Conversion Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Chesterton
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For twenty years I, with my wife and our family, attended a certain small-town Midwest parish church. The pastor, Fr. George Mehok, was a devotee of the English writer G.K. Chesterton. In fact, I don’t recall a single homily of his that did not contain at least one Chesterton quote. However, I did not read or even see a book by Chesterton for many years—his works were simply hard to find. 

On finding more and more of them back in print (thank you, Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton), I quickly became a devoted reader; and now, like Fr. George, I find it difficult to express anything without quoting Chesterton simply because G.K.C. always says it better. Among devotees, he is affectionately known as “the apostle of common sense.” 

One of the first things one discovers about his writing is that it seems to be a bit meandering; that is, it seems at first that the man is unable to stick to the subject at hand. But then one finds, quite astonishingly, that what Chesterton never fails to do is to demonstrate that you can’t really talk about or even think about anything—that is, anything that matters—without talking about everything because everything that matters is connected. It is that connectedness that was, for Chesterton, the road to conversion.

Tomorrow, July 30th, is the 100th anniversary of Chesterton’s reception into the Catholic Faith. Four years later after that momentous day, the great savant would bless us with another of his numerous seminal works, The Catholic Church and Conversion. One has to check one’s post-Vatican II sensibilities at the door whenever discussing Chesterton’s writings because, though he was correct about nearly everything, he was definitely not politically correct. And sadly, there is a very strict set of post-conciliar sensitivities—having, of course, nothing to do with the actual council—that receive no small amount of attempted enforcement within certain Catholic circles. 

Concerning said political correctness, one of the claims about Chesterton that frequently rears its ugly head is the notion that he was an anti-Semite, a claim easily laid to rest by reading the man’s work and examining his life. (It is a claim which, nonetheless, was able to sabotage the cause for canonization of the great man). To the groomed uber-empaths among us, everyone from Chesterton’s august era seems a hateful bigot simply for making relatively casual references with words that have, to current sensibilities, taken on an air of denigration. 

One of those post-conciliar, ecumenical sensibilities, I have been told, is that we don’t say conversion anymore, at least not concerning Protestants who have come to the Catholic Faith. After all, they are already baptized Christians, certainly members of the body of Christ, though separated by past divisions. So, why was Chesterton (and a host of other notables who have come to the Faith already a baptized Christian) so open to the concept of conversion as to write a book about the Catholic Church with the word prominently featured in the title? Perhaps that is best answered by G.K.C. himself. 

The mark of the Faith is not tradition; it is conversion. It is the miracle by which men find truth in spite of tradition and often with the rending of all the roots of humanity.

Now, you might say he was speaking collectively of Christianity. Perhaps. Above I made the point that Chesterton’s writing may seem, upon first perusal, to be a bit meandering; however, he never beats around the bush. The mark of the Faith “is conversion,” he says. He goes on to write, 

…it is still common to regard conversion as a form of revolt. And as regards the established convention of much of the modern world, it is a revolt. The worthy merchant of the middle class, the worthy farmer of the Middle West, when he sends his son to college, does now feel a faint alarm lest the boy should fall among thieves, in the sense of Communists; but he has the same sort of fear lest he should fall among Catholics.

It must be understood that Chesterton was writing in an age wherein there was a groundswell of interest in the unconventionality of the Catholic Faith, an era filled with Catholic greats in the area of literature. It was the age of Ronald Knox, Fulton Sheen, Hilaire Belloc, and Robert Hugh Benson, to name a few; an age in which the common sense of St. Thomas Aquinas bloomed. It was an age of conversion, that thing that forever threatens and harasses our comfort. 

Chesterton goes on to say that no apprehensive father was particularly concerned with any number of what he refers to as “dead religions,” and he makes somewhat of a list of the dead, most of them rapidly fading non-Catholic Christian sects. He then speaks again of the father’s concern in sending off his son where he will be exposed to “new religions.”

He is only frightened of those fresh, provocative, paradoxical new notions that fly to the young people’s heads. But amongst these dangerous juvenile attractions he does in practice class the freshness and novelty of Rome.

Now this is rather odd; because Rome is not so very new. Among these annoying new religions, one is rather an old religion; but it is the only old religion that is so new.

The Church of England is in dire straits, its complete demise on the foreseeable horizon. Just last October, prominent theologian and Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali converted to Catholicism. The Catholic Church is growing in the U.K. Such was already the case when Chesterton converted a century ago. What’s the deal? Chesterton explains that the difference, in his eyes, is simply one of substance:

The first fact to realize is a difference of substance which falsifies all the difference of size. The great majority of Protestant bodies today, whether they are strong or weak, are not strengthened in this particular fashion; by the actual attraction of their new followers to their old doctrines. A young man will suddenly become a Catholic priest, or even a Catholic monk, because he has a spontaneous and even impatient personal enthusiasm for the doctrine of Virginity as it appeared to St. Catherine or St. Clare. But how many men become Baptist ministers because they have a personal horror of the idea of an innocent infant coming unconsciously to Christ?  

