Pope Francis Quotes Chesterton! But … What Was the Quotation?

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!

Dale Ahlquist


Dale Ahlquist is the president and co-founder of the American Chesterton Society. He is the creator and host of the Eternal Word Television Network series, "G.K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense." Dale is the author of G.K. Chesterton: Apostle of Common Sense and the recently published The Complete Thinker. He is also the publisher of Gilbert Magazine, and associate editor of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton (Ignatius). He lives near Minneapolis with his wife and six children.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Mgr Ronald Knox explains this very well: “Let us note that traditional Christianity is a balance of doctrines, and not merely of doctrines but of emphases. You must not exaggerate in either direction, or the balance is disturbed. An excellent thing to abandon yourself, without reserve, into God’s hands; … but, teach on principle that it is an infidelity to wonder whether you are saved or lost, and you have overweighted your whole devotional structure… Conversely, it is a holy thing to trust in the redeeming merits of Christ. But, put it about that such confidence is the indispensable sign of being in God’s favour, that, unless and until he is experimentally aware of it, a man is lost, and the balance has been disturbed at the opposite end;”

    • A_Reader55

      GKC has a great quote in “Orthodoxy” about this. He depicts the Church as a chariot driver rumbling down the centuries amid the potholes, tottering in its contradictions but never quite falling.

  • Emerson_C

    Another allusion might have been where Chesterton referred to Reformation not so much allowing the vices to go mad but allowing the virtues to go mad. Can’t remember the reference.

    • Dan

      I believe you’re thinking of Orthodoxy, Chapter III, where Chesterton referred to the modern world as one in which the virtues have gone mad:

      The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.

      • redfish

        I agree with Chesterton’s final point, but I don’t really agree with the way he puts it. If something originally true is exaggerated and taken out of context, its not a truth anymore. If some understanding of a virtue is taken as something for its own sake, and likewise taken out of context, its not a virtue anymore. If someone is mad with an originally rational idea, its not rational anymore.

        Chesterton was speaking to a certain understanding of language, which was fine to make his points clear, which he did, but its also a certain understanding of language that ultimately formed the foundation of postmodernism, which ran wild with it and took it to its logical conclusions.

  • Kathleen

    On the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/cotidie/2013/en/papa-francesco-cotidie_20131205_words-mad_en.html – December 13, 2013 – does mention Chesterton:

    The Pontiff then quoted the English author G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936),
    when speaking about heresy once said that a heresy is a truth, a word, a
    truth gone mad. “When Christian words lack Christ, they begin to head
    down the road of madness”. The prophet Isaiah, he added, clearly
    describes the nature of this madness. He says: “The Lord is an
    everlasting rock. For he has brought low the inhabitants of the height,
    the lofty city” (26:4-5). “The inhabitants of the height. A Christian
    word without Christ leads to vanity, to self assuredness, to pride, and
    to power for power’s sake. And the Lord brings these people low”.

    • msmischief

      the “that” in that statement generally indicates something of a paraphrase.

  • uncle max

    Level 1 – “This is an English translation
    Level 2 – of an Italian transcription
    Level 3 – of a spoken homily by someone who is giving an
    Level 4 – off-the-cuff Italian translation
    Level 5 – of a text he is quoting from memory
    Level 6 – of a Spanish translation
    Level 7 – of an English text
    Level 8 – that he never read in English.

    Level 9 (this is the best part) – It is possible that something was lost – or even added – in translation.”

    My humble addition – level 10 – filter the above through a MSM filter and PRESTO!!

    Question – is there anyone here who is actually surprised? Please raise your hand.
    The girl in the 3rd row? Oh, you need to go to the loo. Go ahead dear.

    Anyone else? I thought so.

    My work here is done.

    • Paul Schumann

      hahahaha I love it

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    The real question is, is it wise to listen to this Pontiff talk about anything? Wading through his labyrinthine comments in a desperate, good-willed search for orthodoxy is at best an arduous and discouraging activity.

    • Watosh

      Amen to that.

