Eating With Tax Collectors

Last night I was invited to dinner by Al Smith IV, the great-grandson of Al Smith, who was a former New York governor and the first Catholic nominated for president. Al shared some jokes while introducing Obama and Romney. He also poked fun at Cardinal Timothy Dolan; a man of considerable girth, who sat between the two candidates. Al joked that they were separated by a “vast expanse.”

The banter throughout the night reminded me of another man of great girth, namely G.K. Chesterton. Standing 6 feet 4 inches and weighing around 290 pounds, Chesterton’s size gave rise to a famous anecdote. Chesterton remarked to his friendly enemy George Bernard Shaw: “To look at you, anyone would think a famine had struck England”. Shaw retorted, “To look at you, anyone would think you have caused it”.

Shaw and GKC engaged in a series of debates over the course of many years and Chesterton never gave ground on his positions in these debates. It was Shaw who mercilessly made fun of Chesterton about his Roman Catholic “hobby,” and was shocked when Chesterton actually converted. Chesterton wrote a book on Shaw. When Shaw reviewed it he wrote, “This book is what everybody expected it to be: the best work of literary art I have yet provoked.”

“Provocative” certainly describes Chesterton’s introduction to the book, which consists of two sentences: “Most people say that they agree with Bernard Shaw or that they do not understand him. I am the only person who understands him, and I do not agree with him.” Chesterton says the basic flaw in Shaw’s philosophy is that it is “almost entirely without paradox.” He does accuse Shaw of occasionally using “false paradoxes,” which sound clever but are simply lies. True paradox is found in the Gospel: “He that shall lose his life, the same shall save it.” While the following statement by Shaw is a false paradox: “The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule.”

Chesterton always had a willingness to engage the enemy in the public square with sound reason and wit. This provided a living demonstration of the command to love thy enemy. As Catholics, we are called not simply to love our enemies but also to engage them in the hopes of winning them over to the truth. George Bernard Shaw penned the following words near the end of his life:

“The science to which I pinned my faith is bankrupt. Its counsels, which should have established the millennium, have led directly to the suicide of Europe. I believed in them once…In their name I helped destroy the faith of millions of worshipers in the temples of a thousand creeds. And now they look at me and witness the great tragedy of an atheist who has lost his faith.”

Shaw did not end his life without giving us an authentic paradox. It was a great tribute to his friendly enemy. In our own day, it takes a big man to step into the middle of controversy and I’m glad Cardinal Dolan did not shrink from the task.

This article used by kind permission of the author. Original article can be found here.


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Fr. Kevin Gabriel Gillen, O.P., is currently the Executive Director of the Dominican Foundation and hosts the weekly program “Word to Life” on The Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129 every Friday at noon E.T.

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