For those, like me, long smitten by Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s Catholic “tract,” there is a crucial scene between Julia Marchmain, the lover of the novel’s narrator and protagonist Charles Ryder, and her priggish older brother, Bridey. Julia and Charles have been living together, both in the process of divorcing their spouses. Bridey surprises them by announcing his own engagement to a widow, the mischievously named Beryl Muspratt. Julia congratulates her brother and implores him to invite his fiancée to meet them. “Oh I couldn’t do that,” Bridey responds. Pressed to explain why, Bridey lays out the moral obstacles in his oblivious, matter-of-fact way. “You must understand that Beryl is a woman of strict Catholic principle fortified by the prejudices of the middle class. I couldn’t possibly bring her here. It is a matter of indifference whether you choose to live in sin with Rex or Charles or both—I have always avoided enquiry into the details of your ménage but in no case would Beryl consent to be your guest.”
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. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat, a protégé of Buckley’s, shares the high romantic vision of Catholicism that suffuses Waugh’s novel. In To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism, 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).
Douthat further claims that “in the case of marriage the church has cleaved to the plain text of Mark’s Gospel (and the very similar passages in Matthew and Luke), while most other Christian communions have found reasons to soften the New Testament’s demands.” It is the church’s “consistency across centuries” that most impresses him, and that motivates his sometimes shrill denunciations of Francis’s efforts (tendentiously comparing him to Trump at one point) to “soften” the discipline, dividing the church and inviting schism in doing so. Enough with Communion as a “field hospital” for the wounded. Douthat incessantly summons the specter of the Anglican Communion’s divisions and alleged doctrinal incoherence as the fate of Catholicism should it capitulate to the exorbitant demands of the “sexual revolution.” The only real way to measure orthodoxy, Douthat seems to say, is by its burdens—or at least by holding fast to those teachings that are most distinctively burdensome (he leaves room for hypocrisy in particular cases).