The Curmudgeonly Catholic: Three Life Lessons from Evelyn Waugh

On the anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism, we would do well to learn some lessons from the life of Evelyn Waugh.

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Today marks nearly one hundred years since English novelist, essayist, and humorist Evelyn Waugh converted to Catholicism. Waugh is perhaps best recognized in the United States for writing Brideshead Revisited—a rich, elegiac chronicle of a fractured aristocratic family’s struggles with the Catholic faith and a young man’s hard-won discovery of the truth offered by the Church. But his work also includes classics like A Handful of Dust, Scoop, and the darkly farcical World War II trilogy Sword of Honour. Despite having died nearly sixty years ago, Waugh’s Catholicism still stands as an admirable example of devotion to Holy Mother Church, especially in times of trial and tribulation.

Born in Hampstead, England, in 1903 and raised in the Anglican church, Waugh was an aggressive agnostic by the age of fifteen and a full-fledged hedonist by the time he started studying at the University of Oxford. His time there was spent predominantly in drunkenness and homosexual relationships. His studies suffered to the extent that he was forced to leave and take a position as a schoolteacher at a ramshackle school in Wales, which served as the inspiration for his first novel, Decline and Fall, a semi-autobiographical comedy published in 1928.

As a newly-successful writer, Waugh returned to the party scene in Oxford and London, focusing his romantic interests on women now, not on men. His first marriage fell apart when his wife had an affair, rebuffed Waugh’s attempts at reconciliation, and eventually left him. Having attempted suicide once before, Waugh sought refuge this time in the pinnacle of order here on earth: the Catholic Church. 

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Through his hard-partying early twenties, Waugh had become disillusioned with the modern world and all it had to offer. He saw the decaying of sexual morality in particular as a threat to civilization. Upon his conversion to Catholicism on September 29, 1930, he wrote, “The trouble about the world today is that there’s not enough religion in it. There’s nothing to stop young people doing whatever they feel like doing at the moment.”

Waugh built an impressive career as a writer, publishing popular novel after popular novel, writing essays and travel memoirs, and even serving as a war correspondent in Abyssinia in the mid-1930s. He obtained an annulment, married fellow Catholic Laura Herbert, and the two had seven children together. In later life, Waugh presented himself as a caricature of a curmudgeonly aristocrat, replete with an oversized ear trumpet hearing aid and an urbane (sometimes cruel) sense of humor. He died on Easter Sunday in 1966, after attending Mass with his family.

Waugh’s storied life and career included friendships with James Bond creator Ian Fleming and Winston Churchill’s family, fighting in the Mediterranean in World War II, spying on communists at the behest of Pope Pius XII, and rescuing Eastern European Jews from both Nazi and Soviet persecution. Here are three enduring life lessons Catholics today can learn from Waugh.

Lesson 1: Never abandon the Church

Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism in 1930 was something of a shock to the English social scene: a young, popular, and newly-wealthy author joining a rigid and historically-persecuted religious sect just as his generation was exploring sexual degeneracy, cocaine, and socialism seemed almost counterintuitive. Waugh’s father derisively called his son’s decision his “perversion to Rome.” So controversial was the decision that Waugh himself even wrote an article explaining his conversion to the public.

But the author’s decision to embrace the Catholic faith was far from merely reactionary. Jesuit Fr. Martin D’Arcy, who oversaw Waugh’s conversion and became his spiritual mentor, wrote, “I have never myself met a convert who so strongly based his assents on truth.” Three decades later, when asked during an interview if he had any doubts about God or the truth of the Catholic faith, Waugh responded with candor and simplicity, “No.” This pragmatic, matter-of-fact approach to his faith served Waugh well throughout the trials of his life.

