Evelyn Waugh’s Warning About Vatican II

Evelyn Waugh was not optimistic about Vatican II's ambitious renovation project. He found the glib optimism surrounding the Council fatuous, the presumption repellent.

Evelyn Waugh, Catholic convert and the most interesting English novelist of the twentieth century, could be rebarbative.

To a large, London literary luncheon celebrating the publication of his 1957 novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, for example, he brought along a large ear trumpet (similar to the trademark RCA Victor gramophone trumpet), though he could easily have afforded a conventional hearing aid.  When the featured speaker stood to speak, Waugh fixed the trumpet in his ear, listened for a minute or two. . .then removed it from his ear, telescoped it back into compact traveling form, and laid it on the table, where it remained for the duration of the talk—expressing with mute eloquence his indifference to the speaker’s remarks. (The speaker was Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a Catholic convert years later). 

Another instance: Waugh knew Winston Churchill’s son Randolph well, as they had served together in Yugoslavia near the end of the Second World War. Years later, when Randolph had a benign lung tumor surgically removed, Waugh remarked to a friend, “It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph which was not malignant and remove it.” (Randolph appreciated the barb when he heard it secondhand, and he and Waugh reconciled after a decade of estrangement.)

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Waugh was an ardent Catholic. He published a historical novel on St. Helena; an incisive biography of the Elizabethan martyr Edmund Campion; and a biography of his friend Ronald Knox, well-known English priest, classicist, Bible translator, and Catholic apologist.

In 1962, the Second Vatican Council opened with great fanfare, amidst rejoicing at the prospect of the Church opening up to the modern world, a twentieth-century updating (the famous aggiornamento). The Council would, many fondly hoped, usher in a second Pentecost, almost a Second Coming.

Waugh was unimpressed. The glib optimism was fatuous, the presumption repellent. As the Council convened that autumn, his reservations appeared in the British weekly The Spectator, in an essay titled “The Same Again, Please.”

He worried most, with good reason, about threatened changes to the liturgy, “reforms” engineered and promoted by “a strange alliance between archeologists absorbed in their speculations on the rites of the second century, and modernists who wish to give the Church the character of their own deplorable epoch. In combination they call themselves ‘liturgists.’”

Though Oxford educated and a distinguished man of letters, Waugh pretended to no particular knowledge of or expertise in the more abstruse items on the Council’s agenda. Liturgy, though—especially the Mass—was something every churchgoing Catholic knew something about. The argument of “The Same Again, Please” is populist, Waugh presenting himself as an ordinary parishioner in the pews, just as the essay’s title echoes a common phrase in English pubs. “I believe I am typical of that middle rank of the Church,” he confessed, “far from the leaders, much further from the saints.”

Most parishioners, Waugh suspected, had little interest in liturgical reform or greater involvement in the Mass. The clamor for reform and the vernacular came from the Catholic chattering class, not from the pews. “I think it highly doubtful whether the average churchgoer either needs or desires to have complete intellectual, verbal comprehension of all that is said,” Waugh observed. “He has come to worship, often dumbly and effectively. . . . When young theologians talk, as they do, of Holy Communion as “a social meal” they find little response in the hearts or minds of their less sophisticated brothers.”

During Mass, “The priest performs his function in exact conformity to rule. But we—what are we up to? Some of us are following the missal. . . . Some are saying the rosary. Some are wrestling with refractory children. Some are rapt in prayer. Some are thinking all manner of irrelevant things until intermittently called to attention by the bell. There is no apparent ‘togetherness.’ Only in heaven are we recognizable as the united body we are.”

Academic theories of liturgical originalism and purity, a hankering for some pristine primitive simplicity and congregational engagement, missed the point, or rather, the needs of actual people in the pews. The ordinary Catholic—l’homme moyen sensuel and la femme moyen sensuelle—had no interest in “the priesthood of the laity.” He or she was content to let the real priest celebrate the Mass, generally facing the altar, back turned to the pews, his Latin mostly inaudible.

Waugh concluded, “The time we spend in church—little enough—is what we set aside for renewing in our various ways our neglected contacts with God. It is not how it should be, but it is, I think, how it has always been for the majority of us, and the Church in wisdom and charity has always taken care of the second-rate.” And a great many of us are spiritually second-rate, if that.

He was not optimistic about the Council’s ambitious renovation project. His mention of “the statesmanship of the Fathers of the Council” is ironic. The Church’s guidance by the Holy Spirit resembled, rather, the inspiration of an artist:

At work he makes false starts and is constrained to begin again, he feels impelled in one direction, happily follows it until he is conscious that he is diverging from his proper course, new discoveries come to him while he is toiling at some other problem, so that eventually by trial and error a work of art is consummated. So with the inspired decisions of the Church. They are not revealed by a sudden clear voice from Heaven.

Councils can err, have erred, and will err again (the same might be said of synods), but the Church will prevail, ultimately, against both the Gates of Hell and its own theologians and bishops.

Meanwhile, although Vatican II’s liturgical changes remain controversial, there can be no doubting their upshot. American (and British) Catholics have voted with their feet, leaving empty pews behind them.

A recent and well-researched study, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II (Oxford University Press, 2019) by English sociologist Stephen Bullivant, carefully analyzes the decline of Mass attendance in Britain and America.

Bullivant is too even-handed, his discussion too well reasoned, to attribute the dramatic decline to a single cause. He gives due consideration to the confluence of various social and cultural changes and to similar gloomy trends in Protestant denominations. All the same, “These considerations, while doubtlessly true and important, are not remotely sufficient for explaining the scale and nature of Catholic lapsation and disaffiliation during the past five decades.” The Church doors had been flung open to the spirit of the age—and the parishioners inside got up and walked out.

“In order to bring the Church into the world, to infuse it with the light of Christ, the ‘ghetto’ walls needed breaking down,” Bullivant describes Vatican II’s agenda.

To do this, the Church and its practices would need to be less weird and culturally remote: for there to be no cause for others to “regard us as odd.” Everything from the words of the Mass itself, to the dress habits of nuns, to the soft furnishings of confessionals, should be made more accessible and relevant. The tactic did not, as it has turned out, reap very rich rewards.

The final sentence is an understatement.

One frequent result of the Council’s reforms, for example, was the removal of the tabernacle from the high altar to a side altar or convenient closet. But “for their part, the laity tended rather to like their tabernacles, and moreover, didn’t like the idea of Jesus, really present inside of them, being relegated to a backroom,” Bullivant observes. “On this subject, as so many others, the laity were a grave source of disappointment to their liturgical overlords.”

Unlike many, Waugh did not leave the Church, but neither did he live—nor would he have wanted to live—to see the full flowering of the Council’s reforms. On Easter Day 1966, after attending a nearby Latin Mass, he died suddenly at Combe Florey, his Somerset home. A Requiem Mass was celebrated in London’s Westminster Cathedral. It too, as Waugh would appreciate, was in Latin.


  • Robert Garnett

    Robert Garnett is a professor emeritus of English at Gettysburg College and author of biographical/critical studies of Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, and (forthcoming) F. Scott Fitzgerald. He has written articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Wall Street Journal.

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