Julia’s Meltdown and Church Unity

In the latest issue of the Roman Catholic journal Commonweal, there is a review of a book called To Change the Church by Ross Douthat, the conservative commentator on the New York Times. The review is entitled “A Precarious Unity?” and is written by Paul Baumann, Commonweal’s editor. It opens with an extended discussion of the scene in Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited where Bridey announces that he won’t bring his new wife Beryl to visit Brideshead Castle while Julia and Charles (both divorced and planning to marry) are living there:

Julia rushes out of the house, engulfed in a grief she fights against and only barely understands. “Living in sin, with sin, by sin, for sin, every hour, every day, curtains drawn on sin, bathing it, dressing it, clipping diamonds to it, showing it around, giving it a good time, putting it to sleep at night with a tablet of Dial if it’s fretful,” she sobs hysterically. The soliloquy goes on for some time, and Waugh later regretted the melodramatic nature of the scene. The novel ends, of course, with Julia giving up her “adulterous” marriage to Charles and returning to the church, and with Charles’s seemingly miraculous conversion to a Catholicism he had long disdained. God’s mysterious grace triumphs over wayward human desire. If the novel’s sexual renunciations were incomprehensible to many, the heroic romanticism of the abnegations resonated powerfully with Catholics, who had long been firmly schooled in the indissolubility of marriage and the impossibility of divorce and remarriage. For my parents’ generation, the rejection of divorce was a profound marker of Catholic identity in a less demanding—or more forgiving—Protestant environment. A host of sins could be forgiven as long as the marriage remained, at least publicly, intact. Whatever one’s private failings, the public permanence of marriage upheld the church’s authority and reputation. Brideshead celebrated this heroic constancy, and, thanks to sales in America, it became Waugh’s bestselling book.

Waugh and Brideshead have remained especially popular with so-called orthodox Catholics. This was no doubt abetted by the excellent 1981 BBC adaptation of the novel, which was introduced, with patrician conviction, on American television by William F. Buckley Jr. [… ] Ross Douthat, a protégé of Buckley’s, shares the high romantic vision of Catholicism that suffuses Waugh’s novel. In [his book], Douthat makes a fervent case against the pope’s efforts to find some sort of pastoral solution that would allow Catholics who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion. He argues, in thoughtful but nevertheless melodramatic terms, that the church’s “vision of marriage’s indissolubility, its one-flesh metaphysical reality, was crucial to Christianity’s development and spread. It was sociologically important, because it made such a stark contrast with the sexual landscape of ancient Rome.” He does not note that it took many centuries for this teaching to take its final form, and even then observance was often the exception rather than the rule. Child bearing, for example, often came before marriage vows (as it still does).

The reviewer proceeds, without resort to melodrama, to offer a refutation of the case for the status quo on this matter as presented in Douthat’s book and to support the actions of the current Pope. The article concludes:

The triumphalist Catholicism of Brideshead is that of a church proudly at war with a post-Christian world. Whatever its real virtues and achievements, that “fortress” is not a place Catholicism can revisit—not unless it is willing to repudiate Vatican II. Francis, whatever his shortcomings, knows that in a way his predecessors, for understandable reasons, could not.

Commonweal has provided a forum in which those who wish to comment on the article may do so. The 1981 TV Brideshead adaptation was made by Granada TV for ITV, not the BBC. It was broadcast on PBS in the USA in Channel 13’s Great Performances series.

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