceeding with the Cause.  It simply needs to be dealt with honestly, fairly, courageously and charitably.  In addition to the fact that there are many Jewish converts, drawn to the faith by none other than G.K. Chesterton, I wish to emphasize that there is no wisp of hostility toward the Jews in our Apostolate.  We are saddened when anyone repeats the falsehood that Chesterton was anti-Semitic.”  The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton devoted a whole issue of Gilbert Magazine to refuting charges of anti-Semitism on the part of Chesterton. Ahlquist added that he addressed all of these matters in his new book Knight of the Holy Ghost – A Short History of G.K. Chesterton, which Ignatius Press published in January of 2019, and that he had sent a copy of the book (as well as a copy of My Name is Lazarus) to Bishop Doyle.

Ahlquist noted, “It is fitting that Chesterton, who made a living as a controversialist, should continue to find himself controversial.  But if anything, that is proof of his abiding presence.  It is also evidence that he belongs in that controversial group, the Communion of Saints.”

While Bishop Peter Doyle was always gracious and kind to me, I was aware of the fact that he did not always have any enthusiasm for Chesterton and by his own admission did not really know much about him.

– Dr. Dale Ahlquist, President of The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton

He tried to rectify the ignorance but was unable to induce enthusiasm for the cause of canonization for Chesterton.  “It was my hope that the Prophet would be honored in his own country,” Ahlquist lamented, making a reference to the Bible.[4]  “Although it is clear Bishop Doyle will not be opening the Cause of Canonization for G.K. Chesterton, this does not mean the cause is dead.  We are confident that, in time, it will open, under a different ordinary[5] and perhaps a different diocese, which is a possibility under canon law.”[6]  Ahlquist concluded by urging “those who are disappointed by the announcement to be charitable and supportive of the Bishop of Northampton.  He is praying for us.  Let us return the favor.”


[1] Founded in 1996, The American Chesterton Society has 2,000 active members.  Through the publication of its magazine and books, local societies, and national conferences, The American Chesterton Society promotes the written works of G.K. Chesterton to introduce him to new generations of readers.

[2] The Chesterton Schools Network (C.S.N.) seeks to form future Catholic leaders and saints by establishing affordable, theologically-orthodox Catholic high schools.  There are currently fifteen high schools in the C.S.N. in the U.S.A., Canada, and Italy.  Presently, there are more than 500 students in the C.S.N.

[3] Teach for Christ recruits, trains, and places Catholic teachers, tutors, coaches, and mentors in Catholic schools.  The goal is to provide support for career Catholic school teachers, boost their morale, and counteract burnout.

[4] There are multiple versions in the Gospels of Christ having told the Apostles that prophets were not honored in their own hometowns.  “Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country,” (Gospel of John 4:44). Christ told the Apostles, “No prophet is accepted in his own home town,” (Gospel of Luke 4:16-30).  Christ told the Apostles, “Only in his own hometown, among his own relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor,” (Gospel of Mark 6:1-6).

[5] In this context, an ordinary means a bishop.

[6] The original text was in bold font.

Canon law is the law code for the ecclesiastical hierarchy that governs the Catholic Church, though there are different codes for the Late Rite Church and the Eastern Rite Churches.  The Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican Communion are also governed by codes of canon law.  The English word canon is derived from the Greek word kanon, which means a measuring rod.

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