G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown: ‘The Foulest Crime Feels Lighter After Confession’

COMMENTARY: We’re the one criminal we can catch and keep safe and sane under his own hat by repentance, and we do that especially by repentance enacted in the confessional, and the graces God gives those who confess their sins.

‘Confession’ (photo: godongphoto)

The English priest seemed to tell the American visitor that he murdered people. “I had murdered them all myself,” he said. The visitor, to his credit, didn’t want to believe it. 

It wasn’t exactly true. The priest, Chesterton’s famous detective Father Brown, was trying to explain to the visitor how he solved crimes. The visitor, a Mr. Grandison Chace of Boston, had told him that some Americans thought he had occult powers.

Father Brown couldn’t let them think that. He’d called his method a religious exercise, but it wasn’t an occult one. “I try to get inside the murderer,” he explained to Mr. Chace. 

“I am inside a man,” he said, “… thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; till I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.” Mr. Chace felt relieved.


Seeing the Criminal

Being Chesterton’s creation, Father Brown looked at detection with a concern for what we now call human dignity. Treating it as a “science,” as some did, meant “getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect,” seeing him in “a dead and dehumanized light.”

The priest sees the criminal in a live and humanized light, by seeing him as another man, a man just like him. He insists that no one has the right to be snobbish and sneering about “criminals” (the ironic quotation marks are Father Brown’s) “as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away.”

“No man's really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be,” he continued, “till he's squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.”

Father Brown’s explanation appears in the first chapter of The Secret of Father Brown, the fourth of the five books in the series. It tells us something about understanding others, especially people who seem very different from us, whom we think not up to our standards for morality.

And anyway, we’ve probably done the same thing the “criminals” did, just in a socially more acceptable form. Jesus tells us that just looking at a woman in lust is to commit adultery, and St. John tells us that everyone who hates his brother is a murderer. Both seem to have meant their words as a statement of fact, not as a metaphor.


Knowing Ourselves

Father Brown’s explanation also tells us something about ourselves, and therefore something about confession: about how bad we are and how much worse we could be, and how much we need God’s grace. If we haven’t done what other people have done, we have the wiring for it, which is why we could do what Father Brown did if we worked at it.

We’d know better how bad we are if we had Father Brown’s imaginative abilities, but we can do something of the same thing in examining our conscience. Chesterton doesn’t say so, but I think he assumed Father Brown’s gifts come from hearing confessions, as well as from confessing his own sins. 

What he learned from hearing confessions, we can learn from hearing one confession, our own. We’re the one criminal we can catch and keep safe and sane under his own hat by repentance, and we do that especially by repentance enacted in the confessional, and the graces God gives those who confess their sins.

We are already inside ourselves, but many of us need to work at seeing our “hunched and peering hatreds.” (Others need to work at not seeing only their hatreds, but that God made them in his image and Jesus died for them.) The Church designed the examination of conscience as an aid in doing this.


No Kick, But Fruits

As it happens, Chesterton based his famous character in part on a priest he knew, a parish priest named John O’Connor, who heard his first confession and received him into the Church. He was the “intellectual inspiration” for the stories, he says in his Autobiography. And Father O’Connor wrote a book called Father Brown on Chesterton, in which he writes about hearing confessions. He wrote it in 1937, the year after Chesterton died.

Some Protestants get a “curious itch” for confession, he says, but they don’t know how to do it. Even the best of them are “led into incidents untoward or comic, through lack of experience.” I wish he had given examples.

He wants his readers to know that Catholic priests don’t get a kick from hearing people admit their sins. The “picturesque detail … is the only thing that varies the monstrous monotony of the catalogue of crime,” and that’s not allowed. The penitent should report his sins almost like he’s reading from a form, not regaling the priest with stories. “There are only ten commandments and only three or four ways of breaking them, so figure to yourself if there is any excitement in hearing confessions.”

But sometimes, the priest sees the fruits:

The only excitement is a rare thing among thrills: it is the vision of a submerged soul coming up out of the dark night of ocean into the pearly radiance of the morning. No words will describe the glimpse of glory vouchsafed for a passing instant to a confessor half-dazed with repetitions and numb from the knees down.

He would have agreed with Father Brown’s words in another story, when he says to a villain, “Go on — in God’s name, go on. The foulest crime the fiends ever prompted feels lighter after confession; and I implore you to confess. Go on, go on.”