by Joseph Pearce
"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 it on all sides 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 . . . to accept the benefits of civilization and at the same time deny the supernatural basis upon which it rests."
These fighting words, written by the novelist Evelyn Waugh in an article entitled “Converted to Rome: Why It Has Happened to Me,” were published in October 1930 in Britain’s Daily Express. Waugh’s full-page banner-headlined article followed two leading articles in the Express discussing the significance of his recent reception into the Catholic Church. On the day after the publication of Waugh’s article, E. Rosslyn Mitchell, a Protestant MP, wrote a reply, and, on the following day, Father Woodlock, a Jesuit, added “Is Britain Turning to Rome?” Three days later an entire page was given over to the ensuing letters.
Seldom had a religious conversion caused such controversy. Back in 1845, John Henry Newman’s conversion had rocked the establishment, as had the conversion in 1903 of Robert Hugh Benson, son of the archbishop of Canterbury, and the conversion in 1917 of Ronald Knox, son of the bishop of Manchester. Yet the consternation over Waugh’s conversion was different. Whereas these earlier controversial conversions had been connected to the defection of clergymen from one church to another, Waugh was regarded as a typical hedonistic modern youth who was presumed to have had an iconoclastic disdain for all religion. As such, his conversion was greeted with utter astonishment by the media and the literary establishment. On the morning after his reception into the Catholic Church the lead article in the Daily Express expressed bemused bewilderment that an author notorious for his “almost passionate adherence to the ultra-modern” could have become a Catholic.
Waugh’s Christian faith found expression in the novels published in the years following his conversion, especially inA Handful of Dust, which took its title from a line in The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot, whose own conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1928 had baffled the literati and the secular media. It is, however, Brideshead Revisited, which Waugh considered his magnum opus, that most successfully embodies the tension between Waugh’s ultramontane faith and the ultramodern world in which it found itself.
Published in 1945, Brideshead Revisited traces the interaction between Charles Ryder, its ostensibly agnostic narrator, and a family of aristocratic Catholics.
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