The American Conservative, a print magazine and online journal, has issued an article entitled: “Evelyn Waugh Predicted the Collapse of Catholic England: He saw Vatican II as an attempt by elites to foist changes on a laity that didn’t want them.” This cites the correspondence published as A Bitter Trial in which Waugh made a case against the liturgical reforms that proceeded from the Second Vatican Council. After discussing the reforms of Vatican II and several of Waugh’s familiar objections to them, the article, by Casey Chalk, the magazine’s religious affairs corrspondent and a graduate student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology of Christendom University, concludes that part of its discussion with this:
Waugh (and [Cardinal] Heenan) argued that the reform movement embraced a modernist paradigm that pitted traditionalists against intellectual progressives, the latter manipulating the media to both direct and narrow the conversation and silence alternative opinions. Heenan observed that the reform was driven by self-described “intellectuals” whose “constant nagging” and “tiresome letters to the press and articles in the Catholic papers may eventually disturb the faithful.” Moreover, Heenan noted, “the voice of the laity” was largely ignored by the media, as were conservative leaders in the Church, whom intellectuals painted as “mitred peasants.” Waugh argued, “the function of the Church in every age has been conservative—to transmit undiminished and uncontaminated the creed inherited from its predecessors. Not ‘is this fashionable notion one that we should accept?’” Indeed, what is “fashionable” is usually identifiable not with what the ordinary man on the street wants, but what elites desire.
The great irony of the liturgical reforms of 1960s Catholicism is that rather than bring new faces into the Church, they drove people away. During the 1930s, there were 12,000 English converts a year to Catholicism. Yet Church attendance among Catholics in Britain has been on a steady decline ever since Vatican II.
This seems to suggest that Waugh was motivated in his campaign against the reforms to protect the interests of what the article describes as “the ordinary man on the street.” Waugh had an objection to that concept dating back to at least a 1953 interview on the BBC where he was asked how he got on with “the man in the street”. His answer was “I’ve never met such a person” and this led to a persistent hectoring by the BBC interviewers to the end of the interview. Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, v. 19, pp. 557 ff. It is probably more accurate to say that Waugh included all Roman Catholics in his concern over their reactions to the Vatican II reforms and was not particularly focused on subcategories such as “the ordinary man” among them.
The post has engendered a lively discussion that is still open if anyone should wish to join. Several of the comments relate to Waugh’s position. Here’s a link.