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Christianity or Chaos: The life-changing choice of Evelyn Waugh


Tod Worner - published on 08/22/16

"[Europe] came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance."

It was considered scandalous. Inexplicable. What was he thinking? How could he do it? Enlightened opinion-makers and fashionable friends were apoplectic. Evelyn Waugh, England’s darling modernist writer and amusing cynic, had become a Catholic.

But why?

Immediately upon hearing the news, the gossip industry caught fire. How had the “ultramodernist become an ultramontanist”? How could the shocking wit who fathered novels such as Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies fall sway to the stiff and stultifying orthodoxy of the Catholic Church? Shortly thereafter, London’s Daily Express devoted several sensational disquisitions on the topic leading with the splashy:

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

And so, weeks later, afforded a full page in the October 20, 1930 Daily Express, Evelyn Waugh would answer. His essay was titled, Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me.”

At first, Waugh shrugged off three assertions leveled by his detractors:

1) The Jesuits have got hold of him,2) He is captivated by the ritual,  3) He wants to have his mind made up for him.

And then, he said this,

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, dim-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…Today we can see [the loss of Christian faith]…as the active negation of all that western culture has stood for. 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. The loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanized state… It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests…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 second discovery is that Christianity exists in its most complete and vital form in the Roman Catholic Church. I do not mean any impertinence to the many devout Anglicans and Protestants who are leading lives of great devotion and benevolence; I do find, however, that other religious bodies, however fine the example of certain individual members, show unmistakable signs that they are not fitted for the conflict in which Christianity is engaged. For instance, it seems to me a necessary sign of completeness and vitality in a religious body that its teaching shall be coherent and consistent. If its own mind is not made up, it can hardly hope to withstand disorder from outside…Another essential sign one looks for is competent organization and discipline. Obedience to superiors and the habit of submitting personal idiosyncracies to the demands of office seems to be sure signs of a real priesthood…Most important of all, it seems to me that any religious body which is not by nature universal cannot claim to represent complete Christianity…No one visiting a Roman Catholic country can fail to be struck by the fact that the people do use their churches. It is not a matter of going to a service on Sunday; all classes at all hours of the day can be seen dropping in on their way to and from their work…The Protestant attitude seems often to be, ‘I am good; therefore I go to church,’ while the Catholic’s is, ‘I am very far from good; therefore I go to church.”

Evelyn Waugh was a brilliant yet difficult man. But in 1930, he was a changed man. With wit and honesty, he once claimed, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” Waugh, the modernist writer and darling of the literary social scene, came to understand the blackness of sin and brilliance of redemptive Grace embodied by Christ and made tangible in the Sacraments in the Catholic Church.

Evelyn Waugh made a choice between Christianity and Chaos.

Have you?

To read Evelyn Waugh’s essay in full, please consider purchasing The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh (Donat Gallagher, Editor).

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