Waugh Contra Mundum

News: Commentary
by Samuel McCarthy  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  October 28, 2021   

An old hero for the modern Catholic

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Today marks the 118th birthday of British novelist and devout Catholic Evelyn Waugh.

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Young Evelyn Waugh

Perhaps best known for penning Brideshead Revisited, Waugh serves as an especial model for the laity, having faced and anticipated many of the difficulties Catholics grapple with today.

Upon his conversion to Catholicism in 1930, he wrote, "The trouble about the world today is that there's not enough religion in it. There's nothing to stop young people doing whatever they feel like doing at the moment." The same is, sadly, still true today.

Born Oct. 28, 1903, in Hampstead, England, Waugh was an aggressive agnostic by the age of 15. He developed a hard-partying lifestyle during his time at Oxford University, which included homosexual relationships. Failing in his studies, Waugh took a position as a schoolteacher in Wales before becoming a successful novelist with the publication of Decline and Fall in 1928.

I have never myself met a convert who so strongly based his assents on truth.

Waugh's first marriage fell apart when his wife proved unfaithful, leaving his world in a shambles. Indeed, the entirety of the modern age left Waugh — and many others — hungering for order and authority. In England, socialism was coming to the fore, accompanied by (and, in some cases, driven by) cultural modernism. Waugh's generation, in particular, fell easy prey to depraved hedonism and pugnacious atheism; he caustically chronicled his circle's escapades in his novel Vile Bodies.

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Jesuit Fr. Martin D'Arcy

It was in the face of such rampant vice that Waugh sought out the Roman Church. Waugh approached the One True Faith with an almost clinical degree of realism. His mentor, Jesuit Fr. Martin D'Arcy, wrote of Waugh, "I have never myself met a convert who so strongly based his assents on truth." This pragmatic mindset served Waugh well, in many ways, in the development of his spiritual life and in his devotion to Holy Mother Church.

"The Church," Waugh proclaimed, "is the normal state of man from which men have disastrously exiled themselves."

Nothing could or would dissuade the author from this conviction. When asked (30 years after his conversion) whether he had any doubts about the teachings of the Church, Waugh responded very simply, "No."

Love of the Latin Mass

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The Second Vatican Council

As faithful Catholics today face sweeping restrictions on the Traditional Latin Mass — ushered in under Traditionis Custodes — Waugh perhaps offers some guidance on how to respond and certainly offers a surprising model of patience worth imitating.

In the 1960s, amid growing concerns over the Second Vatican Council and the influence of modernists over the council, Waugh came down heavily on the side of tradition, particularly as manifest in the Mass.

Revolution-minded clerics introduced newer and newer "reforms," focusing their attention on the Liturgy, so Waugh spoke up on behalf of the laity who actually attended that Liturgy:

We hold the creeds, we attempt to observe the moral law, we go to Mass on days of obligation and glance rather often at the vernacular translations of the Latin. ... We go to some inconvenience to educate our children in the Faith. ... In every age we have formed the main body of "the faithful," and we believe that it was for us, as much as for the saints and for the notorious sinners, that the Church was founded.

Waugh railed against what had been done to the Mass he and so many others loved so deeply, a Mass which indeed formed the core of his faith.

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He wrote a long series of letters to his archbishop, Cdl. John Carmel Heenan, discussing the possible pitfalls of many of the conciliar reforms and the likely response of the laity. He believed the introduction of the vernacular to be unnecessary and the mandating of the vernacular to be disgraceful:

This was the Mass for whose restoration the Elizabethan martyrs had gone to the scaffold. Saint Augustine, St. Thomas à Becket, St. Thomas More, Challoner and Newman would have been perfectly at their ease among us; were, in fact, present there with us. ... Their presence would not have been more palpable had we been making the responses aloud in the modern fashion.

Waugh maintained his steadfast devotion to the Church and the Mass, though he admitted the Novus Ordo Mass "leaves me without comfort or edification. I shall never, pray God, apostatize but churchgoing is now a bitter trial."

The spiritual home Waugh had found in Rome was, in his estimation, left cold and barren by the banishment of the old Mass.

Against a Lay-Run Church

Waugh further feared the advent of many of the dangers Catholic face today, particularly those bred of the liberalized attempts at "synodality."

"I detect a new kind of anticlericalism," he wrote to Cdl. Heenan. "The new anticlericals seem to minimize the sacramental character of the priesthood and to suggest that the laity are their equals."

Waugh's fears are becoming a reality.

With the Amazon Synod proposing female deacons, the German Synodal Way continually devolving, Detroit's archbishop elevating laymen above his own priests, and faithful pastors like Fr. James Altman and Fr. Jeff Fasching being hounded out of parishes by weak bishops and a minority of modernist churchgoers, Waugh's fears are becoming a reality.

Bringing Up Children for God

In the face of such difficulties and knowing there were more to come, Waugh seemingly found a balance between the "Benedict option" and what one might call the "Boniface option." Though he worked and even fought in the secular world — writing editorials and essays vocally opposing vice — he lived his life at home and in the Church.

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Evelyn Waugh and his family

As a faithful husband and father of seven, Waugh believed his God-given role in life was to raise saints: "My service is simply to bring up one family."

The Church was the anchor Waugh sought throughout his early life — and he clung tightly to it once he discovered it.

He died Easter Sunday, 1966, after attending a private Latin Mass and receiving the Blessed Sacrament. At the author's requiem Mass, Fr. Philip Caraman proclaimed, "The Mass mattered for him most in this world."

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