In the current issue of the U.K. paper The Catholic Herald, an article (“Seduced by the ‘Devil’ Hitler” by Francis Phillips) opens with a familiar quote from Evelyn Waugh:
There is a well-known story about the novelist Evelyn Waugh. He was once very rude and his hostess remonstrated: “How can you behave so badly – and you a Catholic!” Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.” We remember this riposte both because it is redolent of Waugh’s mordant humour and because it reminds us that, without grace, we would all “hardly be a human being”…But it is the shocked reaction to Waugh’s behaviour that interests me. His hostess had assumed a higher standard of behaviour on the part of Catholics than for others.
The source of Waugh’s quote is apocryphal, and not something from his writings. It is reported to have been made by him to Nancy Mitford in Paris after he had been particularly rude to a guest (an unnamed young French intellectual) she had invited to dinner to meet him. It was recorded by Christopher Sykes who claims he was told by Nancy Mitford (Sykes, A Biography of Evelyn Waugh, Penguin, 1977, pp. 448-49). Another biographer, Selina Hastings (London, 1994, pp. 505, 679), quotes a slightly different version from a letter of Nancy Mitford to Pamela Berry, dated 17 May 1950:
So I had Evelyn from Friday morning to Monday & still love him though at one point I felt obliged to ask how he reconciles being so horrible with being a Christian. He replied rather sadly that were he not a Christian he would be even more horrible (difficult) & anyway would have committed suicide years ago…He met my publisher, a charming middle class Frenchman, & was so dreadful to him I had to apologize. (The Letters of Nancy Mitford, Charlotte Mosley, ed., London, 1993, pp. 256-57).
Of the two versions, the letter written by Nancy Mitford herself more or less contemporaneously with the remark, would appear to be the more accurate. It is, however, the Sykes version, based only on hearsay and apparently reduced to writing more than 20 years after the event, that has engraved itself into the journalistic canon.