Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Some people told me I should add Waugh to my list of books and authors with a touch of Catholicism. However, since I had never read anything by Mr. Waugh and I was only listing books with which I was at least familiar, I couldn’t very well add his books to the post.

Well, I can now, but Brideshead Revisited doesn’t have a touch of Catholicism; it’s all about being Catholic, particularly being Catholic in the early twentieth century in England. And I can’t decide whether Waugh thinks it’s an overall good thing to be Catholic or a very bad, mess-up-your-life thing. The Catholics in the book all come back to their faith in one way or another, but they are all really confused and thwarted by their Catholic upbringing and heritage in the meantime. So can someone else tell me, is this book pro-Catholic or anti-Catholic? Or neither?

I kept comparing the attitude toward Catholicism and growing up Catholic in the book to my childhood culture of contemporary evangelicalism. But I just didn’t and don’t still have the issues that these characters have in Brideshead Revisited. The basic problem seems to be that they can’t enjoy sin and its pleasures because their Catholic-trained conscience gets in the way. Or, alternately, they can’t live life to its fullest because they listen to Catholic doctrine and attempt to follow it. However, there aren’t many sins in evangelical churches that would get you excommunicated. Even divorce and adultery have been known to fail to get so much as a reprimand. In the Catholic church it’s necessary to at least express some kind of repentance and remorse in order to obtain assurance of forgiveness. So it’s harder for the family in the book to reconcile their actions with their beliefs. Since my temptations lie more in the areas of bitterness, anger, and gossip and since nobody talks much about those sins, I can get off without so much as a trip to confession in my church, and my level of discomfort depends on the activity level of my conscience, not on the disapprobation of the church authorities or of fellow Christians.

What I am familiar with and know that Waugh nails is the attitude of many unbelievers toward all things Christian. The narrator of the novel is an agnostic and just doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. Why do innocent conversations within this devout Catholic family turn into discussions about God and about the Church? Why do his friends have such a hard time shedding their Catholic heritage and rejecting Catholic doctrine? What’s the big deal? I have seen this attitude and the gap between believers and unbelievers so often. The first group, Christian believers, see that all life is related to and ends up in God/Christ. He’s the center. The other group, the agnostics and unbelievers, don’t understand why the Christians can’t just keep their “religion” in a box and pull it out in private. And never the twain shall meet.

Then, there’s another character in the novel who is essentially an unbeliever, too. However, because he wants to marry one of the Catholic characters, he decides to convert to Catholicism. The problem is that he doesn’t have a clue what being Catholic is all about, and he’s willing to say whatever he needs to say to get into the church because he doesn’t really believe or disbelieve any of it. I’ve seen this sort of person, too. Rex, the character in the book, is a little exaggerated, but only a little. I’ve seen husbands come to church, get baptized, attend faithfully, never knowing or caring what any of it is all about, just in order to make their wives happy or to be a member of the community or to make business contacts.

If you’re Catholic, I would highly recommend Brideshead Revisited for an examination of what it means to be Catholic, especially in a place and time where faithful Catholics are in the minority. If you’re not Catholic, I would also recommend the book as an examination of what it means to be faithful, the limits and psychological effects of legalism, and the possibilities of grace within a religious system. I thnk maybe (feel free to correct me) Brideshead Revisited is about how we can muddle through to grace and repentance and forgiveness and God even in our very human confusion and self-inflicted degradation.

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