    • jasonbmiller

      I suppose you think you are orthodox, even though you question whether we should listen to our holy father. You speak words of infidelity. You are not orthodox, but do seem to fall in the camp where you think you are more Catholic than the pope.

      • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

        Papolatry is not orthodox. If you care to explain Pope Francis’ comments, please have a go at it. The entire Catholic world is waiting to hear an authentic Catholic message in it.

      • poetcomic1

        When Pope Francis insulted a gift by strangers of a spiritual rosary and did it not among intimates but to OTHER strangers, publicly and knowing that his words would get back to those who offered the gift, I have never quite recovered. The semi-literate and reasonably devout Polish cleaning woman of my youth would find such selfish and boorish behavior unthinkable.

        • Marcelus

          Poet please let me know what you are talking about for I did not hear not read that one Francis insulted someone giving him a present or is it me just not getting it which could well be the case.

          • poetcomic1

            from the fine website: Dominus mihi adjutor:

            For the Catholic media, there was the added matter of his remarks equating a spiritual bouquet with Pelagianism:
            Pope Francis:
            “I share with you two concerns. One is the Pelagian current that there is in the Church at this moment. There are some
            restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council… One feels in 1940… An anecdote, just to illustrate this, it is not to laugh at it, I took it with respect, but it concerns me; when I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups, and they said: “Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure: 3,525 rosaries.” Why don’t they say, ‘we pray for you, we ask…’, but this thing of counting… And these groups return to practices and to disciplines that I lived through – not you, because you are not old – to disciplines, to things that in that moment took place, but not now, they do not exist today…”

            There are so many problems with this passage. There is the tone,
            which appears patronising and condescending as he looks down on (and resists the temptation to laugh at) those who might offer a spiritual bouquet of rosaries for his ministry. Any pope before him would have been delighted. Far worse is his equation of this spiritual bouquet with Pelagianism. Spiritual bouquets are good works, which these devout people apparently spoil by counting them. But is this Pelagian? Can praying for another, not least the Pope, and using the supremely approved method of the rosary, ever be Pelagian?

          • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

            Try paying attention to the news and reading something other than charismatic sites.

            • Marcelus

              Never been there nor read any sites from them my learned friend but now that you bring it up; did you know pope Benedict called the charismatic ” the future of the church” or something of that sort?He called them to evangelize from within .

              • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

                I believe the statement of one of my colleagues, a rather well-known theologian, is more accurate: “The charismatic movement is like an eight-lane highway, with one lane entering the Church, and seven lanes exiting.”

      • Marcelus

        this is exaclty it, Some readers just believe they can teach the Pope a lesson or two. Williams, the entire catholic world is more than satisfied with the Pope’s ways and homilies, Just a tiny tiny numer orf “traditionalist” which I doubt,do not understand them. In their librarian omnipontence pretend to be exactly that:more catholic than the Pope.

        • poetcomic1

          Marcelus- I would never ever even think to be more catholic than the Pope – more Catholic perhaps.

    • poetcomic1

      Read the meandering account of filching the rosary from the coffin. The message at the end of this story was??? This dramatic and moving account meanders into utter confusing sentiment with no message at all in the end. One who steals articles from the dead is NOT technically a ‘thief’ but a ghoul.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        I once drew an indictment for stealing 17th century heraldic brass coffin-plates from coffins in an ancient vault.

        Now, the dead can own nothing, but every dead person has a universal successor. We averred each of them to be the “property or in the lawful possession of the heir, executors or representative of (the defunct) or of some other person or persons to the prosecutor unknown”

        It was found relevant to infer the crime of theft.

        • poetcomic1

          The Pope clearly inferred that he pried the rosary from the dead man’s hands (with some force). This is taken from the body itself. After the San Francisco earthquake, ghouls found stealing articles from the dead were shot on sight.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            In my researches, I discovered an early 19th case where Resurrection Men had taken a dead body from a tramps’ lodging-house to sell to the anatomists. Taking the body was no crime, for it was not property and had not been interred, but they overlooked a ring on the body (the property of the heir &c) and were indicted for stealing that. The theft was aggravated (they were habit and repute thieves) and so capital and they suffered accordingly

  • Pingback: The Pope Quotes Chesterton | St. Louis Chesterton Society()

  • sybarite123

    An single idea gone mad! Perhaps this explains the Church’s persecution of Protestants in the Inquisition. The one idea that the Church saw clearly was that the Catholic Faith was the truth. That truth blotted out the truth of Freedom of Conscience. Later the Church would regain its balance and develop that other truth, that all men must follow their conscience. Am I right or almost right in my thinking? Three Cheers for Chesterton! His thoughts on ‘Heresies’ is for me very enlightening. A retired Catholic priest from Canada.

