A Thought for the Interim: From March 30, 1963

Evelyn Waugh has spoken, simultaneously in National Review and in the London Spectator, to the bishops of Vatican II. Despite the fact that the Holy Father has called these men to Rome to effect the rejuvenation and renewal of the Church, Mr. Waugh pleads that they leave him in his present blissful tranquility. The storm breathlessly promised by his publishers has not yet broken in the wake of the article, and Mr. Waugh’s amazing request has received scant attention from the bishops, pastors, scholars and laymen of the Church. Of course, the leaders are busy these days; perhaps they judged this voice from the British Isles unworthy of note. This should not be so.

Mr. Waugh’s article contains several well-founded complaints and some useful suggestions, no one of which is, however, particularly significant. But the trend and tenor of his thought deserve serious consideration. It will not do to brush him off as a slightly eccentric littérateur. Rather, certain of his assertions most indicative of his fundamental point of view should be examined with care and candor. The months between the sessions of Vatican II seem particularly appropriate for such a study.


The consultations resumed after their long recess [dating from the abrupt adjournment of Vatican I in 1870] and dignified by the title of the Second Vatican Council are not expected to have the same direct influence [as did those of the First Vatican Council] outside the Church. Thus soberly, if nonchalantly, Mr. Waugh localizes the Council in the history of salvation: the balloon of universality is punctured; the wave of ecumenism is asked, politely, to subside. Pope John’s choice of the first Pentecost, and not the First Vatican Council, as the proper frame of reference for our present expectations goes unmentioned. Mr. Waugh’s point of departure is, in fact, inaccurate. The bishops of Vatican I are dead, the issues quite different, the Christian sphere of thought and activity altered in its entirety. Surely in the treasury of the English language there is a more apt term than “recess” to describe the distance we have come from Vatican I. As it is, the use of the term leaves one with the uneasy sense of being ushered off at once in an alien and irrelevant direction.

The priesthood of the laity is a cant phrase of the decade and abhorrent to those of us who have met with it. This succinct declaration, in effect, brushes off the approved conciliar draft on the liturgy as we know it from Fr. Cyprian Vagaggini’s description in Osservatore Romano. Mr. Waugh is at pains to attribute such a “novelty” to young priests, inexperienced theologians and to those obsessed by immoderate enthusiasm. He expresses his firm conviction that their conception of the layman’s “priesthood” is not at all consonant with the true desires of the average flock, which is content with a dark church, the priest far off, the words mumbled and foreign. The priesthood of the laity, of course, is a phrase the Apostle Peter employed to bring home to the first Christians an awareness of what membership in the Church involved for them. To pass off Christ’s institution and St. Peter’s phrase as cant is ill-advised indeed. What Mr. Waugh seems intent on safeguarding is an anachronistic concept of Christian prayer à la Port-Royal, something introspective and the product of solitary endeavor.

But the new fashion is for something bright and loud and practical. It has been set by a strange alliance between archeologists . . . and modernists. With this observation, one judges, the author thinks to garb himself solemnly in the sacred robes of the “traditionalist.”  In reality, he becomes the spokesman for what Chesterton once called “the tyranny of those who happen to be walking about.” Tradition, as the Church understands it and as Chesterton explained it, is the fullest possible extension of democracy. People who happen to be dead get a vote, too. The age of the apostles is the basic norm: hence, the necessary preoccupation with antiquity. The modern era (the one to which the Church here and now has the serious obligation of addressing herself intelligibly and effectively) is the current terminus: hence, the concern Mr. Waugh would label as “modernist”—a slovenly, misleading use of a notoriously loaded term. In between, to be sure, lie many centuries which witnessed in their turn a valid development of Tradition. These centuries, too, though often marred by man, knew the guidance of the Spirit and are themselves indirectly normative. The point, however, is that they can never displace the primary importance of either the age of the apostles or what Mr. Waugh feels constrained to label “our own deplorable epoch.”

Most Christians, relying on the direct prophecies of our Lord, expect this [Christian unity] to occur in some moment of historical time. Few believe that moment to be imminent. This statement is balanced; its development is bizarre: a miracle will be required, Mr. Waugh holds, to bring back the Eastern Churches; total reconversion of Protestants to Christianity is demanded as a prerequisite in the West, at least in England. His entire emphasis is on how they must come to heel before unity can be considered as a concrete possibility. Ecumenism, in this view, makes no demand at all upon Catholic Christians. This much having been disposed of, silence descends, the matter drops from view and ecumenical considerations are not a factor in the discussion of any related questions in the article.

