Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Philosophies at War, VII: Chesterton Versus the New Christianity


Last Thursday we noted that G.K. Chesterton published his little book on St. Francis of Assisi in the early 1920s to address the problems caused by the “New Christianity” movement of the early nineteenth century.  This had gone off into mysticism, spiritualism, theosophy, and “esoteric philosophy” as well as various creative reinterpretations of Christianity, and which, by the late nineteenth century, had evolved into modernism and New Age thought.
There was thus good reason for Chesterton’s concern.  The fundamental principle of New Christianity — religious socialism — had spread everywhere, even into the interpretation of Catholic social teaching.  The New Christian principle can be summarized as follows:
The whole of society ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class; society ought to organize itself in the way best adapted for attaining this end.  (“Saint-Simon, Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de,” Encyclopedia Britannica: 14th Edition, 1956, Print.)
This was so very, very close to what the Church actually teaches that most people find it extremely hard to distinguish between the two; this sounds so very Christian.  Yet, as Orestes Brownson had said, “Never was heresy more subtle, more adroit, better fitted for success.”  As Pope Leo XIII had carefully explained in 1891 in his encyclical refuting such “new things”:
Private ownership . . . is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary. . . . But if the question be asked: How must one’s possessions be used? — the Church replies without hesitation . . . “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need. Whence the Apostle with, ‘Command the rich of this world . . . to offer with no stint, to apportion largely.’” True, no one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life, “for no one ought to live other than becomingly.” But, when what necessity demands has been supplied, and one’s standing fairly taken thought for, it becomes a duty to give to the indigent out of what remains over. “Of that which remaineth, give alms.” It is a duty, not of justice (save in extreme cases), but of Christian charity — a duty not enforced by human law.  (Rerum Novarum, § 22.)
Leo XIII: All things must be subject to the natural law.
Even today, however, give most people the two passages above to compare, and almost every one of them will claim they say the same thing.  And they would all be wrong!
The New Christian principle is that the whole of the natural law — especially private property — and the total efforts of society are to be directed toward, and subordinated to, helping the poor, no exceptions.
The Catholic principle is exactly the opposite, that the whole of society and all human efforts are to be subordinated to the demands of the natural law — no exceptions.  We may never do evil — and going contrary to the natural law is intrinsically evil — even if we anticipate the greatest possible good will come of it.  Judas’s betrayal of Christ resulted in the Redemption, but it did not make the Iscariot a saint.
Even so great a thing as assistance to the poor must comply with the demands of the natural law.  This is because the natural law is based on human nature, which is itself a reflection of God’s Nature, and therefore not subject to change or amendment.  As Pope St. John Paul II would remind people as recently as 1999,
[L]ove for the poor must be preferential, but not exclusive. The Synod Fathers observed that it was in part because of an approach to the pastoral care of the poor marked by a certain exclusiveness that the pastoral care for the leading sectors of society has been neglected and many people have thus been estranged from the Church.  (Ecclesia in America, § 67.)
Socialism is not the "Testament of St. Francis."
Possibly because it tickled a little his sense of the ridiculous, but more because of the astounding paradox of a Catholic saint having been (in a sense) kidnapped and held hostage by the New Christian heretics to support their attacks on Catholic doctrine, Chesterton chose as his point of defense what he called “the testament” of St. Francis of Assisi.  To counter the falsehoods spread about the Little Poor Man, whom the enemy — Chesterton’s word — clearly considered one of their own, Chesterton would present them with the simple, straightforward, Catholic truth of St. Francis’s legacy.
The shock value alone of Chesterton’s tactic was enormous.  As the reaction of R.H. Tawney (author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism that he wrote to "refute" Chesterton) suggests, it must have infuriated the socialists and New Christians.  Chesterton’s defiance must have struck the leaders of the Fabian Society in much the same way the defense of Castle Saint Elmo at Malta in 1565 enraged Mustapha Pasha, the Turkish commander.  He took the tiny outpost, expected to fall into his hands in a day or two, after a month of bitter fighting that cost him the lives of tens of thousands of his finest troops, and gained him nothing but a pile of blood-drenched rocks.
The issue?  As always, the institution of private property.  And the contention?  That Christianity had forsaken the real teachings of Jesus by subordinating everything to the natural law and abandoning its commitment to poverty.  As Chesterton’s friend, Msgr. Ronald Knox, explained the argument,
Msgr. Knox: the Fraticelli had it wrong.
The Fraticelli of Sicily [The “Spiritual Franciscans” — ed.] would have it that the Gospel of Christ had been wholly extinguished, to be revived in their own order.  The Church of Rome, they added . . . was the carnal Church, theirs the spiritual. . . . [T]he Catholic Church was only the corpse of a great tradition.  But, if the Church Christ founded had come to an end, when did it come to an end?  The rage for apostolic poverty prompted the convenient answer: “In the fourth century, when the Donation of Western Europe by Constantine to St. Sylvester made the Church a property-owning body.”  The Spiritual Franciscans, and those whom their teaching influenced, fell back on the belief that the Church had unchurched herself when she turned her back on poverty.  (Msgr. Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1961, 110-111.)
This, of course, was the argument the New Christians would resurrect in the early nineteenth century to bolster their claim that true Christianity and socialism were one and the same.  As Chesterton summarized this, “[S]ome Franciscans, invoking the authority of Francis on their side, . . . proposed to abolish not only private property but property.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1923, 173.)
Chesterton then did the unforgiveable.  He identified certain socialists by name — G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells — and called them and their ilk impractical idealists . . . which was, by the by, simply throwing their description of him back at them.  (Ibid., 173-174.)  (Wells split from the Fabians because he thought you needed to make people socialists to have socialism, while Fabians such as Shaw said no, you just need to have socialism, whatever you call it, whether or not you have any "official" socialists.)  If that were not enough, Chesterton then noted that, on the very point at issue, St. Francis whom they professed to adore was wrong, and the pope whom they chose to abhor was right:
H.G. Wells, former Fabian
The truth is that this incident shows two things which are common enough in Catholic history, but very little understood by the journalistic history of industrial civilisation. It shows that the Saints were sometimes great men when the Popes were small men. But it also shows that great men are sometimes wrong when small men are right. And it will be found, after all, very difficult for any candid and clear-headed outsider to deny that the Pope was right, when he insisted that the world was not made only for Franciscans.  (Ibid., 174.)
Chesterton then dealt what he believed would be the deathblow to the pretensions of New Christianity — and it would have been, had anyone actually paid attention to what he said, instead of sifting through his words for quotes and quips to support pre-determined positions.  As he summed up his case,
St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. They were willing to let the Franciscan spirit escape from Christendom as the Christian spirit had escaped from Israel. They were willing to let it eclipse Christendom as the Christian spirit had eclipsed Israel. Francis, the fire that ran through the roads of Italy, was to be the beginning of a conflagration in which the old Christian civilisation was to be consumed. That was the point the Pope had to settle; whether Christendom should absorb Francis or Francis Christendom. And he decided rightly, apart from the duties of his place; for the Church could include all that was good in the Franciscans and the Franciscans could not include all that was good in the Church.  (Ibid., 175.)
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