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The Conversion of Evelyn Waugh & the Fine Art of Keeping One's Head


Seventy-four years ago this week, the great English novelist Evelyn Waugh became a Catholic. He converted because he believed it was either the Church or chaos. 

"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." - Evelyn Waugh

waugh65 It was an unexpected comment, to be sure.  After all, it came from the vogue British novelist who penned the wildly popular satires Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.  But perhaps the occasion on which he chose to say this would excuse that which he said.  He was announcing his divorce to his brother.  His wife of barely two years was cheating on him.  Ah.  That must explain it.  Sour grapes, hyperbole and a being the cuckold collectively made "our Evelyn" say such rubbish.  What he needs is a stiff drink and to write another novel.


But one year later, in September, 1930 (74 years ago yesterday, in fact), Evelyn Waugh would be received into the Catholic Church.  And it would be considered deliciously scandalous.  London's Daily Express licked its lips as it witnessed yet another bright young thing (in the wake of G.K.Chesterton, Ronald Knox, Graham Greene and Maurice Baring) enter the Church of Rome.

"Another Author Turns to Rome, Mr. Evelyn Waugh Leaves Church of England, Young Satirist of Mayfair"

rang out the Express' headline.  And what would follow, of course, would be the conjecture of how this "ultramodernist became and ultramontanist".  Letters and editorials would submit various far-flung theories to explain the irrational, unconscionable act of this otherwise level-headed, brilliantly edgy writer.  Among these was the "longing for permanency", the fatigue with the enlightened cocktail hour, a desire for ritual and a need for others to make up his mind for him.

Waugh would receive this with his characteristic wry aplomb.  And three weeks later, he would provide an answer in a tightly written editorial for the Daily Express titled

"Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me"

And here's what he said,

"I think one has to look deeper before one will find the reason why in England today the Roman Church is recruiting so many men and women who are not notably gullible, dull-witted or eccentric. It seems to me that in the present phase of European history the essential issue is no longer between Catholicism, on one side, and Protestantism, on the other, but between Christianity and Chaos."

What did Evelyn Waugh mean by this? 1930 was a year of great tumult in the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, the ruthless consolidation of Stalin's Communist Russia and the rabid barking emerging from the rising German National Socialists.  The very trembling of Western civilization's foundation was palpable to Waugh, but he wondered if others could feel it too.

"Civilization — and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organization of Europe — has not in itself the power of survival.  It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance…That is the first discovery, that Christianity is essential to civilization and that it is in greater need of combative strength than it has been for centuries."

The collectivism of Soviet Communism subsumed the individual into the masses, crushing him, if need be, for the "greater good".  The racial hygiene of National Socialism preached the unfit nature and brutal expendability of any and all who did not fit the biological dictates of the master race.  And the decadence of modern society cheapened and discarded dignity if only for one more drink, one more tryst, one more night at the clubs.  The edifice of each of these worldviews was built on the splinters and shards of a shattered human dignity rendering the resultant facades mean, twisted and grotesque.  And yet millions clamored after them, nonetheless.

 In G.K. Chesterton's classic, Orthodoxy, he discusses the ease with which we fall into such errant thinking,

"To have fallen into any one of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect have set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands."

In essence, the age is going to propose all sorts of fashionable, attractive notions for us to believe and movements for us to follow, but it doesn't mean they are true nor that we should believe or follow them.  Or as Chesterton would remind,

"It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own."

Catholicism, Waugh would reason, is the only effective counter for these ideologies — the only reasonable and enduring rebuttal for this age.  Yes, it is universal, tightly ordered and organized and firmly rooted in Truth, but it is also openly and honestly comprised of failures, might-have-beens and ne'er-do-wells.  The success of Catholicism is its failures.  And its failures are those who sin, recognize it and honestly seek absolution…again and again and again.

In Evelyn Waugh's 1947 novella, Scott-King's Modern Europe, a classics professor returns to his English school from an eye-opening trip abroad which showed the terrors concealed by the modern world's deceptive promises and false ideals.  When asked by the headmaster to teach some "popular subject in addition to the classics" since the classics are unpopular and "Parents are not interested in producing the 'complete man' anymore.", Scott-King blanches.  The headmaster continues,

"[Parents] want to qualify their boys for jobs in the public world.  You can hardly blame them, can you?"

The professor, Scott-King, resolves,

"Oh, yes.  I can and I do.  I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world."

After all, we must keep our heads.  Mustn't we? 

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Tod Worner. "The Conversion of Evelyn Waugh & the Fine Art of Keeping One's Head." A Catholic Thinker (patheos) (September 29, 2014).

Reprinted with permission from the author, Tod Worner

The Author

Copyright © 2014 Tod Worner

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