Evelyn Waugh, Cardinal Heenan and Bitter Trials

Ignatius Press has just published a third (!) edition of A Bitter Trial, correspondence between Evelyn Waugh and Cardinal Heenan in the years from 1962 till Waugh’s death in 1966—supplemented by some other letters and diary entries of Waugh’s, an article in The Tablet, and some of Heenan’s pastoral letters about Vatican II and liturgical renewal. The introduction, by Alcuin Reid, may be read here, and it is not too expensive to download the ebook.

Waugh is of course a brilliant stylist and good read, even for those of us who find his personality and religious opinions repellent. His pain at the impending changes is expressed sharply, angrily, trenchantly. In a diary entry he eventually accuses Heenan of being ‘double faced’—perhaps fairly, but perhaps also without due sympathy for Heenan’s position, trapped as he was between his own conservative instincts, dictates from above over which he had no real influence, and the conflicts among those whom he had to serve. At any rate, the interplay anticipates only too well the pain and conflict surrounding the new translationese and its high-handed imposition.

I suspect that Waugh was attached so deeply to the emotional symbolisms of the old liturgy because they contained the conflicts in his personality, and enabled him psychically to survive—just as Brideshead’s exotic, arbitrary Catholicism somehow stabilizes the Marchmain family and helps them cope with their turmoils. Waugh compares the Mass to ‘a hunting-field, with the priest as the huntsman, paid to find and kill the fox’, while others tag along at whatever level of closeness they can cope with. As a new convert, Waugh was drawn not by ‘splendid ceremonies’ but by ‘the spectacle of the priest and his server at low Mass, stumping up to the altar … a craftsman and his apprentice; a man with a job which he alone was qualified to do’. They set to work ‘without a glance to those behind them, still less with any intention to make a personal impression on them’.

The separation of the Mass’s ritual from how the faithful happened to be feeling or believing, the idea of ex opere operato, was something Waugh deeply needed.  Ironically, the thought-pattern here resembles Luther’s idea of a righteousness that is aliena—otherish: precisely not dependent on moral or spiritual performance. Vatican II’s changes, for better or worse, were far closer to a Tridentine understanding of grace: an insistence that it is we ourselves, in all our unattractiveness, who are intrinsically transformed. For Waugh this shift of emphasis (though he died before he could experience the full reform) was deeply threatening: an affliction wished on the unsuspecting English by ex-Nazi Germans.

Nevertheless, though Waugh was viscerally opposed to the liturgical movement, he was not blindly authoritarian. He recognised the need for some reform in the Church. His 1962 Tablet article raised questions about the Index of Forbidden Books, as well as calling for a reform of Church courts (was his own experience of the annulment procedures coming through?), and—most strikingly—requesting a clarification of the limits of episcopal authority over the consciences of ordinary Catholics. In many parts of the world,

… it is common to see a proclamation enjoining the faithful “on pain of mortal sin” to vote in a parliamentary election or abstain from certain entertainments. Have our bishops in fact the right to bandy threats of eternal damnation in this way?

Waugh’s plea here, for differentiation in the way official directives are received, is surely well made. Whatever was said about the Church as communio in Lumen gentium, we remain without effective checks and balances, at least of a procedural kind, on hierarchical authority. There is much good will and commitment in the Church, obviously—but the structures enabling and requiring us to learn from the resultant wisdom and experience, in all its diversity, are lacking. Given that absence, the Church’s government, in our own time just as in Waugh’s, cannot easily make executive acts without appearing dictatorial and high-handed. In particular, it is hard for liturgical change—at least beyond small intentional communities—to be organic and peaceful. Real spiritual harm is done to those who need liturgy to take a particular symbolic shape. The point applies to reactionaries and progressives alike.


10 responses to “Evelyn Waugh, Cardinal Heenan and Bitter Trials”

  1. Jan Baldwin Avatar
    Jan Baldwin

    Interesting analysis. I agree partially. I think real spiritual harm may be perceived by the few with very outlying stances; I’m not sure how actual it is.

    I think that there are a few people in the church in each of these extreme situations, but most Catholics aren’t in one of these extremes. I really think that most people go to mass for more or less the right reasons, and then get on with life, if you want to know the truth. It’s a beautiful thing. Not perfect, but still beautiful.

    I’m a convert and I’ve watched the church for many years. There are a relative few people in the Church who do seem to be fighting their own battles that seem to spill over into their liturgical needs in this powerful way, sometimes to become very public and difficult for others to watch.

    For instance, some people view authority in general with horror, but I always wonder how much of that is really properly directed at the Church and how much of it originated in all actuality from somewhere else in their upbringing or memory….that overbearing parent or punitive schoolteacher lurking in the memory’s distant eye or even adolescent ideas long-gone whose lovely impressions remain. All of these are tough spots to be in since such attitudes appear to be totally justified to their owners but ultimately most other people don’t seem to respond as expected.

    And for another instance, there are people who cannot capture religious activity unless it’s in some kind of highly codified ritual above and beyond what the Church ever implements or intends-and yes-even over and above the new translation or any of the pronouncements of the Holy See. In fact, some of it exceeds any translation efforts or pronouncements the Church is ever likely to come up with. These people are in as tough a spot as people who suffered from their teachers/parents or who live in an arrested world of their own making, for they are also in a world of their own making.

