Some of GKC’s other half-developed insights have the unintended result, like the post-Falstaffian bulk problem, of straining and breaking the branch on which he leaned for effect. (An irresistible digression: In 1908, GKC rented a house in Rye, East Sussex, adjacent to that of Henry James. James was aghast that such a mind was “imprisoned in such a body,” and the regular viewing of “the unspeakable Chesterton” with his awful pachydermatous silhouette horrified James, who otherwise admired GKC. To picture The Master in such a predicament …) He could not understand why anti-Catholics accused their foes of forming secret societies while forming them—like the KKK—in their own right. But this in turn meant that he never “got” the appeal of camp and sinister formations like Opus Dei.
Chesterton hoped to show that the English had seen through the Protestant Reformation, and would survive it because they liked those who laughed. Yet the life of the great Samuel Johnson, we learn, was constrained because of “the absence of the pleasures of religion” in it. There’s something weirdly self-regarding about that formulation, especially coming as it does from a man who believed that the great English strength—deployed all along a rampart of joviality and confidence that extends from Chaucer’s Tabard Inn to Charles Dickens’s own prospect of Kent and the Medway—is founded on mirth. The sort of mirth that puffs away fanaticism and narrowness need have no connection to “the pleasures of religion.” Behind this crude camouflage, we can see being wheeled into position a large block of stone or paper, incised or authored by Cardinal John Henry Newman but helped along by Chesterton’s own main force, on which all the needs and promptings and moral suasions of the English people will need to be sternly written down. And yes, Messrs. Johnson and Dickens may well be casting around themselves for the exits. It may be true that the Protestant Reformation delivered the poor and the squires into the bondage of the “new, unhappy lords” who raised their grievous rent, but this does not mean any general English nostalgia for the old regime of throne and altar and the incineration of martyrs. And Chesterton did end up by wrestling his own block of moral admonition into shape, and publishing it as a sort of summa. Here’s Ker’s version of GKC’s account:
The previous year Chesterton had contributed a brief chapter to Twelve Modern Apostles and their Creeds, entitled ‘Why I am a Catholic’, which began with the assertion that there were ten thousand reasons, ‘all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true’. The Catholic Church simply was ‘catholic’—‘not only larger than me, but larger than anything in the world … indeed larger than the world’. It was the only ‘corporate mind in the world’ that was ‘on the watch to prevent minds from going wrong.’ The Church, ‘looking out in all directions at once’, was ‘not merely armed against the heresies of the past or even of the present, but equally against those of the future, that may be the exact opposite of those of the present’. She carried ‘a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze’. Uniquely, she constituted ‘one continuous intelligent institution that has been thinking about thinking for two thousand years’. The resulting map marked clearly ‘all the blind alleys and bad roads’.
Chesterton rested this on the relatively small paradox that few young people by then regarded the old wars and divisions of Christianity as important: one could be a Roman Catholic or Protestant almost as according to taste. (A brief pause for a moment to reflect on what it took to attain to that compromise after centuries of war and torment …) The idea of a body that actually did all the official thinking was probably not unrelated to the Mussolini concept of the corporate state. This would be repulsive to the English and American tradition. If there was a collectivity that “did” all the thinking, in England it was expressed in the definite skepticism concerning such matters as the Inquisition, the Spanish Armada, and the question of papal infallibility. In America it was still the durable sign system pointing to Danbury, Connecticut. In neither case was there any requirement for that minatory block of text or stone, forever guarding the outer doors of orthodoxy and unsleepingly seeking to entrap or expel the heretic and the dissident. The more that attempts were made to codify truth, the more elusive truth became. Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitively become our age. It seems that there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise, by which we can define our place in the universe or the cosmos. Those who claim to know the most are convicted of claiming to know the unknowable. There is a paradox, if you like.