He then makes that case that perhaps the single salient attribute of Protestantism is not doctrine but tradition:

For them religion is tradition. We Catholics naturally do not sneer at tradition; but we say that in this case it is really tradition and nothing else. 

He goes on to explain that “though our sympathies are traditional because they are human, it is not that part of the thing which stamps it as divine.”

The Church has defended tradition in a time which stupidly denied and despised tradition. But that is simply because the Church is always the only thing defending whatever is at the moment stupidly despised. It is already beginning to appear as the only champion of reason in the twentieth century, as it was the only champion of tradition in the nineteenth.

Chesterton writes of three stages of conversion to the Faith, the first of which is largely sympathy for an organization (the Church) that seems unjustly maligned. He credits his parents for raising him in a household where it was proper to question the validity of the invective contained in any common narrative. And so, he questioned everything. Concerning the Church, he found no foundation to any of the insults—that, in fact, the insulters had never taken even a moment to research the untruths they were repeating. They were simply parroting people they trusted—people who also had not done their homework.

“The second stage is that in which the convert begins to be conscious not only of the falsehood but the truth and is enormously excited to find that there is far more of it than he would ever have expected,” he tells us, going on to say: 

It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable…I might remark that much of it consists of the act of translation; of discovering the real meaning of words, which the Church uses rightly and the world uses wrongly. For instance, the convert discovers that “scandal” does not mean “gossip”; and the sin of causing it does not mean that it is always wicked to set silly old women wagging their tongues. Scandal means scandal, what it originally meant in Greek and Latin: the tripping up of somebody else when he is trying to be good.

As a great lover of the written and spoken word, Chesterton was extremely taken with this aspect of the Faith, and everywhere in his writing he waxes poetically about the importance of words to intellects like ours—temporal linear intellects that operate and communicate with words as digits just as surely as mathematics with numbers. Concerning the convert’s second stage of conversion, he goes on to say,

He begins to realize that it is the secular world that spoils the sense of words; and he catches an exciting glimpse of the real case for the iron immortality of the Latin Mass. It is not a question between a dead language and a living language, in the sense of an everlasting language. It is a question between a dead language and a dying language; an inevitably degenerating language. It is these numberless glimpses of great ideas, that have been hidden from the convert by the prejudices of his provincial culture, that constitute the adventurous and varied second stage of the conversion. It is, broadly speaking, the stage in which the man is unconsciously trying to be converted.

One can easily imagine what his reaction would be to the current insanity surrounding the liturgy and the rampant pollution of ethics within certain Catholic academic circles. Surely, he would point to the postmodern pollution of the language and the poisonous havoc it wreaks on all intellectual pursuit. 

Of the third and final stage of conversion, Chesterton tells us that it is “perhaps the truest and the most terrible. It is that in which the man is trying not to be converted. He has come too near to the truth, and has forgotten that truth is a magnet, with the powers of attraction and repulsion.”

There is a name for the belief that all religions are of equal validity: indifferentism. The third stage of conversion renders one incapable of indifferentism, and that is scary for the simple reason that one can no longer ignore what one has discovered. If you are convinced that you are closer to possessing the fullness of truth—and are convinced that those who do not are at a great spiritual disadvantage—you now have responsibilities. You have ventured down a path that you might not have braved had you known that it would bring a burden upon you, however glorious that burden. 

It seems that humankind has a deep attraction to indifferentism (systematic indifference; avoidance of choice or preference) and will apply the principal to one area of life or another. In some eras we have seen sharp distinctions held in the area of religion and a relative indifferentism toward the political sphere. However, in our current milieu, we have the opposite, and we have dumbed down religion to the point that it has lost any mitigating essence, placing the political (and political correctness) in the driver’s seat for most of life’s decisions, casting aside both tradition and conversion. 

In Chesterton’s estimation, “The mark of the Faith is not tradition; it is conversion.” To cast aside one’s call to daily conversion is to cast aside the Faith.  

[Photo: G. K. Chesterton at work]

Jerome German

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Jerome German is a retired manufacturing engineer, father of eleven, and grandfather of a multitude. His parochial activities have included music ministry, faith formation, and spiritual direction/talks for men’s retreats. Before retirement Jerry’s writing was largely in the technical realm and he is a late-bloomer to writing for faith formation. The Wisconsinite and his wife spend summers in Wisconsin and winter on the Riviera Maya where they own a small vacation rental business.

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