“American Epoch” Revisited

In an article posted on the weblog, The Just Third Way, Michael Greaney discusses Waugh’s 1949 Life magazine article on the Roman Catholic Church in America. Greaney introduces the subject with a brief reference to several critics of the Church who saw a need for reform in the years before the Second Vatican Council. He then contrasts those views with Waugh’s discussion of that same period in his article “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church.”:

The essay first appeared in the September 19, 1949 issue of Life magazine. (Reprinted in Donat Gallagher, ed., The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh.  London: Penguin Books, 1983, 377-388.) Shocking those who generally miss whatever point Waugh was making, the caustic satirist presented a very positive view of the Church in America halfway through the twentieth century.[…]

Again startling many, Waugh credited the strength of the Catholic Church in America to separation of Church and State in a form that left determination of religious belief up to the individual.  Admittedly in practice even in the United States this has often developed into hostility against the Catholic Church and other faiths, but that was never the intent or meaning of America’s Founders.

In the final reckoning, at least at the time de Tocqueville wrote, the division of life into private and public aspects left individuals largely in control of their own destinies and restricted the State to a relatively minor role.  As Waugh commented, “The realm of ‘private life’ was large and inviolable.  And the division of Church and State is feasible only under those conditions.” (Ibid., 379-380.)

Nevertheless, Waugh saw a grave danger threatening the Church and the rest of civilization throughout the world as the role of the State continued to expand.  Having seen the direction Fabian socialism was taking Great Britain — which he would depict a few years later in his dystopian novella Love Among the Ruins: A Romance of the Near Future (1953) — he was alert to what the related New Deal could do to Catholicism in the United States.  As he noted,

“As the State, whether it consist of the will of the majority or the power of a clique, usurps more and more of the individual’s “private life”, the more prominent become the discrepancies between the secular and the religious philosophies, for many things are convenient  to the ruler which are not healthy for the soul. ” (Ibid., 380.)

[…] Waugh thought the greater danger to the Church was that European Catholics would adopt the superficial aspects of American culture he had lampooned in, e.g., The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948), and drift away from what remained on the continent of the practice of the faith.  He did not foresee that Americans would adopt the European liberal version of democracy, “the tragic fate of Europe,” (ibid.) and undermine their own Christianity.  As he concluded his essay,

There is a purely American “way of life” led by every good American Christian that is point-for-point opposed to the publicized and largely fictitious “way of life” dreaded in Europe and Asia.  And that, by the grace of God, is the “way of life” that will prevail. (Ibid., 388.)

The article then concludes with  a discussion of Waugh’s disappointment in the results of the Second Vatican Council and his assessment of the career of Pope John XXIII.


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