Defenders of the Faith: G. K. Chesterton vs. Prince Charles

The great G. K. Chesterton would have had great fun with the lunacy of Prince Charles.

G.K. Chesterton at work in his study (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On Nov. 24, 1521, Pope Leo X bestowed the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) on King Henry VIII. The honour was granted to the English king in recognition of his book Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defense of the Seven Sacraments), in which the King defended all the sacraments of the Catholic Faith, including the sacramental nature of marriage, and in which he asserted the supremacy of the Pope. The King’s stance, known as the Henrician Affirmation, was considered an important weapon in the struggle against the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and especially against the ideas of Martin Luther. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that the Pope should seek to honor the English monarch for his services to the True Faith.

Within a few years, however, in one of the great ironies and treacheries of history, Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, declaring himself the head of the church in England. As if to add insult to infamy, he also profaned the sacrament of marriage, deserting his wife and daughter in favor of a scandalous adulterous relationship with Anne Boleyn, whom he would later have beheaded. Faced with such outrageous behavior, it was scarcely surprising that Pope Paul III revoked the title of Defender of the Faith from such a Machiavellian tyrant and Henry was duly excommunicated.

This was not, however, to be the end of the irony and treachery. In an act of faithless defiance the English Monarchs continued to style themselves as “Defenders of the Faith” in spite of the title being revoked by the Church. Up to this day, the reigning monarch has continued to make claim to the title, Fidei Defensor, and the phrase is still to be found on all current British coins. More recently, in 1994, Prince Charles, as heir to the throne, has declared his desire to be known “as Defender of Faith, not the Faith.” One wonders what sort of faith he is talking about. If he does not want to defend the Faith, does he not want to defend the God of Christianity? Whose God does he want to defend? Does he want to defend everyone’s god? Does he want to defend gods in general? Or is even this too dogmatic? Why should faith be restricted to a belief in God or gods? Why shouldn’t we defend faith in dogs instead of gods? Perhaps even faith in dogs is a little too dogmatic. Why not cats? It would certainly seem that Prince Charles’ vague and indefinable faith is more comfortable with dogs than dogma and more at home with cats than catechesis. His aversion to the definite article is an article of indefinable faith in God knows what. Such faith in anything is, in fact, faith in nothing in particular; and a faith in nothing in particular is, in particular, a faith in Nothing. Is Nothing worth defending? 

Anything is nothing; nothing is anything …

The great G. K. Chesterton would have had great fun with the lunacy of Prince Charles. In The Man Who was Thursday he had mused mirthfully over the impenetrable circularity of the phrase that “nothing is worth doing,” putting the nonsensical paradox into the mind and mouth of the corrupt and incorrigible Professor de Worms. (The words are uttered, of course, by someone impersonating the real professor de Worms, adding to the fun and confusion.) One can only surmise what fun Chesterton would have had with the folly of faith in nothing in particular, and the even greater folly of wishing to defend faith in nothing in particular. Surely Prince Charles is one “defender” that even Chesterton the great Defendant would have had difficulty defending. 

All this is of course nonsense, a nonsense that leads to madness. The reductionism of ever decreasing circles leading to a downward spiral into the realm of the reductio ad absurdum

In the light of all this nonsense one is reminded insistently of the phrase often attributed to Chesterton that people who don’t believe in God do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Ultimately we can’t believe in Nothing because “nothing” doesn’t exist, and if we refuse theFaith in something we will be left with faith in anything. It is one of God’s paradoxical jokes that credulity can be defined as the absence of a Creed. 

Chesterton’s friend Hilaire Belloc insisted with pugnacious certainty that “Outside [the Church] is the Night, and strange things in the Night.” If we will not be creatures of the Light we will be creatures of the Night and followers of the strange things in the Night. “The issue is now quite clear,” said Chesterton on his deathbed. “It is between light and darkness and every one must choose his side.” There is no third way. 

Shortly after Chesterton’s death in 1936, Pope Pius XI sent a telegram, which was read to the vast crowd gathered for Chesterton’s requiem Mass at Westminster Cathedral. In the telegram, the Pope described Chesterton as a “gifted Defender of the Catholic Faith.” Ironically the secular press in England refused to publish the Pope’s telegram on the grounds that “the Pope had bestowed on a British subject a title held by the King.” That the title of Fidei Defensor was originally bestowed upon the King by the Pope was either overlooked or forgotten. It was, in any event, singularly apt that Chesterton should be the first Englishman honored by the Pope with the title of Defender of the Faith since Henry VIII had dishonored the title four hundred years earlier. Choosing to be Outside, the King had condemned his nation and his descendents to a nocturnal existence in which many strange things emerged from the darkness, not least of which was the ironically named “Enlightenment”! One of the strangest things to emerge was the bizarre faithless faith in “faith” espoused by Prince Charles. In the midst of this right royal nonsense, Chesterton, a commoner, became the apostle of common sense. A light in the darkness of modern England, Chesterton deserved the title that the King had deserted. He was, and is, an indomitable Defender of the Faith.

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