The National Catholic Review
From Our Pages: Sept. 29, 1934
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At least six times during the last few years I have found myself in a situation in which I should certainly have become a Catholic, if I had not been restrained from that rash step by the fortunate accident that I was one already....

I will take first the example of the latest turn of political events in Europe. I take it first because it is both typical and topical; that is, it gives perhaps the clearest and simplest example of the sort of thing I mean, and it is a thing of which the facts are fresh and familiar to everybody, even those who live only from day to day with the assistance of the daily press, that very synthetic substitute for daily bread.

But in order to explain what I think has really happened rather more lucidly than the daily press explains it, it is necessary to say a preliminary word about the Protestant Reformation and the sense in which its consequences, rather than itself, continue to bewilder and mislead Christendom....

The real Protestant theologians were such very bad theologians. They had an amazing opportunity; the old Church had been swept out of their way, along with many things that were really unpopular, and some things that were deservedly unpopular. One would suppose it was easy enough to set up something that would at least look a little more popular. When they tried to do it, they made every mistake that they could make.

They waged an insane war against everything in the old Faith that is most normal and sympathetic to human nature; such as prayers for the dead or the gracious image of a Mother of Men. They hardened and fixed themselves upon fads which anybody could see would pass like fashions. Luther lashed himself into a sort of general fury, which obviously could not last; Calvin was logical, but used his logic for a scheme which humanity manifestly would not long find endurable....

They did not really think what they were doing; and this was chiefly because the real driving force behind them was the impatient insolence and avarice of new nobles and rebellious princes. But, anyhow, the theological and theoretical part of their work withered with extraordinary rapidity; and the void that was left was almost as rapidly filled with other things.

What those things were is clear enough in many cases, including cases much more apparently harmless; but it is clearest of all in what is confronting us today; the race religion of the Germans....

A superbly typical story reaches me from Germany; that some of the Nazis started to sing the great reformer’s famous hymn, “A strong fortress is our God” (which sounds quite promisingly militaristic), but found themselves unable to articulate the very words at the beginning of the next verse, which run, “Of ourselves we can do nothing.”

Luther did, in his own mad way, believe in humility; but modern Germany believes simply, solely, and entirely in its pride....

Luther was subject to irrational convulsions of rage, in one of which he tore out the Epistle of St. James from the Bible, because St. James exalts the importance of good works. But I shudder to imagine into what sort of epileptic convulsion he would have fallen, if anybody had told him to tear out the Epistles of St. Paul, because St. Paul was not an Aryan. Luther if possible rather exaggerated the weakness of humanity, but at least it was the weakness of all humanity.

John Knox achieved that queer Puritan paradox, of combining the same concentrated evocation of Christ with an inhuman horror and loathing for all the signs and forms and traditions generally characteristic of Christians. He combined, in the way that puzzles us so much, the adoration of the Cross with the abomination of the Crucifix. But at least John Knox would have exploded like dynamite if anybody had asked him to adore the Swastika....

It is obvious by this time that the hollow places that were once filled with the foaming fanaticism of the first Reformation doctrines are now filled with the foaming fanaticism of a totally different kind. Those who are rebelling like Luther are rebelling against Luther.

The main moral of this is so large and simple and striking that it will soon be impossible to conceal it from the world. It is the simple fact that the moment men began to contradict the Church with their own private judgment, everything they did was incredibly ill-judged; that those who broke away from the Church’s own basis, almost immediately broke down on their own basis; that those who tried to stand apart from authority could not in fact stand at all.

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G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was an English writer of philosophy, poetry, biography, fiction, journalism and apologetics. This article first appeared in America on Sept. 29, 1934.

Comments

NICHOLAS CLIFFORD | 12/6/2008 - 1:08pm
How interesting to reprint this blast from the past, thoroughly dated though the polemic is to us today. While not expressly linking Luther the man to modern Naziism, GKC nevertheless manages to tie Luther's Protestantism to Hitlerism, through the "foaming fanaticism" of both. And if that's not sufficient, he then manages to drag in the Scot John Knox and the Swiss (or French, take your pick) Calvin for good measure, presumably so that Protestantism in general can be held responsible for the rise of Hitler and his doctrines. The reader is left wondering, of course, precisely what role Protestantism played in the rise of Mussolini's fascism or Franco's falangism (was the Bd. Ildefonso Schuster, archbishop of Milan, a crypto-Protestant when he called Mussolini a man sent from God?). But consistency (or historical understanding) would not appear to be one of GKC's strong points. Better we stick to Chesterton's genuinely fictional creation, the wonderful detective Father Brown.
Edison Woods | 12/4/2008 - 12:17pm
I recently discovered Mr. G.K. Chesterton’s writings and they are like a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of protestant polemic which pervades this country. He makes an excellent point that Protestantism Denys its followers some of the most important consolations of the Christian Faith as provided by the Catholic Church. God is not a wrathful judge bent upon destroying his own creation. And yet from the so-called protestant reformation until today this is too often how God the Father to say nothing of the Son and the Holy Spirit are presented to his children. Mr. Chesterton is a Lion of God filled with the burning spirit of the lamb. His pen was a true sword of Christ and its edge has not grown dull with the passage of time. If only Mother Church had more soldiers like him this world would be a far better place today.