Not long ago as of this writing, somebody asked me what I thought about the canonization of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), the English essayist and journalist, revered by many as one of the founders of the “distributist” school of social thought, and characterized by his followers as the “Apostle of Common Sense.”
Actually, what somebody asked was what I thought about the Catholic Church “making Chesterton a saint.” This precipitated my usual short lecture on how the Catholic Church doesn’t make anybody a saint. The Catholic Church “canonizes” (i.e., “adds to the official list”) the names of people whom the Church declares (infallibly in Catholic belief) to have reached heaven by (as the Catholic Church puts it) cooperating with God’s grace and demonstrating “heroic virtue” and who are thus already “saints.” It’s a certification process, not a creative one.
The canonization process is usually lengthy, and often does not even start until quite some time after somebody dies. This allows authorities to get a little perspective on things. The local “ordinary” (usually a bishop) starts by investigating the candidate’s writings and life for orthodoxy of doctrine and evidence of “heroic virtue.”
In the case of a martyr, what the authority looks for is whether the person died for Christ — in which case, it does not matter whether or not the person exercised heroic virtue up to that point; giving your life is presumably clear evidence of that. And it cannot be voluntary or self-martyrdom, except in the sense that the person voluntarily refuses to save his or her life by renouncing God. People who broadcast their own martyrdoms early and often may convince themselves, but rarely others, apart from the weak-minded or the brainwashed.
Once the evidence has been gathered, a panel of theologians at the Vatican evaluates the candidate. After approval by the panel and cardinals of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the pope proclaims the candidate a veneratus, i.e., “venerable,” someone worthy to be venerated.
The next step is beatification, i.e., naming someone a beatus. This requires evidence of one miracle, except in the case of martyrs. Miracles are considered proof that a person is in heaven and has the power to intercede for petitioners. The miracle must take place after the candidate's death and as a result of a specific petition to the candidate.
After one more miracle (this includes martyrs), the pope may canonize the saint (canonizations have been reserved to the pope since around the tenth century). The title of saint tells us that, in the opinion of the Catholic Church, the person lived a holy life, is in heaven, and is to be honored by Catholics.
My first reaction on hearing the news about Chesterton’s sainthood was that I was not aware that Chesterton had been canonized. For all we know, he was “sainted” at the moment of his death, or “birthday into heaven” as the Catholic Church puts it. I just did not know that he had been certified.
My misimpression was quickly corrected. Oh, no, I was informed. Chesterton has not been canonized. Someone is just talking about “introducing his ‘cause’,” as they call it. An internet search revealed that the Chestertonian Community (as, I suppose, you could call it) is all agog over the possibility of having their patron saint turned into a real patron saint. Well, who wouldn’t be?
What, however, does this mean? We will start to look at that in the next posting in this series — but first, why should an all-volunteer, interfaith think tank even care about whether or not Chesterton is canonized?
Because if Chesterton’s thought, as we believe, is consistent with the Just Third Way, CESJ gets another “implied ethical endorsement” from an authoritative source. If, on the other hand, Chesterton’s thought has been distorted and twisted by his modern followers (as appears to be the case), then his canonization would appear to validate the distortions, giving a tremendous boost to what we believe to be false.
Thus, even though CESJ is not a “Catholic organization,” it is a matter of some importance to us, as well as to everyone who accepts the Aristotelian-Thomist concept of the natural law.