Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is one of my favorite novels, and unquestionably my favorite Catholic novel. (Spoiler warning for those who haven’t read it — this post has to do with events which take place at the very end.) Not only does Brideshead give powerful and beautiful expression to Catholic themes, but having read it in my late teens, not long before leaving home, it represents one of those crystallizing experiences for me through which Catholicism became not merely something I was brought up in, but something deeply my own and at the root of my understanding of the world.
And yet, there’s a key element of the plot which clashes with the modern experience of joining the Church — as I was reminded tonight when attending the opening RCIA meeting as a member of this year’s team. Near the very end of the novel, Julia (a cradle, though intermittently lapsed, Catholic) tells the man she has been living with for several years (they’re in the process of divorcing their estranged spouses so they can marry):
“…I can’t marry you, Charles; I can’t be with you ever again.”
“How can you know?”
“What will you do?”
“Just go on — alone. How can I tell you what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I’m not one for a life of mourning. I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today there was one thing unforgivable — like things in the school-room, so bad they were unpunishable, that only mummy could deal with — the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s. Why should I be allowed to understand that and not you, Charles? It may be because of mummy, nanny, Cordelia, Sebastian — perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt — keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end. Now we shall both be alone, and I shall have no way of making you understand.”
Brideshead is not an uplifting tale of good Catholics who have it all. It’s mostly a story of bad Catholics whose faith at times seems only to make them miserable — and yet at the same time gives them the strength to understand life’s tragedies which would otherwise be truly pointless, gateways to bottomless despair. And yet, to my modern Catholic ears, a plot hole looms.
This will be my fourth year helping out with RCIA, though the years have not been consecutive. MrsD and I first worked with RCIA back in California just after getting married. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience. Being around converts, and walking with them, to an extent, during their process of conversion is an inspiring experience that helps us recall that we are called, as Christians, to a process of constant conversion.
Converts come from a wide variety of life experiences. And among those experiences, almost invariably in this modern world, is divorce and remarriage. Of those being received into full union with the Church who are over 30, almost all seem to have been divorced and remarried in the past — or were married in the past and are now seeking to come into the Church before marrying Catholics. Every RCIA team thus tends to have a marriage expert on the team, who is in charge of guiding candidates and catechumens through the process of getting past marriages annulled and current marriages blessed.
And so it struck me some time ago: It would of course be no problem for Charles and Julia to have their past marriages declared null and to get married in the Church. Lady Julia got married outside the Church, and to a man who had already been married and divorced, so that one is simple: invalid form used by a Catholic automatically results in no marriage. Charles had been an agnostic at the time of getting married, nominally a member of the Church of England, and it doubtless would be possible to have his marriage declared null because of a lack of Catholic understanding of the sacrament.
Of course, this fact is not just a modern innovation. Waugh would himself have been aware of it, having himself been married and divorced before becoming Catholic and having his second marriage blessed in the Church. And yet, somehow an ending in which Charles and Julia, stay together and get married in the Church would rob the novel of much of its meaning. Their relationship is one of the truer loves one sees in the novel — it is begins as an explicitly adulterous liaison on an ocean liner, and continues with Charles’ abandonment of his wife and children. In the novel, and as a novel, the ending of the relationship conveys an giving up of sin, and the pleasures of sin, in a way that annulments and a blessed marriage would not have. As a means of conveying truth, the tragic ending is the only way to go.
I don’t think there’s any question that the annulment process is at times abused in this day and age. Yet that’s not what I’m trying to get at here. Perhaps this is an example of a case where a truth can be more clearly distilled in fiction than in reality. Our tragic sense in fiction can convey things which in life are lost in the details of particular circumstance.
Perhaps also this serves to underscore how much marriage has collapsed as a cultural institution in our modern world. Seventy years after Charles and Julia’s time, the average non-Catholic (or indeed born but not well-catechized Catholic) has a concept of marriage little different from what the pagan culture encountered by the early Church held. Perhaps it’s not inappropriate that the past marriages of those seeking to enter the Church are often dealt with by the Church in roughly the same way as non-Christian marriages were by the early Church.
I think the Church is right to deal with people as they come — sorting out their past entanglements as best as possible without seeking to make becoming Catholic harder than necessary. The general approach of blessing the marriage that people are in when they approach the Church is probably right most of the time.
Yet somehow it bothers me at an artistic level that the situation which generates the falling action in Brideshead is not at all how the Church would deal with matters. It conveys truth so powerfully, it’s hard to think that it’s in any sense not.