    • James

      Let’s also remember that Luther encouraged persecution against the anabaptists and downright violence against the Jews.

      • sybarite123

        Of course Luther may have acted in similar fashion. Maybe he was myopic as well. Was that era in general suffering from myopia, that is seeing only one truth whilst overlooking other truths. Christ Himself embraces all Truth. To see only one truth leads to a distortion and misuse of that truth, I would think. Hence. “Execute this heretic.” all the while ignorant of Freedom of Conscience which is part of Christian Truth. A Catholic must be ‘balanced’, embracing the Whole Truth as embodied in Christ. One truth exaggerated leads to madness. Cheers!

  • John Uebersax

    And this one sentence is the subject of the entire article? Is there nothing more important to write about?

    • Montague

      Dale, as all of us, has a soft spot for Chesterton…a spot approximately the size of the Siberian expanse, or perhaps the pacific ocean. It’s also his job, his career.

      It’s kind of gratifying to hear the Pope mention GKC, that’s all.

      • John Uebersax

        My original remark neglected to ask the real question I have, which is more constructive: if Chesterton were alive today, what *would* he be writing about?

        • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

          Actually, Chesterton’s writings are never dated. What he wrote in The Everlasting Man (in 1925?) is amazingly prescient and applicable to man and society today.

          • Montague

            Exactly. Chesterton would probably keep writing about what he wrote, except with more modern examples in mind.

            This is essentially the reason why Chesterton is such a big deal today.

        • Nostromo

          He’d probably be taking on Sam Harris , Dawkins, Hawking and their ilk.

          • Montague

            I think Hitchens (when he was alive) would have been a better friend/enemy than those three, seeing his interactions with Peter Hitchens, Doug Wilson, etc.

  • John Uebersax

    In studying intellectual history, I often apply the working hypothesis that a heresy is necessitated by some flaw or atavism of orthodoxy. The heresy is a wild extreme, to be sure; partly that’s because it takes a certain personality type (flaky? unstable? ornery? need for fame?) to resist the orthodox establishment. But, just as I would take particular care to hear an enemy’s criticism of me with an eye towards self-improvement, so too I think orthodoxy may learn from heresies.

  • Dr. Timothy J. Williams

    Chesterton’s greatest observation on heresy is that all heresies essentially stem from man’s extreme disdain for mystery. We demand a rational assessment of everything, whereas some realities transcend rational analysis.

    • John Uebersax

      Good point. I might mention that Paul Elmer More’s magnum opus, The Greek Tradition, is based on a similar principle. More argues that, first the several Hellenistic philosophies (Stoicism, Epicureanism, etc.), and then the various Christian heresies of the first centuries represented different attempts to resolve the paradox of man’s duality as an embodied spiritual being. Ultimately, More argued, we simply have to accept the paradox that we are both material and spiritual.

    • somebigguy

      Exactly, Tim; “an attempt to explain mystery” is the best definition of heresy I’d ever heard. Easy to define protestantism this way.

  • AveMariaLiving.com

    In November Francis also evoked Chesterton.

  • hombre111

    Not bad. But if you are a student for a lifetime, you have a head full of phrases which you do not keep in alphabetical order according to author.

  • cestusdei

    I am glad he has read Chesterton.

