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Evelyn Waugh Predicted the Collapse of Catholic England

He saw Vatican II as an attempt by elites to foist changes on a laity that didn't want them.
Evelyn Waugh

Imagine a society enfeebled by constant, top-down, progressivist experimentation offering universal, programmatic solutions to problems that are either inherently localist or transcendent. Imagine an intellectual elite who are arrogantly uninterested in—and perhaps conscientiously deaf to—the concerns of ordinary, working-class people. Imagine a media that serves as a microphone for this elite, actively avoiding stories that don’t harmonize with their enlightened narrative.

This probably sounds a bit like the milieu that resulted the cultural distemper of the 2016 presidential election and that still largely defines American politics today. It is also, interestingly, a description of the liturgical changes imposed upon the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom during the 1960s, as painfully described in A Bitter Trial, a series of correspondences between English Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan.

The liturgical changes in question stemmed directly from the Second Vatican Council, which met from 1962 to 1965. For many, the council was, in the famous words of Pope John XXIII, a chance to “open the windows [of the Church] and let in some fresh air.” This was not so much the case for Waugh, who loudly (though unsuccessfully) protested the radical transformations foisted upon Catholic worship. These changes included an emphasis on vernacular languages over Latin, a revised lectionary, and significant alterations to the components of the Mass. Waugh’s words in response to this revolution are arresting: “Church-going is now a bitter trial,” he wrote. Elsewhere he said, “the Vatican Council has knocked the guts out of me.” To a friend, he wrote, “I have not yet soaked myself in petrol and gone up in flames, but I now cling to the Faith doggedly without joy.” In another letter to a cleric, he sought to know the least he was “obliged to do without grave sin.” This is remarkable, coming from one of the most famous Catholic writers of the 20th century, one who had previously adored the Mass.

One of Waugh’s most persistent criticisms of the liturgical changes is that progressive, elitist-driven experimentation hurts ordinary people the most, undermining their confidence in important institutions. Vatican II represented, in Waugh’s mind, a rejection of the needs and opinions of local people. “A vociferous minority has imposed itself on the hierarchy and made them believe that a popular demand existed where there was in fact not even a preference,” he warned.

Nor were parish priests, the local leaders who best understand the common man, sufficiently consulted. Waugh wrote: “I know of none whose judgment I would prefer to that of the simplest parish priest. Sharp minds may explore the subtlest verbal problems, but in the long routine of the seminary and the life spent with the Offices of the Church the truth is most likely to emerge.”

Waugh went unheeded, though many subsequently acknowledged the truth of his admonitions. Cardinal Heenan in a 1967 pastoral letter acknowledged that “bishop after bishop in the Synod rose to complain that his people are thoroughly tired of the constant changes.” Heenan and later Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) accused the Council of failing to consult ordinary parish priests and laity, preferring instead the opinions of “specialists and experts.” Catholic scholar Alcuin Reid has similarly noted that “to change ritual is to risk altering the faith, particularly that of simple folk.”

The great author of Brideshead Revisited also perceived in the changes an attempt to reorganize the Church into an institution focused primarily on community and social reform rather than transcendent worship. He wrote disparagingly of one famous priest who “wishes to have a ‘priest-president’ who will conduct a ‘sort of town meeting’ to discuss social projects. The people would discuss their worries and share their ‘developing insights.’ The priest-president will sum up, giving the ‘ancient Eucharistic prayer a whole new tone and content.’”

Waugh found this entirely wrongheaded, arguing that such an approach would drive people away from church. “Awe is the natural predisposition to prayer. When young theologians talk, as they do, of Holy Communion as a ‘social meal’ they find little response in the hearts and minds of their less sophisticated brothers.” Elsewhere he cautioned: “If the Mass is changed in form so as to emphasize its social character, many souls will find themselves put at a further distance from their true aim.” Indeed, in attempting to turn the Mass “into a parish meeting” that replicates other social organizations, the Church undermined its transcendent function in society.

Finally, Waugh (and Heenan) argued that the reform movement embraced a modernist paradigm that pitted traditionalists against intellectual progressives, the latter manipulating the media to both direct and narrow the conversation and silence alternative opinions. Heenan observed that the reform was driven by self-described “intellectuals” whose “constant nagging” and “tiresome letters to the press and articles in the Catholic papers may eventually disturb the faithful.” Moreover, Heenan noted, “the voice of the laity” was largely ignored by the media, as were conservative leaders in the Church, whom intellectuals painted as “mitred peasants.” Waugh argued, “the function of the Church in every age has been conservative—to transmit undiminished and uncontaminated the creed inherited from its predecessors. Not ‘is this fashionable notion one that we should accept?’” Indeed, what is “fashionable” is usually identifiable not with what the ordinary man on the street wants, but what elites desire.

The great irony of the liturgical reforms of 1960s Catholicism is that rather than bring new faces into the Church, they drove people away. During the 1930s, there were 12,000 English converts a year to Catholicism. Yet Church attendance among Catholics in Britain has been on a steady decline ever since Vatican II. As Joseph Pearce observes:

It is a singularly intriguing fact that the preconciliar Church was so effective in evangelizing modern culture, whereas the number of converts to the faith seemed to diminish in the sixties and seventies in direct proportion to the presence of the much-vaunted aggiornamento, the muddle-headed belief that the Church needed to be brought “up-to-date.”

Progressivist elites, through their adroit manipulation of the media and effective appeals to their own intellectual and theological expertise, did incredible damage to English Catholicism. They misunderstood both the human person and human society. They ignored the common man’s sense of his own needs, while foisting upon him programmatic solutions that positivist anti-Catholic thinker Auguste Comte had yearned to implement. By the 1960s, modernism and technological advancements had already fashioned a culture unprecedented for its level of isolation and atomization. Progressivist Church leaders, eager to upend time-proven traditions, only accelerated this process.

Americans, both traditionalists and progressivists, should take note. The more one seeks to radically (and dictatorially) transform a people and their ways of life, the more one works to destroy that people, taking from them the beliefs and practices that give their lives stability and purpose. If Americans want to avoid the tempestuous times that ravaged the postconciliar Catholic Church (and of which, sadly, we are still suffering the consequences), they should heed well the warnings of Evelyn Waugh.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.