  2. crystal watson Avatar

    It’s good to know that there may be others who find some of Waugh’s ideas repellent 🙂 most of the Catholic commentary I’ve seen on him has been almost worhipful.

    I’m a convert too, and maybe that makes a difference in how I see things in the church, but I do not think those who are disturbed by dictatorial authority are simply reacting to their childhood bugaboos. I had a teacher who used to say that the leaders and governments that were the most severe and rigid, that allowed for the least amount of criticism from below and punished disobedience most harshly were those that perceived themselves as weak. It takes strength and courage and love and faith to respect the experience of those not ruling. This quote from William Barry SJ kind of fits ….

    — In Experience and God John E. Smith affirms the necessity of shared experience for a religious community: “A living religion, or rather a religion which hopes to save its life, cannot ultimately afford to avoid the critical test of shared experience. On the contrary, from shared experience comes its life.” So too new life for the church’s ministry may only come by reflecting on shared experience. —

  3. Jan Baldwin Avatar
    Jan Baldwin


    I haven’t read Waugh and probably should, just to get the context of this and see if he’s repellent or not. Not having read him, I can’t say if he fits into either of the extremes, actually.

    Some people do fall into those extremes, however. We have a few miserable people on the ideological fringes of the Church, far left and far right alike, so there is always some wrangling over anything the Church does, which appears as a sort of background clatter. It’s best to just avoid this kind of outlying weirdness whenever possible, I’ve found.

    It’s nice to meet you. I’ve been Catholic for more than 25 years now, coming originally from an evangelical background. How about you?

  4. crystal watson Avatar

    I’ve been Catholic for about 15 years – I was an agnostic/atheist before that (so maybe “convert” is the worng word for me?). Nice to meet you too.

  5. Bill deHaas Avatar

    Would like to hear from our English commentors on Waugh – he is an interesting figure but, like some other high profile converts, his thinking, spirituality, etc. is very personal and doesn’t really apply to most US Catholics.

  6. crystal watson Avatar

    Off subject maybe, but I came acoss this page of poetry on liturgy translation today at Eureka Street … http://www.eurekastreet.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=28807

  7. Mark Miller Avatar
    Mark Miller

    Interesting that bringing up Waugh’s very personal reaction to Vatican II’s reforms takes us into a deeper consideration about all this. Jan’s analysis takes us in a new direction.

    It is even (sort of) touching to hear Waugh’s funny little simile of the hunt. It really does capture out loud what the old low mass meant for many. But wasn’t he always, even then, just plain wrong from a theological point of view? He just didn’t get it, and didn’t want to be joined to an assembly worshiping together. So he hated the reforms. Of course.

    1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
      Jordan Zarembo

      Like Waugh, I have a very deep love of the Low Mass. I have read his laments. I would have felt the same way if the Low Mass were snatched out from under my feet. Indeed, I have lived for four years without the Tridentine Low Mass, and I can count the months and days until I can once again bask in its glory.

      Yes, “bask”. The postmodern Christian notion of “assembly” (a conjectured, reconstructed, and idealized ecclesia) is quite eager to toss aside contemplation and pietism. An alternative view to “assembly” is “presence”. The foremost “presence” is at the altar, where Christ enters our world in the re-presentation of Calvary for our sins, and feeds us with his grace in Holy Communion. At Low Mass, the congregation need say nothing, because their hearts and minds are elevated towards the sacramental action before them in union with the angels and Universal Church. What could we mortals say that explain about the Mass better than the Consecration, anyway? Better, then, to be united with Him as we kneel at the true Sacrifice.

      Neither I nor Waugh understand “assembly”, the reconstructed ecclesia around which postmodern liturgy turns. All I know, and I suspect Waugh knew, is that Mass is the Rood, and that we are privileged to kneel at its side. This is a inestimable comfort that was cruelly ripped from Waugh’s heart and mind.

      1. Jordan Zarembo Avatar
        Jordan Zarembo


        What could we mortals say that explain about the Mass better than the Consecration, anyway?

        Might better read

        What could we mortals say that might explain the Mass better than the Consecration, anyway?

        In all things, charity. Beyond that, hire a good editor.

        I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if a line similar to my gaffe has passed into the revised translation. In that case, an ad-lib might well be appropriate.

  8. Jordan DeJonge Avatar
    Jordan DeJonge

    My deepest sympathies are with Waugh and Jordan above. All I know is that the dissonance exposed between the Traditional Mass and the New Mass has largely driven me to the very fringes of the Communion, to the point that I quite often wonder if Roman Catholicism is not largely a game that has had its day. Perhaps my theology “is way off base”, but I have no desire to be “participatory” or an “assembly” in the sense that PT so ceaselessly promotes.

    It is the very fact that the appointed caste is able to objectively carry out the mysteries which so far surpass my own worthiness, shadowing as it were, the unseen mysteries of the invisible order on the screen of the temporal, that I have much interest in Catholic ritual and its now abandoned imaginary. Catholicism has been the most bitter disappointment of my spiritual life, though I am trying to soldier on.

    I don’t understand why “reformed” liturgy just doesn’t give full way to Protestantism.

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