THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND CONVERSION
by G.K. Chesterton,
(Ignatius Press, 1926, reprinted 1990, 141pp, $29.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the writings and thought of G.K. Chesterton and it is not hard to see why. Not only is he a master of English prose but he could best be described as the apostle of common sense.
If anything, there is a greater need for what he writes now than when he first wrote it because we live in a world in which, to paraphrase Mark Twain, common sense is not very common! In this short yet fascinating volume, Chesterton crystallises many of the key facets underlying conversion to the Catholic faith.
In Chestonian fashion, he commences this work with an unusual thesis, in this instance that Catholicism is the new religion rather than the old religion. By this he means that in the predominantly Protestant society in which he was writing, the old or established religions in which the bulk of the population were raised were the mainline Protestant churches.
Catholicism was for people from such background essentially a new phenomenon which many discovered in their quest for truth. Chesterton himself, as he acknowledges, was such a person who finally entered the Church comparatively late in his quest for truth.
Ironically, many of his books that are essentially Catholic in ethos were written years before he was received into the Catholic Church. However, unlike many of his contemporaries, Chesterton himself was not raised in a Protestant, but rather in a free-thinking family. Hence, as he admits in this book, he did not have to overcome anti-Catholic prejudices like other converts.
However, he went through what he identifies as being the three stages of conversion, stages that subsequent writers, particularly those who are converts, cite.
The first stage is an open- mindedness to the Catholic Church, that is, a willingness to consider the Church's claims on her own terms.
The next phase is one in which the enquirer develops his or her knowledge of the faith.
The final stage - which is often the hardest for most converts - is when they have to make the decision to become a Catholic.
For many, this is an emotionally trying time. However, once made, there is for converts the relief that they have found the truth. Far from narrowing their intellectual horizons, embracing the Catholic faith gives them a perspective from which they can develop their knowledge.
Often prejudices blind people to the truth. In the Church's teaching, Chesterton found an answer to the ideals he pursued as a young man. For example, keenly interested in the lot of the working man, Chesterton discovered that many ideas about labour relations that he had arrived at were to be found in the Church's social teachings.
Naturally, some aspects of the experience of converts are different from those of Chesterton's time. In contemporary Australian society there are few who would seriously argue that Catholics are not patriotic, but instead owe their first loyalty to a foreign power (the Vatican) - an anti-Catholic prejudice still widely held in the 1920s.
However, Chesterton and his contemporaries had witnessed the horrors of war caused in part by excessive nationalism and Chesterton reminds his readers that while patriotism is honourable a Christian's first loyalty is not to country, but to faith. The priority of faith over national loyalty is underscored by the fact that the Church existed prior to most nation states and gave birth to many of them.
Chesterton cites the last words of Nurse Edith Cavell, widely regarded in the 1910s and 1920s as the epitome of the British patriotic martyr. She was executed by the Germans in Belgium for spying and her last words were that patriotism was not enough.
The Catholic Church and Conversion is an interesting and entertaining explanation of the reasons why many convert to the Catholic faith. As with Chesterton's other works, the ideas are pitched at a level accessible for the general reader. It would make ideal reading for anyone, whether cradle Catholic, convert or one seriously considering the claims of the Catholic Church.
Michael Daniel teaches at a Melbourne independent secondary school.