  • Julia B

    I can better see where Francis is coming from when he says everybody knows what the church teaches about abortion and the like. He thinks those topics are in danger of overwhelming the rest of the teachings of the church. In the same manner as Chesterton talks about needing balance and not going mad with one or two points. Makes where he is coming from more understandable.
    I think Francis knows, too, that 90% of the people who will hear his words are not interested in intellectual theology. Most of the working class folks in my area couldn’t care less about Chesterton or Teilard or even John Allen – that all bores them and they turn off. They are sincere about living their faith – more than the smarty-pants atheist ex-Catholic seminarians I know. It isn’t necessarily the smartest people who will get to heaven. I need to remind myself of Flannery O’Connor’s people whom she took very seriously.

    • Richard Aleman

      My apologies, but the majority of people who love GKC that I’ve met are blue collar.

      • Julia B

        None of the blue collar people I know have ever heard of him.
        Maybe it’s where I live. I grew up in East St Louis Illinois and now live in the town next-door where people are still overwhelmingly blue collar Democrats – union members or their children. We did that “Catholicism” series by Fr Baron at our parish and folks who attended thought it was boring and too difficult to understand.

        • Marcelus

          excellent way of putting it: :90% of the people who heard him do not know Chesterton.ANd it is exactly so. Most catholics,large mayority 50 % worldwide ,live in SAmerica, where Ilive and other places such as Africa, etc will just have no idea of this learned discccusions , A simple quote that serves to express and idea. CM has lately been writting on either rumours such as a few days ago on something someone said the Pope said and so on…. on TLM and now this section trying to disect the Pope’s comments with a scarpel and point him wrong again.Pope bashing openly or not just will not end in CM.

          Next time we may a piece on how Francis said ” Good morning” in his latest homily and interpreting in which way he exactly meant it and it’s implications to the liberals- please. catholicims does not start or end in CM.

      • I had heard the name once in high school in the mid 1980s, from a friend interested in murder mysteries.

        The next time I heard it was when I was watching EWTN with my child over twenty years later.

        Thank you Dale Ahlquist for giving me an old new friend in GKC.

    • Marcelus

      Pope said:, “I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion. . . If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears.”

  • A_Reader55

    These Chesterton quotes are well-known by Catholics and others. For the Pope to say some “English writer” and give an inaccurate quote is disappointing. It shows the exact thing Chesterton disliked, a willful disregard for scholarship, an intellectual nihilism.

  • John O’Neill

    When I want to read good theology I prefer to read Chesterton rather than the celebrity theologians of the international media.

  • dove1

    Is the Pope not exposing himself to guilt, in his disproportionate criticism of capitalism and inattention to communism, his contortions for the sake of ecumenism while ignoring heresy in those with which he seeks to commune, his implied criticism (scant tolerance) of traditional Catholicism and embrace of fad innovation, at the expense of the faithful? We must pray that eyes be opened and see, ears be opened and hear! This is needed more so by no one on earth than the leader of the Catholic Church – for the sake of the whole world! And right now!

  • Katalina

    Maybe Dale should watch what he said here. The word is out officially NO CRITICAL or QUESTIONING OF FRANCIS is allowed. ONLY positive talk is allowed. Whether he quoted Chesterton correctly does not or should not matter. Just kidding. I like to watch Chesterton on EWTN and hope he soon will be beatified it would be a big boost for England mostly in these days when certain bloggers are getting censored and this is no joke Poor Deacon Donnelly has been put on leave and his wife is subbing for him but she is talking about the same things her husband is LOL. G.K. Chesterton Pray for us!

  • Pingback: Even My Book Reviews Worry Protestants, and Other Quick Takes()

  • PJMan

    As the text of the papal speech references only “an English writer,” this (mis)quotation could just as easily be referencing C. S. Lewis. In his book “The Abolition of Man” Lewis says, “The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. What purport to be new systems or…ideologies…all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess.”
    Notice the reference to madness and truths which are isolated from the whole.

  • Pingback: Lutheran / Catholic Lutheranism and Wartburg Alliance » Lutheran / Catholic()

  • Matt

    Also, from Orthodoxy chapter 3: “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”

  • John Hinshaw

    Come clean – you’re an retired BISHOP from Canada.

  • Pingback: Pope Quotes GK Chesterton()

  • Pingback: Thank you, Pope Francis! | FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam" fidescogitactio @ gmail . com()