Evelyn Waugh’s Bitter Trial

“It must be observed that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.” St.Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, II, q. 33, a. 45

 “The road to hell is paved with the bones of erring priests, with bishops as their sign posts.” St. John Chrysostom

 “Who’s going to save our Church? It’s not our bishops, it’s not our priests, and it is not the religious. It is up to you, the people…. Your mission is to see that the priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and the religious act like religious.” Fulton J. Sheen, Venerable Servant of God

A Bitter Trial (2011) is a slim volume of letters exchanged between the English writer Evelyn Waugh, of Brideshead Revisited fame, and John Cardinal Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster. The deeply conservative Waugh had been converted to the Catholic Church thirty years earlier, and had always believed that the profoundly beautiful liturgy of the Church had been among his decisive reasons for converting. Now in his last years and in failing health, it gradually dawned upon him in a state approaching panic that the Vatican Council was about to transform Catholic liturgy into something nearly, or actually, horrible. Consequently, in 1962, during the first year of the council, Waugh began his correspondence with Cardinal Heenan, reputedly of a conservative bent, to discuss the grave situation developing.

But first, in an article published in the November, 1962 issue of The Spectator titled “The Same Again, Please,” Waugh discharged his shot across the bow against the much vaunted wisdom of liturgical reform. Yet Waugh seemed to be pulling his punches, for the remarks made there were softly couched in charitable criticism of the general movement toward liturgical reform. Waugh recognizes that serious theologians want to restore the Mass to some semblance of what it likely was in the early centuries. Yet he is not certain that the people want this, or that they will respond favorably to the significant changes contemplated. After all, the early practices of the Church gained momentum toward the depths of beauty and awe over the centuries, and the centuries had been kind to these practices by virtue of the inspiration and reverence they had produced in the common worshipers. Doubtless Waugh was thinking of his own attraction to the liturgy as one reason for his conversion. Had the hundreds of millions of Catholics through the centuries not been pleased to worship according to the Old Order? Would hundreds of millions more be won over to the Church by the argument that simplicity and the “social gathering” aspect of worship so dear to Protestants, if adopted by the Church, would result in stunning ecumenical progress? Waugh did not think so.

Two points are worth stressing here. With respect to redesigning the worship area in the churches, Waugh despised the movement toward circular constructions of the sanctuary. He predicted that people looking straight into each others’ faces instead of at each others backs would detract from their attention to the priest at the altar. As he notes: “The late Father Couturier, the French Dominican, was very active in enlisting the service of atheists in designing aids to devotion, but tourists are more common than worshipers in the churches he inspired.” Waugh also doubted the notion that not celebrating Mass in Latin would be a real plus for the experience of worship. In a remark some may find offensive, Waugh opines: “I think it highly doubtful that the average churchgoer either needs or desires to have complete intellectual, verbal comprehension of all that is said.”

Archbishop Heenan responded immediately by letter, congratulating Waugh on his article and agreeing with everything in it. He noted sadly that the European bishops were turning themselves inside out trying to please the Protestant observers at the Council. Heenan offered that had Waugh spoken sooner (say a year earlier) he might have helped galvanize second thoughts about the stampede toward liturgical reform. Two years later Heenan wrote a pastoral letter on the Vatican Council in which he advised his flock not to be worried about too many changes or not enough changes in the liturgy. He urged that the bishops would steer the right course, and that “nothing will be changed except for the good of souls.” It is very clear from this letter that Heenan saw the growing controversies as an opportunity for Catholics to learn more about their faith and be ready to defend it by reading more pamphlets and standing up against the bigotry and intolerance of those who would attack the Church.

In a diary entry during Easter of 1964 Waugh expresses admiration for the priest who performs his service at Mass with his back to the people. It humbles him to do so, and removes the stigma of ego that might otherwise infect him. Thus he and the people are focused together on the tabernacle before them wherein lies the Body of Christ. Waugh then writes a letter to the editor of “The Times” in which he disagrees with another letter writer who lamented the likelihood that the death of the Latin Mass would result in “splitting the Catholic Church in England from top to bottom.” More likely, Waugh suggested, it would result only in church-going becoming more irksome, yet dutifully done.

