1.4 WAUGH’S CATHOLICISM

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Christianity

Evelyn Waugh converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930. As he himself once wrote, the Catholic church represented the only genuine form of Christianity. This church was in his opinion ‘the essential and formative constituent of western culture.’The influence of Waugh’s conversion does not show itself immediately in his work. Only in Brideshead Revisited, which was published in 1945, do Waugh’s religious convictions come clearly to the fore. It is a book which could only have been written by a Roman Catholic. Helena is the novel in which his beliefs are most clearly shown and expressed. His main ideas about the world and the church can be found in this book.

According to Waugh, the Roman Catholic church was the constant factor in past, present and future. To him the Church constituted western civilisation and was equivalent to civilisation itself. The Roman Catholic church was furthermore a support in a chaotic world and a safe haven. Waugh’s religiosity is rather pragmatic and rational. He did not like mysticism and its vague and elusive discussions, preferring an understandable and concrete faith.

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A Catholic

Waugh was thus under no romantic illusions when he became a Catholic. Given his divorce, he believed he was abandoning any hope of a future marriage (a belief that proved mistaken). He knew he would suffer the prejudices the English establishment subtly (and not so subtly) visits on papists. He was leaving the aesthetic pleasures of High Church Anglicanism, not for Chartres and the chant of Solesmes, but for the declasse rituals of (typically Irish) British Catholicism. But Waugh believed that he had found, not a piece of the truth, but the truth itself: “I reverence the Catholic Church because it is true, not because it is established or an institution.” And that truth would become the centerpiece of his vision of the world-and thus of his artistry- throughout the balance of his career. Dependence on a God who not only brought creation into being but sustained it with His loving care was not, Waugh once explained to the BBC, “a sort of added amenity to the Welfare State that you say, well, to all this, having made a good income, now I’ll have a little icing on top, of religion.” No, the faith was “the essence of the whole thing.”

Waugh is frequently accused of having practiced a kind of snobbish Catholicism, and while it is true that he had no truck with what he regarded as the uncouthness of “liturgical reform,” it would be unfair to suggest, as do some of his critics, that Waugh entered the Church because it was a more exclusive club than others that were available to him. Indeed, in his correspondence, Waugh reveals himself to be a man keenly aware of the Church as ecclesia semper reformanda; take, for example, the letter he wrote to Edith Sitwell on the occasion of her conversion:

Should I as Godfather warn you of probable shocks in the human aspect of Catholicism? Not all priests are as clever and kind as Father D’Arcy and Fr. Caraman. (The incident in my book of going to confession to a spy is a genuine experience.) But I am sure you know the world well enough to expect Catholic bores and prigs and crooks and cads. I always think to myself: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.” One of the joys of Catholic life is to recognize the little sparks of good everywhere, as well as the fire of the saints.



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