At the fifth annual Hospitaller’s Dinner benefiting the Order of Malta’s Center of Care in Columbus, Dale Ahlquist shared the profound insights of writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton from more than 100 years ago that presciently address the spiritual, physical and moral dilemmas plaguing modern society.
Ahlquist, the featured speaker at the event on Nov. 3 at the Pontifical College Josephinum’s Jessing Center, knows the writings of Chesterton as well as anyone.
The creator and host of the EWTN television series “The Apostle of Common Sense” is an author, editor, publisher of Gilbert magazine, president of the Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a senior fellow at the Chesterton Library in London and the co-founder of the classical Chesterton Academy high school in Minneapolis, which has expanded to nearly 70 schools in the United States, Canada, Italy, Iraq and West Africa.
Ahlquist blended humor with the wit and wisdom of the British author’s writings during his talk to local members of the Order of Malta and their guests titled “The Healthy and Un-Healthy Approach of Healthcare: A Prescription.”
Ahlquist shared Chesterton’s insights on a topic that hits home with Ohioans after an amendment was passed by voters on Nov. 7 enshrining abortion into the state’s constitution.
“Some beautiful idealists are eager to kill babies if they think they will grow up bad,” Ahlquist said in quoting Chesterton, “but, I say to them, ‘No,’ beautiful idealists, let us wait until the babies grow up bad and then, if we have any luck, they will kill you. That was 1908.
“(Chesterton) sees the troubling connection between politics and scientifically organized health care. In both, preventive methods only mean arbitrary power.”
Some members of the Order of Malta are involved in health care, making Ahlquist’s presentation particularly poignant to them.
The Sovereign Order of Malta is a lay religious order dating to 1050 in Europe. The order now includes 13,500 knights and dames whose primary work of charity is serving the poor and the sick in 20 hospitals and more than 1,500 clinics in over 120 countries.
Members carry out that mission in the Diocese of Columbus at their Center of Care adjacent to Columbus Holy Rosary-St. John Church on the east side of the city. Medical professionals and volunteers provide free health checkups, wound care, foot care, vaccinations and dental care while also offering items such socks, hats, gloves, toiletries and medications.
Two of the medical volunteers – Dr. Joseph Fiala and Albert Navarro – were honored before Ahlquist’s address for their service at the Center of Care.
Ahlquist shared Chesterton’s thoughts about care for the sick, starting with a proposed National Health Insurance Act in England in 1912.
Chesterton opposed it for three reasons: It was anti-democratic because it was passed against the people’s will; it was compulsory, which Chesterton equated to slavery; and he saw the act paving the way for government to gain more influence in citizens’ daily lives.
“Does that sound familiar?” Ahlquist asked.
Chesterton believed that more government power diluted the public’s desire for reform. He said it was good to have the power to ward off sickness, but it’s also good to have the power to ward off tyranny.
“One of Chesterton’s strongest objections to the insurance act in his own time was that the increase in taxes to those who could scarcely afford to pay more taxes … prevented a man from paying for other needs … just as important as medical care,” Ahlquist said.
“Chesterton says it’s difficult to distinguish between a tax and a fine except that the fine is generally much less.”
Chesterton argued that compulsory insurance led to people “being forced to pay to be protected against themselves.”
“Our social reformers today have a readiness to grant favors or conveniences to the citizen if he will give up some part of his independence,” Ahlquist said. “And people throughout history have always been willing to trade their freedom for security.”
To understand the state of health care, Chesterton argued that it starts with health having nothing to do with care.
“Health has to do with carelessness,” Ahlquist shared, according to Chesterton. “In special and abnormal cases, it’s necessary to have care. When we are peculiarly unhealthy, it may be necessary to be careful in order to be healthy. But even then, we are only trying to be healthy in order to be careless.”
He went on to say “the worship of health is unhealthy.” Instead, Chesterton suggested, people should eat not only to sustain their body, but meals bring families together to be thankful for one another’s company and to God for their food.
Ahlquist said Chesterton was taken to task in his day for saying health has to do with carelessness.
“There was already an attitude that scientific health-care professionals were better equipped to take care of us than we were ourselves,” Ahlquist said.
“Already, there was a philosophy of preventive medicine, which, in a sense, treats everyone as if they’re always a patient all the time. If everyone is always being treated, that means that everyone is always ill.”
Ahlquist explained that Chesterton was against the pervasiveness of health-care officials – the state’s control of health – and with the government getting involved in private life.
“For to be always in good health under a doctor’s orders is only to be an immortal invalid,” he said. “To be kept always well is really to be always ill.”