One of the facets of the Catholic faith which first attracted Waugh was the Tridentine Mass. When he converted in 1930 there was, of course, no such thing as the Novus Ordo Missal, and as the Second Vatican Council began making adjustments to the liturgy, Waugh began to fear that the beautiful, solemn form of prayer which had first drawn him—and indeed so many other converts—home to the Church would be expunged and replaced with something he saw as banal, mundane, and rather unsacred. As revolution-minded clerics introduced more and more innovations and “reforms,” Waugh wrote on behalf of the laity still devoted to the Church’s age-old traditions:

We hold the creeds, we attempt to observe the moral law, we go to Mass on days of obligation and glance rather often at the vernacular translations of the Latin…. We go to some inconvenience to educate our children in the Faith…. In every age we have formed the main body of “the faithful,” and we believe that it was for us, as much as for the saints and for the notorious sinners, that the Church was founded.

Waugh expressed his concerns to his bishop, Cardinal John Carmel Heenan of Westminster, in a series of letters over the course of the early-to-mid 1960s. Waugh was concerned that, in an attempt to make the laity feel more relevant, the crucial role of the priest in the Mass would be diminished and that, in an effort to have the laity participate more vocally in the Mass, they would in fact slowly forget to participate spiritually. “I detect a new kind of anticlericalism,” he wrote to Heenan. “The new anticlericals seem to minimize the sacramental character of the priesthood and to suggest that the laity are their equals.” Waugh was concerned that, in an attempt to make the laity feel more relevant, the crucial role of the priest in the Mass would be diminished.Tweet This

He also considered the introduction of the vernacular to be unnecessary and considered the vernacular being mandated to be an affront to God:

This was the Mass for whose restoration the Elizabethan martyrs had gone to the scaffold. Saint Augustine, St. Thomas à Becket, St. Thomas More, Challoner and Newman would have been perfectly at their ease among us; were, in fact, present there with us…. Their presence would not have been more palpable had we been making the responses aloud in the modern fashion.

As Pope Francis and Vatican officials introduce more and more restrictions on the celebration of the Tridentine Mass, under the auspices of Traditionis Custodes, Waugh’s concerns and laments surely resonate with faithful Catholics today. While Waugh never lived to see the widespread liturgical abuses ushered in by the “Spirit of Vatican II” or the burgeoning reactionary movement, his example should still inspire Catholics to remain true to the Church, including the Bishop of Rome. Shortly before his death, Waugh wrote that the disappearance of the Tridentine Mass “leaves me without comfort or edification. I shall never, pray God, apostatize but churchgoing is now a bitter trial.”

Waugh suffered patiently, loudly bemoaning and lamenting the loss of Catholic traditions but never abandoning the Church or the pontiff.

Lesson 2: Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future

Countless saints have shown by the example of their lives that there is no sin too great for God to forgive. Though by no means canonized, Waugh’s example bears out the same principle of boundless hope, mercy, and forgiveness.

As a young man at Oxford, Waugh engaged in several homosexual relationships. This was, at the time, a rather common practice—C.S. Lewis even discusses it in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy—and it was largely understood to be a “phase” precipitated by the fact that young men have high sex drives and women were not allowed to study at Oxford. Waugh himself explained as much and was, even before his conversion to Catholicism, resolutely (even voraciously) heterosexual. But upon marrying, Waugh devoted himself completely to his wife. Even after his first marriage crumbled, Waugh engaged in harmless (mostly humorous) flirtations but never went to bed with a woman until he married Laura in 1937. He was entirely devoted to his wife and both shunned and openly scorned sexual immorality.

Waugh was also, famously, a bit of a bully. His caustic sense of humor wasn’t all fun and games. After his teasing caused a girl to leave a party in tears, Waugh’s friend Nancy Mitford asked him how he could possibly be so mean and still call himself a Catholic. With his trademark wit, Waugh asked Mitford to consider how much worse he would be if he weren’t a Catholic. 

Far from excusing his behavior, as he devoted himself more and more to his Catholic faith, Waugh came to see his bullying as a moral failure on his part and sought to curb it. One way in which he chose to do this was to find bigger, badder bullies and bully them, employing a perhaps more severe permutation of the classic comedians’ code to never punch down, only punch up.

A prime example of Waugh’s exercise of this principle is manifest in his soured friendship with Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son. Waugh and Churchill served together as part of the British Maclean Mission to Yugoslavia. According to biographers, the self-centered Churchill liked to throw around his weight as the Prime Minister’s son. 

