The G.K. Chesterton
Institute For Faith
& Culture and Poland
Poland has always been a country dear to Chesterton and Chestertonians. In the Spring of 1927, when Chesterton spent a month touring Poland as a guest of the Polish Pen Club, he wrote these memorable words in their Warsaw guest book—words concerning the significance of Poland’s recovery of independence after the long years of foreign domination: “If Poland had not risen from the dead,” he wrote, “all Christian nations must have died.” In other words, Chesterton believed that the welfare of Western civilization depended on the welfare of the Polish nation. It was his conviction that Poland was the wall that protected Western civilization from its ancient enemies in the East. (Photo: G.K. Chesterton)
For that reason, for more than forty years the Chesterton Institute has regarded the promotion of the security and prosperity of the Polish nation as an essential part of its mission. Our efforts in this regard have taken various forms. A special issue of The Chesterton Review,-the Institute’s journal,-was devoted to the theme of the resurrection of Poland. We have also held conferences in Poland frequently, the most recent of which were held last year in Warsaw and Krakow. The speakers at these conferences were Polish intellectuals and friends of Poland from other countries. Our work in Poland has received generous financial help from Lady Blanka Rosensteil, the well-known Director of the American Institute for Polish Culture.
Fr. Ian Boyd, C. S. B.
President, G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture
Editor, The Chesterton Review
The Chesterton Institute in Poland, 2017
Professor Dermot Quinn writes:
Readers of The Chesterton Review will need little reminder that, for Chesterton, Poland stood in the forefront of European nations. “Poles,” he wrote in his Autobiography, “have always had a choice of evils.” Their greatness as a people, Chesterton believed, lay in their refusal to accept that choice but to insist, instead, on the integrity of their own history and culture in the face of foreign threat or occupation. Whether the threat was territorial or spiritual, whether it came in the form of invading armies or invasive ideas, Chesterton was always quick to come to Poland’s defence, always first to argue that to defend Poland was to defend the Christian civilization of Europe itself. For Chesterton, this was, as it remains, a task not of one but of many lifetimes. Chesterton showed the way: others, in our time, have tried to follow.
Readers will also know that Chesterton’s affection for Poland has been amply reciprocated by Poland’s affection for Chesterton. In 2012 and again in 2014, the G. K. Chesterton Institute for Faith and Culture sponsored a series of highly successful conferences in Warsaw and Krakow bringing together academics, journalists, lawmakers and opinion-formers to consider Chestertonian thought as it applies to the problems of today. Critical to the success of these events was a sense that Chesterton’s ideas must be adopted and adapted by Poles themselves, who, by acquiring a kind of intellectual ownership over them, would best know how to fit them to their own situation. That is why the conferences gave preference to Polish speakers speaking on Polish themes. They were not, so to speak, yet another foreign occupation of Poland!
It is good to report the realization of these hopes in another successful series of conferences in October 2017. First in Warsaw, then in Krakow, Polish Chestertonians gathered to consider “Chesterton and the Advancement of Humanity,” a theme which may seem vague at first but which proved highly à propos on further investigation. In effect, the conferences considered the return of the eugenics in the modern world and the challenges it poses to Poland. Few subjects are more urgent today.
The first conference took place at the elegant law school of the University of Warsaw on October 9. After words of welcome from Professor Aleksander Stepkowski and Mrs. Gloria Garafulich-Grabois, Father Ian Boyd spoke on “Chesterton and Eugenics,” arguing that Chesterton was a lonely and prophetic voice in opposition to proposed eugenics legislation of the early 20th century. Chestertonians, he said, “have more than a little reason to be proud” of the role Chesterton played in preventing the worst aspects of the Feeble-Minded Control Bill (1912) from becoming law. Unfortunately, Father Boyd continued, what Chesterton foresaw as a nightmare became a reality a generation later during the Second World War. Building on this theme, Professor Stepkowski gave the major address of the morning: “Eugenics: Human Advancement or Dehumanizing of Man?” in which he detailed the particular challenges of eugenics today, suggesting that it represents a transnational ideology grounded in secular liberalism and, as such, a threat not only to Poland but to the entire world. A long-standing and firm friend of the Chesterton Institute, Professor Stepkowski teaches private and public comparative law at the University of Warsaw. He also serves as president of the Ordo Iuris Institute for Legal Culture, supporting the protection of human rights at a variety of international courts of justice.
