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.