Always up for a challenge, Waugh decided to outbully the outfit’s bully. The rivalry included an expensive bet that Churchill couldn’t read the entire Bible in under two weeks and an elaborate ruse in which Waugh would undermine Churchill in front of diplomats. Both Waugh and Churchill were drinkers and smokers and fond of a bit of coarse language; but for a period of weeks, Waugh quit drinking and smoking and cleaned up his vocabulary in order to follow the Prime Minister’s son around and apologize to diplomats for his uncouth behavior—behavior which Waugh had enthusiastically shared just weeks before.

“The Church,” Waugh once wrote, “is the normal state of man from which men have disastrously exiled themselves.” Throughout his life, Waugh strove to return to that “normal state of man” in the Catholic Church. As all Catholics are called to do, he entrusted his sins and flaws to Christ’s mercy and committed himself anew every day to virtue.

Lesson 3: Be a bon viveur and have a sense of humor

While Catholicism, of course, necessitates an ascetic facet, Christ also told His apostles, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). In fact, the cardinal virtue of justice even demands that the good things that God offers be enjoyed—and Waugh certainly knew how to do that. The author was fond of good cigars and fine wine, enjoyed England’s best restaurants and hotels, and wore hand-tailored suits of Italian fabrics. 

He spent the equivalent of millions of dollars renovating his home at Piers Court, installing a coat of arms he and his wife designed together above the front door and marble pillars flanking the desk in his expansive home library. More than just a voluptuary, though, Waugh recognized and appreciated quality, a trait borne out most especially in his collection of books. He collected rare books, particularly prizing first and signed editions, and went to great expense to have his books professionally bound in high-quality Morrocco leather.

Perhaps more importantly, Waugh knew how to have a good time. Although known as a misanthrope, he was a surprising party animal and was much loved by friends. According to one biographer, Waugh once rode a horse to a friend’s house party, refusing to dismount and actually riding the horse indoors, cocktail in hand. A key part of having a good time is, of course, making others laugh.

Nearly sixty years after his death, Waugh is still considered something of a controversial figure. But there is one point on which both Waugh’s critics and admirers can and do agree: the man was wildly, brutally funny. Literary experts have praised Waugh’s wickedly witty, elaborately farcical novels for nearly a century, and he clearly delighted in entertaining his friends with that wit and sense of absurdity. For example, the writer carried on a lengthy correspondence with his friend Mary Lygon’s dog, Grainger. Once, while lightheartedly feuding with Mary, Waugh sent Grainger a handwritten invitation to a tea party and made it clear to the dog that his owner was not invited.

While Waugh’s humor tended toward the cruel in his youth, his conversion to Catholicism permeated even this aspect of his life and challenged him to treat others with greater kindness. Though, as a mere mortal, he sometimes failed in this endeavor, he endeavored nonetheless, and as he grew older his humor became less and less centered on mocking others and more and more centered on amusing his friends, or sometimes even just himself. 

On one occasion, an American fan named Moor was invited to stay with Waugh and his wife at their country home. Waugh spent a whole weekend asking the man about jazz music, Harlem, and African-American cooking, even though Moor was white. His guest thought Waugh must have mistaken him for someone else and spent the weekend in confusion, seeking an opportunity to pin down the miscommunication and clarify. Waugh’s wife finally took pity on the man and told him Waugh had constructed an elaborate historical pun on the man’s surname: Moor.

Whether he was drinking with his good friends the Lygon sisters, smuggling a box of mice into the hospital to cheer up his son after an eye operation, or publishing dozens of comedy novels and short stories, Waugh derived great joy and fulfillment from entertaining others and making them laugh. He was able to couple this passion with a deep love of Catholic truth, goodness, and beauty and a desire to share that truth with everyone he could.


  • S.A. McCarthy

    S.A. McCarthy is a writer for The Washington Stand. He has also been published by The American Spectator, Real Clear Investigations, and Crisis Magazine. He served as a teacher at a Catholic school before beginning his career in journalism.

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