Afternoon speakers were the journalist and philosopher Magdalena Zietek-Wielomska, who spoke on “Moral versus Technical progress in the thought of G. K. Chesterton”; Professor Dermot Quinn, who spoke on “Chesterton and the Challenge of Eugenics”; and Dr. Maciej Rada, author of a recently published monograph on Chesterton and a lecturer at the University of Warsaw’s Institute of English Studies, who spoke on “Chesterton and the True Progress of Man.” Insisting on freedom as a key idea for Chesterton, Dr. Zietek-Wielomska saw eugenics as an assault on human dignity by those who believed in freedom for themselves but not for other people. Reinforcing this argument, Dr. Rada spoke on the positive aspects of Chesterton’s thought, noticing its celebratory and richly human qualities. Building on the earlier remarks of Father Boyd, Professor Quinn argued that the eugenic state that Chesterton had feared has become a eugenic world. Poland, he said, has particular reason to fear such a world, suffering as it does from what Professor Ewa Thomson has called a “catastrophic depopulation problem.” (On average, Polish women bear only 1.33 children, making it certain that, unless drastic remediation occurs, Poland will cease to be Polish and become something altogether different.) The threat to Poland now comes from an anti-natalist mentality no less dangerous because more subtle than previous threats of violence and occupation.
Nestling under the massive height of Wawel Castle, the Pontifical University of John Paul II in Krakow was the impressive setting of our second conference, which took place on October 11. Founded in 2009 when Pope Benedict XVI transformed the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow into the Pontifical University of John Paul II, the university could not have been more hospitable to our purposes. “We are convinced,” says its rector, Reverend Professor Wojciech Zyzak, “that the Pontifical University contributes to the preservation of the European identity by strengthening relations between the spheres of science and faith, in the spirit of the encyclical Fides et Ratio.” Here is an agenda admirably in keeping with the thought of John Paul II and G.K. Chesterton.
After lively words of introduction from the university’s former rector, Reverend Professor Wladyslaw Zuziak, the conference heard from Father Boyd and Professor Quinn, reprising their earlier talks on eugenics. Between these came fine papers from Dr. Bawer Aonda-Akaa on “G. K. Chesterton: Defender of the Ordinary Man”; Mrs. Monika Szymczak-Kordulansinska on “Being a Judge of Men: Chesterton’s Defence of the Weak in the Father Brown Stories”; and Maciej Was on “By Low Tricks to High Places: the Anti-Aristocratism of G. K. Chesterton.” As author of a 2015 book Realizing the natural and supernatural mission of people with disabilities in the Church and Society, and as one who struggles with serious physical challenges himself, Dr. Aonda-Akaa was an eloquent spokesman for Chesterton’s insistence on the unique, God-given dignity of every human being. Developing that idea, Mrs. Szymczak-Kordulansinska gave a thoughtful paper on three Father Brown stories – “The Miracle of Moon Crescent”, “The Wrong Shape” and “The Blast of the Book” – which illustrated, she said, Chesterton’s “passion for defending the weak…[his message] that every single life counts, even if it is morally distorted, ineffective, and destroyed by people’s own experiments.” Finally, and by way of a debut, Maciej Was, a doctoral student at the University of Silesia at Sosnowiec, gave a spirited account of Chesterton’s anti-aristocratism. Drawing on the work of John Carey, R.R. Palmer, Gerald Newman, and William Oddie, Mr. Was argued that Chesterton had a “flaming democratic faith” akin to a form of religious imagination and it was this that animated his popular radicalism. Delivered with wit and verve, it was robust conclusion to an excellent set of talks.
The last word belonged to Arkadiusz Stelmach, Vice-President of the Piotr Skarga Institute, which co-sponsored the conference. No theme could have been more timely for the Poland of today, he said, than eugenics. After all, the Polish people had once been the expendable subjects of ideological and genocidal eradication, victims of the great dehumanizing philosophies of the twentieth century. The work of the Piotr Skarga Institute and the G.K. Chesterton Institute for Faith & Culture is to ensure that such an intellectual climate should never again prevail.
Very warm thanks are due once again to Mrs. Gloria Garafulich-Grabois, director of programs at the Chesterton Institute, for arranging with exemplary efficiency an extremely complex itinerary.
Professor of History
Seton Hall University