Waugh’s Religious Conversion

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Western Christian churches, and perhaps in recognition of this date, the Catholic Herald has reposted an article from April 2016 relating to Waugh’s conversion to the Roman Catholic faith. This is written by Constance Watson, Waugh’s great grand-daughter, and appeared in an issue of the magazine that carried as its cover story an article by Harry Mount on the importance of Brideshead Revisited. See previous post. In that issue, the magazine was commemorating the 50th anniversary of Waugh’s death in April 1966.

The reposted article begins with a discussion of several reasons given for the conversion such as Alec Waugh’s citing it, at least in part, as a response to Waugh’s recent divorce from his first wife. Watson thinks this may have been overstated and she also rejects claims from some commenters that Waugh converted because:

it was fashionable among the intelligentsia. His peers Baring, Knox, Chesterton and Greene all converted in the two decades before Waugh was received by Rome. But Waugh’s conversion was hardly a matter of joining in with a fashion: rather, it was the natural conclusion to a long intellectual journey.

She then discusses Waugh’s references in his autobiographical writings of his struggles during his youth and young adulthood with religious belief, at one time deeming himself to be an atheist. After those struggles, she explains what it was in Roman Catholicism that he found resolved these long-standing issues:

So after much searching, what did Waugh find in Rome that he had failed to discern elsewhere? The universal nature of the Catholic Church, he believed, made it more reflective of the essence of Christianity: “It seems to me that any religious body which is not by nature universal cannot claim to represent complete Christianity.”

The discipline and structure of the Church appealed to Waugh – in disbelieving and chaotic times, ‘‘the loss of faith in Christianity and the consequential lack of confidence in moral and social standards have become embodied in the ideal of a materialistic, mechanised state’’. By contrast, Waugh found he could sympathise with the Church’s resolute insistence on infallible teachings: it appears to have made the Church greater in moral and spiritual fibre in Waugh’s mind than the alternatives that he had extensively explored.

She goes on to discuss how his attitude toward his beliefs developed after his conversion and concludes with this:

Catholicism was, to Waugh, a rational marriage of civilisation and Christianity, at a time when the world was becoming increasingly irreligious and therefore, in his view, increasingly uncivilised. In his words, “civilisation … has not in itself the power of survival … Christianity is essential to civilisation”; and, he added, “Christianity exists in its most complete and vital form in the Roman Catholic Church.”

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