In a 1964 letter to The Catholic Herald Waugh expressed his concern that reforms of the liturgy were progressive, meaning anti-conservative; but the Church is essentially conservative because only by conservatism can the teachings of the Church be kept intact. As Waugh notes, “Throughout her entire life the Church has been at active war with enemies from without and traitors from within.” Waugh does not articulate the point, but he likely was thinking that the progressive push for liturgical reform was only to test the waters for reform of the creed both by the enemies from without and more especially by the enemies within. Indeed, many will agree with Waugh that this is what has happened ever since Vatican II,  as liberal bishops have combined in virtually every nation to water down the traditional teachings of the Church.

On August 1, 1964 Waugh sent his first letter to Archbishop Heenan. He enclosed a copy of his letter to The Catholic Herald and, on behalf of those (some of them converts) who had read his letter and cheered him on to lead the conservative cause, he asked Heenan: “Why were we led out of the church of our childhood to find the church of our adoption assuming the very forms we disliked?” Moreover, Waugh inquired, why had there been no middle ground sought or even suggested by pastors, such as a Sunday Mass in Latin for the traditionalists and another in English for the reformists?

To which the Archbishop kindly replied that the reforms demanded by the progressives came mostly from European intellectuals who were tireless (and tiresome!) in their persistence, and who regarded the bishops mostly as “mitred peasants.” Heenan feared that the laity would lose respect for the bishops if the matter was not favorably settled in time, but he admitted the Church was on a path to liturgical reform that could not be stopped, nor were the changes contemplated so great as they appeared; yet the bishops would have to go along with whatever Rome decreed. Heenan closed his letter by inviting Waugh to “dine with me if ever you come to London.” On August 4th Waugh replied very briefly that he feared more than anything else the new anti-clericalism of the progressives, that they were stepping lightly on tradition for the moment, but would be trampling on it before long. In closing, Waugh suggested he and the Archbishop meet “alone and incognito at my London club.” Heenan agreed only to a private meeting at his residence, and offered that Waugh was right to comment on the pretensions of the so-called Priesthood of the Laity, wherein “The Mass is no longer the Holy Sacrifice but the meal at which the priest is the waiter. The bishop, I suppose, is the head waiter and the Pope the Patron.”

There is no reference in A Bitter Trial to what was discussed at the private meeting between Waugh and Heenan, but it seems that a friendship had at least begun, because in less than three months Waugh was writing to Heenan in a very casual way that the new Mass left him totally confused as to how it might attract Protestants, if that was supposed to have been one aim of its new form. The perfunctory English version left him suffering a bitter trial “without comfort or edification,” and he begged Heenan to take up the matter with his fellow bishops; to which Heenan replied that the Mass now was indeed “an untidy mess,” but that his priests were reporting general satisfaction among the laity, even some who were initially critical of the changes.

During Lent of 1965 the last session of Vatican II was about to begin. Heenan in a pastoral letter admitted that the Council had exhausted the patience and tolerance of many, contrary to its intention, which was to “renovate the Church and to foster Christian unity.” Yes, he conceded, some controversies had given scandal to the faithful (he does not point to any in particular) and much pain has resulted. Addressing the abandonment of the Latin Mass, Heenan assured his flock that customs in the Church have changed through the centuries; doubtless they too were resisted from time to time, yet the Holy Spirit can be counted on to guide the Church in such a way that all will turn out right in the end.

By Easter of 1965 Waugh wrote in his diary that he despaired of saving the liturgy. As he saw it, though controversies raged on between the conservatives and the liberals, the main congregation of Catholics seemed not to care a hoot about the changes. He had ceased to get much from going to Mass, and only went now as “an act of  duty and obedience.” Then he takes on the archbishop: “Cardinal Heenan has been double-faced in the matter…. he expressed complete sympathy with the conservatives and, as I understood him, promised resistance to the innovations he is now pressing forward…. The Catholic Press has made no opposition. I shall not live to see things righted.”

