An Italian paper reported last December 5 that on that day Pope Francis said Mass at the Church of St. Martha in Rome, and in his homily, he quoted G.K. Chesterton.
Yes, I know. There was great rejoicing.
According to a translation of the report (provided by my Italian wife, Laura), this is what the Pope said:
Isaiah says: “Have trust in the Lord always, for God is an eternal rock!” The rock is Jesus Christ! The rock is our Lord! A word is powerful, it gives life, it can go forward, it can withstand attacks, if this word has its roots in Jesus Christ. A Christian word that does not have its vital roots is a Christian word without Christ. And Christian words without Christ deceive. An English writer, once talking about heresies, said that a heresy is a truth, a word, that has gone mad. When Christian words are without Christ, they begin to go by the way of madness.
Yes, I know. He only said “An English writer.” But the newspaper report referred to the quotation as “a famous aphorism of G.K. Chesterton.”
“A heresy is a truth gone mad.” Naturally, a few people have asked me about where Chesterton said this—and what he meant by it. I admit that when I read it, it didn’t quite sound right. But we have to keep in mind that this is an English translation of an Italian transcription of a spoken homily by someone who is giving an off-the-cuff Italian translation of a text he is quoting from memory of a Spanish translation of an English text that he never read in English. It is possible that something was lost—or even added—in translation.
One of the problems with some of Chesterton’s most famous aphorisms is that he didn’t quite say them. But they’re close enough to what he said to be his and nobody else’s, and more importantly, they’re true.
But what exactly did Chesterton say? What passage was the Pope referring to?
It is possible that he was conflating two different passages, as people tend to do with Chesterton. He may have been thinking of the lines from Orthodoxy: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” Chesterton goes on to explain that sanity is a balance, and that reason itself must be supplemented by something else—which turns out to be faith.
And then there is this passage from The Thing: “Every great heretic has always … picked out some mystical idea from the Church’s bundle or balance of mystical ideas.” And then he proceeds to explain how the heretic goes mad on one idea. Even though that idea is true, it has been separated from the rest of the Church’s truths. Thus, the Calvinist embraces the idea of the absolute knowledge and power of God but leaves out the balancing and necessary truth of free will, and so he goes mad on predestination. The Fundamentalist goes mad on the Bible because he has rejected the authority of the Church. And so on. In fact, Chesterton says elsewhere: “The chief doctrine that Islam preached was no a falsehood. It was a truth; and the whole case against it is that is was a truth, and not the truth. There may be a right ideal mixed up with the madness of the new movements in the Eastern lands. There always is. ‘Never was there a heretic who spoke all false,’ said the great Sir Thomas More” (New Witness, April 4, 1919).
Chesterton says that a fad and heresy are the same thing. And fashion is always a form of madness.
“A fad or heresy is the exaltation of something which even if true, is secondary or temporary in its nature against those things which are essential and eternal, those things which always prove themselves true in the long run. In short, it is the setting up of the mood against the mind.” (That’s from his book, William Blake.)
Similarly: “Every heresy is a truth taught out of proportion.” (Chesterton in the Daily News, June 26, 1909.)
And: “A heresy is always a half-truth turned into a whole falsehood” (America, November 9, 1935).
Yes, I know. None of those is exactly what the Holy Father said (keeping in mind that you don’t know exactly what the Holy Father said). But you get the idea. A heresy is a small truth isolated from the whole truth and then exaggerated to the point that it overshadows the whole truth and even turns against it. A heresy is a truth gone mad. The madman goes mad not from being wrong, but from being right about one thing to the exclusion of all others. Or, as Chesterton says, the madman’s philosophy leads him to where he finds himself “in the clean, well-lit prison of one idea.”
Yes, I know. It would have been nice if on his first public occasion of quoting Chesterton, Pope Francis had been a little more explicit and exact. And it would have been nice if he had mentioned Chesterton by name. And while we’re at it, I wish he’d mentioned the American Chesterton Society, too!