A G.K. Chestertonian Reading of This Pontificate

Scholar Reflects on Pontiff's, Author's Good Sense and Good Humor

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By Paul De Maeyer

ROME, FEB. 7, 2012 (Zenit.org).- G.K. Chesterton and Benedict XVI have plenty in common, according to a professor of literature and Catholicism from the Pontifical Lateran University.

Andrea Monda will defend this perspective Saturday in Genoa at a conference titled "Common Sense Day. The Paradoxical Beauty of the Everyday. A Day for G.K. Chesterton."

Monda is set to close the event -- dedicated entirely to the English writer and thinker -- with a talk on "Good Sense, Good Life and Good Humor: G.K. Chesterton and Benedict XVI."

In the course of his presentation, Professor Monda will provide some excerpts from his next book, on the "Simple Virtues of Joseph Ratzinger," offering a "Chestertonian" reading of Benedict XVI's pontificate (Lindau Publishing House). The book is due out next month.

ZENIT spoke with the professor about his vision of the author and the Pontiff. 

ZENIT: What relationship is there between Chesterton and Joseph Ratzinger?

Monda: Young Joseph Ratzinger read and appreciated several of Chesterton's books; in fact, here and there, whether before or after the papal election, direct or indirect quotations emerge of the work of the inventor of Father Brown. However, what I tried to do in the book, and what I will do in Genoa, is not so much a philological reconstruction of these quotations, but a little reasoning that develops from the two figures of the English thinker and the Bavarian theologian and Pontiff, on subjects which cut across the positions at the center of the attention of the congress' organizers: good sense, good life and good humor.

ZENIT: In the collective and media imagination, Pope Benedict XVI is not associated with humor, is this true?

Monda: The truth is that Ratzinger, just as every man, is a mystery, a complex reality often poorly rendered by the image that prevails in the mass media; it is from here that the need arose in me to write a book that gives greater weight and perspective to a picture that is otherwise trite, two-dimensional: the Pope of "no's," the German Pope staunch defender of the rigor of the moral norm. What is true in all of this is that Joseph Ratzinger is a serious person. However, be careful, says Chesterton, when he recalls, with his typical liking of paradoxes, that "serious is not the opposite of amusing, the opposite of amusing is not amusing, boring." Hence the Pope is a serious person, who takes seriously the Gospel and every man he meets, a serious person and, hence, also amusing, who knows the value of good humor, of humor and of smiling.

ZENIT: Is this liking for paradox the point of contact between Chesterton and Benedict XVI?

Monda: Yes and no. Certainly yes: being two persons of great acumen and intelligence, their reasoning is not trite but sparkling, at times unsettling, which also calls for flexibility in the intelligence of the interlocutor. In other words, they require appropriate interlocutors, equal to them. At the same time, Chesterton and the Pope are not two intellectuals merely content to give us paradoxical phrases, wit and puns. Their reasoning is ordered to create a dialogue, it is not fireworks but the desire to have a relationship with the other (even with the one who is distant, who does not believe, who is an "enemy" of the faith) without betraying adherence to their faith which, first of all, is lived, practiced and then preached.

ZENIT: What is the relationship between the two and good sense, good life and good humor?

Monda: This is what I will talk about at Genoa's congress. Connected between them are the three aspects and in all three one can almost see a similar behavior in the writer and the Pontiff. In regard to good sense: for Chesterton it is verifiable in children's fables whose "morals" are still valid today and he gives the example of Cinderella, which has the same meaning of the Magnificat of Luke's Gospel: "He has exalted the lowly." The English writer goes against the current in regard to modern and contemporary Western tendencies, which are maybe nice and respectable, which consider good sense as the overcoming of the world of childhood, full of unreal pleasant fantasies, to enter into the world of reason and hopefully of experimental science, seen as the only source of truth (but, unfortunately, not of meaning). Pope Ratzinger also goes against the current: for him good sense is what emerges from the Gospel and from the Christian faith and, also, in the paradox of giving one's life out of love. All this seems like a discordant voice, because the "tune" of modernity and of today's world has relegated Christianity to the same room of children's fables, an old and dusty place in which perhaps it was pleasing to be during childhood, but all together superfluous when one attains maturity and autonomy. In this connection, religion seems like an old superstition, an oppressive framework that constrains the free development of the mature, adult and emancipated person.

ZENIT: And in regard to the good life?

Monda: The above-mentioned depiction of Pope Ratzinger  presents him as a sullen custodian of the truth, it portrays him as obsessed with the truth, as someone who uses truth as a club against freedom. Instead, the dialectical relation that is at the heart of the Pope is not that of truth/falsehood but that of joy/boredom. For Benedict XVI the good life, here as well, as in the case of good sense, is that which flows from adherence to the Gospel. And the same can be said of Chesterton. In both cases, the life that flows is thus "good," but it is not in fact tranquil but rather something like a battle. The good life is the profound desire that animates and stirs the heart of every man." "No matter what type of man he is," writes Chesterton, "he is not sufficient unto himself, whether in peace or in suffering. The whole movement of life is that of a man who seeks to reach some place and who fights against something." The Pope echoes him when he recalls that "only the infinite fills man's heart," to live well does not mean to be a "respectable" person, but it means to take up and receive life as an adventure. The good life is not an easy compromise, it is not to have found the formula to have everything at the same time in Western man's day, busy and marked by activism. No, the good life is to surrender to Christ, sign of contradiction. Born from this surrender is the life of faith as an adventure, as an encounter not with an idea, an ideological formula (which would be pure idolatry, state-latria or ego-latria in the end little changes) but an encounter with a person. Only an encounter with someone greater can make many happy.

ZENIT: In short, good humor, perhaps the humor of the Englishman Chesterton is the same as the German Pope's?

Monda: Yes, from a certain point of view, because in both cases humor thrusts its roots in humility. Is it not the case that also at the etymological level the two words are born from humus, earth? He is well-grounded, who does not raise himself in pride, at the same time is gifted with humor, because he knows irony and self-irony, because he perceives, perhaps in a confused way, that a larger world exists beyond his own "I" and, beyond this world, Someone who is still greater. From this point of view, the modern world offers disturbing signs because there is no longer good humor but anger, there is no irony but sarcasm, there is no sentiment but resentment. However, a society that loses the sense of humor, recalled Maritain, is preparing for its funeral. 

In different times and ways, Chesterton and Ratzinger cry out however against this madness that envelops the life of Western men and remind all that there is a possibility for joy, not for pleasure, which is always less than man and under his control, but for joy, which is always a great mystery. Joy, Chesterton wrote in the last page of his masterpiece Orthodoxy: "is the gigantic secret of Christianity." And it is also the secret of Benedict XVI who, with his timid and awkward but firm and patient smile, with the strength of an ordered, clear, honest, quiet intelligence, and with the energy of a faith lived without frills with the abandon of a child, challenges every day the temptations of men, his contemporaries, towards laziness and short cuts, towards ideologies and idolatries which are always renewed in a heart that lives in bad humor and resentment. From this point of view Benedict XVI can be described as the Pope of joy, perhaps the most recurrent word in his addresses since he was elected, because, as he said in the recent book-interview Light of the World; "All my life has been suffused by a guiding thread: Christianity gives joy, it widens the horizons." Here, in one phrase is the whole of Ratzinger and, if we think correctly, the whole of Chesterton. Faith, joy, reason. Good sense, good life, good humor.

[Translation by ZENIT]