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Jul 13, 2024

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The Chesterton Institute In Poland 2014

The following is a report of the Chesterton Institute 2014 conferences in Poland held in Warsaw on October 13 and in Krakow on October 15. The conferences were sponsored by the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture, with support from the American Institute for Polish Culture and in collaboration with the Faculty of Law of the University of Warsaw and the Piotr Skarga Association. Fr. Ian Boyd and Dr. Dermot Quinn represented the Chesterton Institute in both events. 

Professor Dermot Quinn writes:

Building on its highly successful double conference of October 2014, which was the inaugural event in a series of such meetings, the Chesterton Institute of Faith and Culture returned to Poland in October 2014 to continue its work of exploring and explaining Chestertonian thought in the context of post-communist Europe. Academics, lawyers, journalists and intellectuals gathered in Warsaw and Krakow from all over the country, first in the beautifully restored Sala Balowa of the University of Warsaw, then in the magnificent Sala Fontanowska of the Historical Museum of Krakow. Chesterton visited both cities during his memorable journey of 1927. “There is a sort of underground tavern in Warsaw,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “where men drink Tokay, which would cure any official of officialism.” (Chesterton, one suspects, had no need to take the cure, but may have taken it anyway.) The Sala Balowa, far from subterranean, is one of the glories of rebuilt Warsaw, a beautiful salon designed for good talk. Krakow, Chesterton also wrote, “is now even more the national city because it is not the capital”; to which may be added that the Sala Fontanowska, overlooking the city’s great central square and directly opposite the Church of Saint Mary, makes Krakow seem not only a Polish, but also a European, capital. There could be no better venue to consider the thought of one of the great defenders of Christian Europe.

The first conference was co-sponsored by Warsaw University’s Faculty of Law, the second by the Piotr Skarga Association, and both were made possible by generous financial support from the American Institute of Polish Culture in Miami. Particular thanks are due to Professor Aleksander Stepkowski in Warsaw, Arkadiusz Stelmach and Lukasz Karpeil in Krakow, and Lady Blanka Rosenstiel in Miami. Maciej Reda, who has recently completed a fine doctoral thesis on Chesterton and Modernism, provided translation services, as did, at Seton Hall, a very talented seminarian, Bogumil Misiuk. As ever, the bulk of the organizational work was done by the indefatigable Mrs. Gloria Garafulich-Grabois of the Chesterton Institute.

Both conferences sailed under the flag “G.K. Chesterton, Distributism and Poland” and, as with the conference of two years ago, the talks and lectures were of a very high order. Father Ian Boyd opened the Warsaw meeting with a paper entitled “Chesterton and Distributism,” a subtle exploration of distributism as a subject in Chesterton’s novels. Naïve utopianism forms no part of the distributist agenda and, as Father Boyd proposed, Chesterton’s novels indicate the difficulties, even the absurdities, of trying to apply it as if to produce the perfect society. Distributism, he reminded the audience, is not a counsel of perfection: it is simply the normal way of life for normal people. The sharpest satirist of misguided utopians was Chesterton himself. Nicely complementing Father Boyd’s talk, Marzena Zawodzinska examined “Belloc’s contribution to the Chesterbelloc Duet”, arguing that, latterly, Belloc has been unduly ignored as a writer and historian. Professor Zawodzinska suggested that, to the extent that Belloc’s narrative style has gone out of fashion, that says more about fashion than it does about Belloc. Jan Majchrowski spoke on “Chesterton’s distributism and Polish tradition and culture,” making the point that the Poland which Chesterton visited in 1927, a country of small farms and local proprietorships, was sufficiently intact, even during the worst of the war that was soon to follow, to feed the people. Distributism was not only a way of life in Poland, he suggested, but also, in a real sense, it was life itself.

The remainder of the Warsaw talks concentrated on philosophical, economic, and political themes. Dermot Quinn explored “Chesterton, Poland and the Moral Economy,” finding grounds for hope, and some for alarm, in the contemporary Polish situation. Investigating what some have called the “Second Jagiellonian Age” – Poland’s economic revival since the fall of communism –

Professor Quinn applauded the evidence that this miracle has been achieved through thriving local businesses. He also cautioned, however, that some of it has been the result of neo-liberal practices that depend too much on cheap labor and high levels of emigration. Building on Professor Quinn’s talk, Professor Aleksander Stepkowski looked at “Distributism as an application of Catholic social principles,” suggesting that the standard account of distributism as an attempt to give reality to teachings of Leo XIII and Pius XI needs modification. Certainly, he suggested, the value of productive property is implied in their encyclicals. On the other hand, not every wage-earner is a wage slave, nor does every worker wish to become a productive proprietor. Too great a preoccupation with property could lose sight of the fact that work itself (even of a menial kind) has an inherent dignity. Following Professor Stepkowski, Tymoteusz Zych, a very lively legal philosopher, looked at the differences between Distributism, Capitalism and Socialism, suggesting the latter two systems lacked a proper metaphysical basis, indeed any coherent metaphysical basis at all. Next, Magdalena Zietek placed distributism in the context of the civilizational theories of the Polish historian and social philosopher Felicks Koneczny, who died in 1949. Koneczny considered a shared commitment to health, economic well-being, truth, goodness, and beauty as the standards by which a civilization should be judged. (By these criteria, Koneczny considered Latin civilization to be superior to the Byzantine world.) It is clear, Professor Zietek suggested, that distributism passes the Koneczny test and monopoly capitalism fails it.

Complementing Professor Zietek argument, Janusz Szewczak, chief economist of a leading Polish credit union, gave a brilliant talk on the current culture of banking in Poland. The news was not good. Too often, he said, small businesses find it hard to receive credit. All the advantages, it appears, are stacked in favor of large corporations, an unsurprising conclusion, he suggested, because the large banks, after all, are themselves large corporations. Building and sustaining the distributist economy, he indicated, will require a regime of laws that explicitly favor the small proprietor. Finally, Pawel Skibinski rounded off the day with a survey of Distributist tendencies in contemporary Polish political thought, noting that although Poland faces the usual challenges besetting any modern European country, many public figure continue to defend traditional Catholic economic and social teaching. It was an encouraging note on which to conclude an excellent meeting.

In Krakow, in addition to talks from Father Boyd and Professor Quinn, two other speakers offered expertise. In a fascinating paper, Professor Rafal Letocha of the Jagiellonian University examined “Distributism in Polish National Doctrine,” concentrating on Polish political parties since the 1930s which have incorporated a philosophy of small proprietorships in their electoral platforms and have been successful as a result. Professor Anna Walczuk, also of the Jagiellonian University, contributed a fine paper on Chesterton as “the Edwardian Champion of Europe,” a talk nicely adapted to this most European of settings. A lively question-and-answer session followed, indicating an audience closely attentive to the arguments of the papers. It was also good to see in the audience two students who have recently completed doctoral work on Chesterton and another who has just published a book on him.

The evidence speaks for itself. “My most ardent desire,” said Lech Walesa a few years ago, “is that my country will recapture its historic opportunity for peaceful evolution and that Poland will prove to the world that even the most complex situations can be solved by a dialogue and not by force.” In its modest way, the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture, through events such as these, is helping to foster that dialogue. And why not? With Poles as impressive and articulate as those who participated in the conferences of 2014, only good things can come of such conversations. It is hoped that many more will follow.


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