Here we have, perhaps, a clue to the basic point on which Mr. Waugh’s attitude differs from that of the Second Vatican Council. The ingathering of Christians is the religious fact of this century, the fact that must be grasped, if one is to understand Vatican II. If, for example, liturgy is viewed merely as a domestic convention prevailing among the saved, then one may argue that it should be left untouched lest these same saved be unduly disturbed. If, on the contrary, liturgy is taken to be an integral part of an outward-oriented Church—and the function par excellence of such a Church—then the need to render it appealing to those outside, as well as more inspiring to those within, will be viewed as a very pressing need. The religious wars are over, but the battle for souls is not. Mr. Waugh, however, declines to bear arms in this untidy sort of struggle.

A portrait emerges from his article, then, of an intelligent, reflective individual to whom the Church is a precious possession, but one merely to be possessed. To such a person, Pentecost must seem a rather uncomfortably explosive affair; his mise en scène, therefore, is the more circumscribed, if not circumspect, political intrigue surrounding Vatican I. Against such a background, the concept of the priesthood of the laity conjures up little more than a soutaned Mr. Waugh; he reduces this to vulgarity and rejects it. Indeed, the modern age as a whole is “deplorable,” one gathers, and the Church would be better advised to leave it to its own devices.

Faced with the fact of Mr. Waugh’s formula for spiritual isolationism or a brand of fortress Catholicism, one cannot avoid asking how it comes to be. Indeed, the question has an obvious pertinence in this time of the Council. Throughout the decades since Vatican I, fresh theological insights and new pastoral approaches have multiplied in the Church. In an institution as wedded as is the Church to respect for both Tradition and traditions, such developments can remain the property of a privileged few. The high degree of specialization necessary for scholarly advances in the study of Scripture or liturgy, for instance, has tended to hamper or limit the wide sharing of the wealth that scholarship and legitimate experimentation in these fields have amassed. The incomprehensible specialist, the unqualified popularizer, the reticent pastor who will not venture in his preaching beyond the formulae of dusty manuals studied in seminary days: these are the creators of unexciting, comfortable Catholicism and that paradox—the isolated Catholic.

Another element contributing to this pattern of spiritual insularity is a misleading, misbegotten notion of the “changelessness” of the Church. From it issues an overtimid and shortsighted concern about the possibility of “scandal,” a concern which on occasion has itself paved the way for genuine distress to overprotected souls. Certainly, great efforts have been made by patiently dedicated preachers, writers and teachers throughout the world to open up the minds of Catholics to the nova et vetera of the Church’s treasures. Mr. Waugh’s reaction to the “sudden” unveiling of “new” ideas at the Council comes as a heavy indictment, however, and leaves one suspicious that the work of communication has not been entirely adequate. For Mr. Waugh is, beyond any doubt, an intelligent man.

One’s concern, of course, goes far beyond the case of Mr. Waugh. The matter must concern leaders in the Church everywhere. Not every member of the Church can or should be expected to be conversant with the very latest developments in Catholic thought or practice throughout the length and breadth of the universal Church. It remains a serious challenge to the leadership, however, that the general lines of the direction the Church is taking in a given era be made generally available and broadly understandable to all, especially to the growing number of those who have become accustomed to exercising critical judgment in other areas of life.

An ecumenical council is, of its nature, at once an act of consolidation of past gains and a forthright exploration of measures aimed at fostering future growth. The Second Vatican Council has already demonstrated its will to accomplish both tasks. More is and will be needed, however, than discussion and the taking of decisions within the ranks of leadership in the Church. Neglect of efforts at communicating to the general membership a true sense of the Council and its purposeful spirit can frustrate the work of the Council itself and occasion needless pain and confusion in many souls. This is, perhaps, the important message that comes through from Mr. Waugh’s slightly ill-tempered plea to be left undisturbed.

Despite his profession of dismay over all this talk about the priesthood of the laity, Mr. Waugh has in fact succeeded in exercising it with some effect. He ventures to speak for the “middle rank” of Christ’s Church, and his claim should not be rejected out of hand. For Mr. Waugh, you see, lives in every parish, stands in the pulpit of not a few, holds a chair in many a seminary or college, and speaks from the pages of publications everywhere. The object of his protest or demand is not always reprehensible; it becomes so when advanced on grounds of spiritual isolationism. Evelyn Waugh has, therefore, rendered a perhaps unintended service to the Church. He has reminded her leadership that a properly disposed and thoroughly informed laity is vital to the success of the ventures on which this Council has embarked. He has laid his isolationism at their doors.

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