Why I Choose Chesterton


In our secular culture, most people think that the Catholic Church is "anti-choice." The only hope for a truly liberated future is to trust to the forces of scientism, birth control, and rational materialism to crush the Dark Age superstitions of a Church that shackles the minds and souls of free people everywhere. But an average American today, climbing into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and setting the dial for 1903 London, might be in for a few surprises if he peeked in on one of the granddaddies of secular utopian thinking, Robert Blatchford. Such a look would provide a startling revelation of how far worshipers of progress have regressed in their arguments and how little Catholic truth has altered.

Blatchford was a man deeply concerned about the oppression of the poor and allied himself with progressive thought. He was a man full of the scientific future and had little patience with Christian mumbo jumbo. He felt it was essential to get past unscientific dogma like human sin and to look instead to scientifically quantifiable factors such as heredity and environment for social change. In his newspaper, The Clarion, he wrote, "Before we can propagate our religion of Determinism and Humanism, we must first clear the ground of Free Will [and] of Sin against God." Our time traveler may murmur approvingly, "So far, so good. Here is a man unshackled from religious dogma of the past, a freethinking man of the future."

No Free Will, No Blame

But then a Christian named G. K. Chesterton entered the fray and dared to label Blatchford’s opinion heresy. It is all very well, Chesterton observed, to say we are purely the products of heredity and environment and that free will is an illusion. But why then rail against social failure and say—as Blatchford and millions of progressive thinkers rightly said—that "man can be unjust and cruel and base and mean toward his fellow man, and he often is. He can sin against his fellow man, and he often does." If, as Blatchford maintained, the Christian belief in sin is ridiculous, so was Blatchford’s belief that a cruel sweatshop owner can blamed for his actions. For blaming the sweatshop owner assumes he has free will and could do otherwise if he chose.

Blatchford attempted to skirt this problem by saying he had misspoken. People do bad things as the result of environment and heredity, he maintained, and they cannot be blamed any more than sharks can be blamed for eating swimmers. But they can still be resisted as we would resist a shark. Likewise, said Blatchford in the ensuing series of letters the men exchanged, he could scold his clerk for educational purposes without blaming him for his actions.

Chesterton wrote back:

What is the use in this real and living world of people who will do nothing against public nuisances but knock them down or lock them up? What is the use of saying that society is a garden and the wicked are weeds? You cannot grub up selfish brothers with a spade. You cannot go about with a rake weeding out hypochondriac old gentlemen. You cannot scatter Keating’s powder and find the ground strewn with the corpses of interfering aunts. These are the real problems of society, and if they are to be resisted, they must be blamed. . . .

On your principles, you would say, "My blameless Ruggles, the anger of God against you has once more driven you, a helpless victim, to put your boots on my desk and upset the ink on the ledger. Let us weep together." If that is the way clerks are scolded in the Clarion office, gaily will I now apply for the next vacancy in that philosophical establishment.

Before our time traveler leaps out of the Wayback Machine to join in the argument, let us set our dial for a return to the present and reflect upon the remarkable content of this exchange.

If we have learned our secular catechism as we ought, we know perfectly well that Christians hate the very idea of open-mindedness and freedom of choice. They prefer being told what to think by dogmatic authority. Progressives resist slavery to religious dogma, celebrate liberty of mind, and prefer to think for themselves. But the progressive Blatchford said that liberty of mind is sheer illusion. It’s the dogmatic Christian who is staunchly "pro-choice," who celebrates freedom, and who insists we are able to think. This is the big clue that the Catholic view of choice is easier, harder, and odder than we have been led to believe by our media guides.

The post-modern affirmation of free will typically styles itself under the political rubric "pro-choice." By this label its adherents claim to affirm the "individual’s right to choose"—something. But those who fly the pro-choice banner are curiously reticent to attach an object to that choice. There is a sense that the focus should stay on the act of choosing per se as intrinsically meritorious, without regard for the thing chosen. This is especially striking in the schizophrenic language used to refer to the fate of the unborn human being who is, in fact, the object of that choice. If slated for the suction machine, the unborn baby is referred to as a "fetus" or "tissue mass." If that same child is the subject of a prenatal care advertisement from the obstetrical wing of the hospital, it is referred to, rightly, as "your baby" and someone who "deserves the best care possible."

Freedom from Choice

Typically, though, it is preferable not to discuss the object of our choice at all. Advocates of abortion who demand the "right to choose" are in fact demanding freedom from the consequences of choice. This is demonstrated when "pro-choice" advocates rail against "right to know" legislation that would assure that women get the same information about the processes, dangers, and results of abortion as they are required to receive when submitting to surgery for a plantar’s wart. What is at stake for the opponent of such legislation is not the "right to choose" intelligently but the demand not to face what we have chosen. Every choice, in this scheme, is "right."

The reality is that demanding that everything be right and nothing be wrong is, in Chesterton’s phrase, like demanding that everything be right and nothing be left. In other words, it is to demand that choice not matter. To demand freedom from real consequences is to demand freedom from real power—that is, freedom from choice.

The "pro-choice" advocate, though, having immunized himself against thinking, will seldom pause to remark on this. Instead, he will trot out rhetoric about "scientific progress" versus "dogma" that has served him well since Blatchford’s day. But if we are paying attention, we see that many people in the sciences, particularly those involved in brain studies, make arguments similar to those made by Blatchford, arguments that undercut the pro-choice position. But instead of appealing to Blatchford’s now-unfashionable discussions of Adam, they engage in some good old-fashioned "nothing buttery." This favorite tactic of materialist atheists points out that concepts such as "soul" and "spirit" cannot be weighed or measured, are unscientific, and are, therefore, nonexistent. This sounds like a promising.aspect of Planned Parenthood’s attack on religious superstition, yes?