Waugh also wrote to Christopher Sykes, “The hierarchy are like the Gadarene swine.” (See the Gospel of Mark 5:1-20)

In a letter to The Tablet, Waugh bemoaned the publication’s defense of liturgical changes, especially the abandonment of the Latin Mass. He also pointed to the absurd practice at a church in Oklahoma of parishioners crowding around the altar strumming guitars instead of kneeling during the consecration and elevating of the Host. Waugh complained: “But language is merely a question of aesthetics. I detect graver dangers to the Faith, aong them a lowering of respect for the office of the priesthood and episcopate in the talk of ‘the people of God’ as consecrating the elements.” Moreover, the fasting requirement for receiving Communion had been radically reduced, to which Waugh replied, “If, as they claim, the liturgists wish to emulate the Church of the earliest centuries, would they not do well to fast rigorously?”

Three months before Waugh’s death Cardinal Heenan, having returned from Rome, reassured Waugh that things were not so bad as they seemed. Waugh replied politely to Heenan’s brief letter, but wrote to Lady Diana Mosley: “I have become very old in the last two years. Not diseased, but enfeebled. There is nowhere I want to go and nothing I want to do and I am conscious of being an utter bore. The Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me.” Ten days before his death, Waugh wrote again to Lady Mosley: “Easter used to mean so much to me before Pope John and his Council – they destroyed the beauty of the liturgy. I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the faith doggedly without joy.”

Evelyn Waugh died in his home on Easter Sunday, 1966, after returning from a Mass celebrated in Latin. Father Philip Caraman gave the panegyric at a Requiem Mass attended by Cardinal Heenan. Speaking of Waugh’s last days and his disappointment with the new liturgy, Caraman observed, “It was a struggle to accept it all, but he did accept it, and with enviable fidelity. The calmness that was evident in his last weeks of life was a sign that the struggle had been won. To those who were with him on his final day – his family and a priest – nothing was more manifest than the way God had arranged his end as a mark of gratitude to a faithful servant.”

The following year Cardinal Heenan made remarks to the Synod of Bishops in Rome that he hoped the changes in the liturgy would not move so rapidly as to leave the faithful stunned and confused. Evidently smarting from the independence of the liturgists, he said, “I confess in all seriousness that I am uneasy lest the liturgists say, ‘These bishops know nothing about liturgy.’” Heenan cautioned that attention given to scriptural readings should not exceed emphasis on Eucharistic prayer. Also, every effort must be made to stress the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Likewise, the practices of Perpetual Adoration of the Sacrament and Benediction should be preserved.

Over the next two years the Cardinal issued two pastoral letters on the liturgy. In both letters he gave assurance that some way ought to be found to preserve the Latin Mass, at least on occasion, for those who love it. But he also declared that Mass in the mother tongue was winning over many and making it possible for children to be more favorably attentive. On balance, Heenan seems to have edged his way toward acceptance of liturgical reform, declaring in the long run “… we shall have cause to thank God for the second Vatican Council…”

Post Script

It is worth remembering one of Waugh’s prescient insights; namely, that an abundance of liturgical reform might open the door to challenging traditional Church teachings. Nowhere is this more transparent than in the recent case of German bishops petitioning Rome to rule on whether priests ought to bless same-sex unions. The verdict from Rome, approved by Pope Francis, is as follows:

…since blessings on persons are in relationship with the sacraments, the blessing of homosexual unions cannot be considered licit. This is because they would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of Matrimony, while in fact “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

 This is perhaps a hopeful sign: that, whereas sexual politics seems to have taken the world by storm, and whereas political correctness everywhere condemns resistance to its perverse sway, the Catholic Church still stands adamant against blessing the sins of the flesh, as it always must and will.

The beat goes on. Some well known Catholics (and not just a few in very high places) champion the right of a mother to kill her unborn child. More strangely, many Catholics have somehow learned to deny the Real Presence in the Eucharist. These developments would have been unimaginable fifty  years ago. The Vatican has firmly resisted heresy in these matters, but is it mere coincidence that the ongoing decline of orthodoxy among both clergy and laity seems to have begun with the collapse of the liturgy after Vatican II? Those who think Evelyn Waugh’s “bitter trial” to be overplayed, and that he was just the case of an old man losing his mind, may want to think again. He was following the advice of Archbishop Fulton Sheen to the laity: “Your mission is to see that the priests act like priests, your bishops act like bishops, and the religious act like religious.”

Alas, in this morning’s mail we see a furious reply from the bishops of Belgium to the Vatican’s rejection of priests blessing same-sex marriages. No doubt it must be so that somehow, as always, Christ and Mother Mary protect our Holy Church from its enemies without and from its traitors within.