Chesterton expressed similar sentiments about exercise, saying the purpose of fitness or sports is to have fun and not to achieve a certain body fat ratio.
“Chesterton says that we should treat our necessities as if they are luxuries because then we’ll have a greater enjoyment of them,” Ahlquist related.
Ahlquist elicited laughter from the audience when he said Chesterton is paradoxical.
“So, by the way, is Jesus,” he said. “The first shall be last, last shall be first. Blessed are the poor. Yeah, these are paradoxes.
“The dead shall rise. That’s a paradox. A virgin shall give birth. That’s a paradox.”
Ahlquist also drew laughs when he mentioned that Chesterton, who at time tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds, was not fond of exercise.
While his weight and his smoking likely factored into his death at age 62, it didn’t stop him from being one of the most prolific writers in history.
Chesterton penned 100 books, including the Father Brown mystery series, and volumes of poetry. Chesterton also wrote for newspapers and periodicals and, astoundingly, at least 5,000 essays during his lifetime.
In one of those essays, Chesterton posited that “if there’s one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus, it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics.”
Chesterton believed that a man’s minor actions ought to be free, flexible and creative, but his principles should be unchangeable.
“Our views constantly change,” Ahlquist said in quoting Chesterton, “but our lunch does not change. In other words, we no longer care for the soul, which is eternal, but we spend a great deal of time and energy and money caring for the body, which will soon turn to dust.”
Chesterton not only wrote about an overtly scientific approach to the world but also about an unhealthy “worship of nature” that he called “unnatural.”
The British author said the two extremes “represent two false visions of humanity. One is what Chesterton calls the hygienic view, which tries to create a whole network of precautions against remote possibilities. … But the other extreme is merely submitting to nature in the abstract and to insist that everything be natural, to regard ourselves as merely passive players in a process that is perfect were not for us interfering.
“Materialism has made us forget about the soul.”
Worship of the body has become so perverse today that “we’re passing out condoms in public schools, where we’re letting underage kids determine whether or not they’re a boy or a girl, where we are legalizing marijuana,” Ahlquist said.
Ahlquist pointed out that no one questions scientific studies on the effects of secondhand smoke, “but try to bring up the medical evidence about the link between abortion and breast cancer.”
In today’s anti-life culture, Ahlquist said “the very existence of people is seen as an enemy to health. The more people, the worse it is for health. Thus, the population has to be controlled.
“It’s a logical and obvious economy, (Chesterton) says. Those who are not born will not need the services of a clinic or a doctor. This is diabolical.”
Chesterton referenced the diabolical in the Gospel story where Jesus casts out a demon from a possessed man and puts the evil one into the swine. But, he says, in the modern world “we’ve left something out of that story. We’ve left out the Redeemer, and we’ve kept the demons and the swine.”
A fixation on health leads men away from treating the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Chesterton emphasized that “our bodies are for the glory of God.”
Ahlquist cautioned against misunderstanding Chesterton’s ideas on health care.
“He’s not advocating a total loss of self-control,” Ahlquist said. “In fact, when Chesterton argues for freedom, he is arguing for self-control because that’s what freedom is. It’s self-control. It’s self-government. It’s taking care of yourself by your own free will.
“Self-control is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. What Chesterton’s trying to do is get us to this right understanding of a human person who’s a combination of body and spirit.”
Ahlquist reminded the medical professionals at the dinner that the Catholic Church created schools and hospitals, but that when “someone figured out that you can make money from doing these things, medicine moved from the realm of mercy to the realm of commerce and naturally invited the realm of the state to also get involved. And neither the state or the market wants religion involved.”
Committed Catholics must take control of both education and health care, Ahlquist said.
“Chesterton said when we gave the power to the state to teach our children, we gave the state more power than it’s ever had in all of human history,” Ahlquist said, “because we’ve given them the minds of our children and the formation of those minds.”
In regard to science and health care, “in 1902, G.K. Chesterton said, ‘We are learning to do a great many clever things. The next thing we’re going to have to learn is not to do them.’ Ahlquist said.
“And by the same token, he said a few years later, ‘To have our right to do a thing is not the same as being right in doing it.’ The reality of being pro-life is that sometimes defending life sometimes means defending suffering.
“Death can never be a prescription for pain. In defending health against disease, we are defending life against death, and we have to hold life as an ideal rather than health as an ideal. …
“We are God’s handiwork, and all bodies are holy not only because God created them but because God Himself became a man, and all wombs are holy because God Himself once dwelt in one of them, and so this is the perspective every Catholic physician has to have in dealing with every patient.”