No. For by this reckoning, the mind is nothing but a function of the atoms and molecules that compose the brain. Since atoms and molecules function according to strict physical laws, it follows that our so-called "choices" are nothing but a function of their pre-determined motion. Both of these ideas are fatal—not to Catholic belief but to the claim of "freedom of choice" as it is articulated by Planned Parenthood. Secular materialist "scientific" rhetoric tends to paint itself into the same corner that Blatchford did.

The Right to Choose Great Evils

In contrast, Catholic faith begins with a God who chooses things. Everything in creation is chosen by him, according to the Catholic view. He chose that the sun be brilliant white, not blue; that the ocean be made of water, not champagne; that the little kid down the block have that charming cowlick but not brown eyes. It could have been otherwise, but he chose this. Moreover, he chose it ex nihilo, somewhat as a tale-teller might pluck the elements of a story from thin air. There is in this view a way of seeing the world that the Catholic shares with the child, the ancient mythmaker, and the modern Native American storyteller: a kind of vision alive to the mythic dimension behind reality. It is what Chesterton called "fairy tale philosophy."

Now, the fairy tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every color has in it a bold quality of choice.

The Catholic view of the "chosenness" of creation by the choosing Creator makes the world, first and foremost, a story rather than a hardwired set of inevitable dominos of electromagnetism, hormones, and class conflicts. To be sure, the world contains systems, just as stories contain elements such as theme, setting, character, and metaphor. But to see only the systems without the story that animates them is like describing Hamlet as a series of black marks on white paper. It explains everything, but it leaves everything out. Hamlet is that, but it is a lot more than that. Similarly, the systems that science observes have not only activity but purpose in the choosing mind of God.

The average anti-Catholic response to this is "Did God choose Auschwitz?" And the Catholic must reply, maddeningly enough, "Yes and no." "Yes," because Hitler did not pop into being when God’s back was turned. He was surely God’s creation as all things are. But the Catholic also answers "no" as well, because part of the creation of Hitler involved the necessity that Blatchford denied and orthodoxy defends—the reality that Der Fuhrer got exactly what Planned Parenthood demands: the "right to choose." Unless we want God constantly tinkering with our brains,that must include the "right to choose" Auschwitz.

Put in those terms, the Catholic picture suddenly looks like a very scary proposition. That’s more freedom than we bargained for! The Catholic view affirms choice as a good gift from God, yet it doesn’t say that "everything is permissible," nor that all choices are good simply because we chose them.

The fact is that the Church affirms choice more seriously than the most zealous member of Planned Parenthood. The Planned Parenthood advocate wants to pretend that every choice is good simply because it was chosen. The Church insists more radically that while choice is a good gift from God, we can use that good gift to choose great evils. We do not choose in a vacuum. Only one being ever did that, and he did it in the beginning. That is absolute choice. We do not choose absolutely. We choose this job or that one; tuna fish or bologna; Door #1, Door #2, or Door #3. Our choices are about things. We don’t get up in the morning and decree a new primary color, as God once did.

But though our choices are not absolute, they are nonetheless critical. For by our choices we act as real agents of creation—or destruction. Leonardo did not create the Mona Lisa absolutely. His paint, subject, hands, brain, and heart were all gifts of grace. Yet without his skill and choices taken in every brushstroke, the Mona Lisa would not be. We are, as Tolkien notes, sub-creators, not Creators.

Our choices can have real merit, but not in the sense that they earn God’s favor, since we already have that through Christ alone. Rather, in the older sense of the word, which means what Scripture calls "fruit." Christ makes us co-laborers with him and we may, by his grace, be good and do good—or not.

Ideas Have Consequences

The crowning irony of this contrast between the Catholic view of the person (which takes choice seriously) and the secular view (which mouths platitudes while denying human choice) is that ideas have consequences. Catholic culture gave birth to the Western view of the human person, which takes our capacity to choose seriously.

In contrast, a view of the human person that holds that people cannot be blamed for doing evil any more than sharks can be blamed for eating swimmers ultimately leads not to freedom from punishment but to treating humans like weeds. Chesterton was prophetic. The great despotisms of the twentieth century abandoned the problem of human responsibility and declared that if you belonged to a particular statistical bloc (Jewish, bourgeois, etc.), you were undesirable. They dispensed with reason and ceased to bother treating you as person. Just shovel you into the oven and you were not a problem anymore. The last century saw systems arise that scattered the ground not with Keating’s powder but with Zyklon-B and left the ground strewn with the corpses not of interfering aunts but of millions of men, women, and children.

This deep hostility to having to deal with human choice still exists today, among the allegedly "pro-choice" advocates of abortion. That’s why they so frequently achieve their ends not by submitting their ideas to a vote but by judicial decree. Democracy and human choice is, in fact, inimical to the alleged champions of "choice." But then, this is what we would expect given that their alleged championship of "choice" is simply a facade covering a view of the human person that is profoundly hostile to revelation and to common sense.

If I had to choose between Blatchford and Chesterton, I would choose Chesterton—of my own free will.


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. In addition to being co-author of the smash bestseller A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About The Passion of the Christ, he is also the author of The Da Vinci Deception: 100 Questions About the Fact and Fiction of The Da Vinci...

This article appeared in Volume 17 Number 9.