Brideshead vs. RCIA

Friday, August 28, AD 2009

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):

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9 Responses to Brideshead vs. RCIA

  • As co-director of our RCIA and the so-called “marriage expert” for our parish, I came to the same conclusion as to why so many marriages are declared null – lack of catechesis with no understanding of what a Catholic marriage is. And, I know what it is to be married outside the Church without an annulment – my husband and I both went through the annulment process when he decided to convert after 23 years of “civil” marriage. In fact, nearly every member of our RCIA team has been through the process. It is, indeed, an incredibly rewarding process to walk the journey with the candidates and catechumens.

  • I had a similar thought when read The End of the Affair (not to give too many spoilers, but as in Brideshead, part of the plot turns on the fact that one of the characters was in a voidable marriage and thus was “trapped” according to the Church). My assumption was that whatever the official doctrine, remarriage in the Church in England at that time was just not done (the trouble C.S. Lewis had in marrying Joy Davidman despite her prior marriage being invalid and the fact they were Anglican tended to re-enforce this impression). But the biographical detail about Waugh throws me a bit (I had somehow got the impression that his first wife died after the divorce before he remarried).

  • But the biographical detail about Waugh throws me a bit (I had somehow got the impression that his first wife died after the divorce before he remarried).

    This sent me off into paniced googling, since I had basically assumed that the marriage had been annulled by the Church since I knew his second marriage was Catholic. As it turns out, though, she lived until 1994:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-evelyn-nightingale-1429113.html

  • Yeah, I’m not quite sure how I got the idea that she had died. Weird.

  • I’ve been interested in a while now on how Brideshead is a lament for the losses of the First World War.

    Anyway, here is a good piece on his early life
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/6023040/Evelyn-Waughs-mad-world.html

  • “My assumption was that whatever the official doctrine, remarriage in the Church of England at the time was not possible.”

    How ironic, given that the Church of England was created more or less for the sole purpose of enabling King Henry VIII to divorce and remarry.

    It has also occurred to me that Jack and Joy Lewis’ dilemma regarding their marriage would have been easily resolved had they been Catholic, even though the Catholic Church at the time was regarded as much stricter about divorce. The Catholic Church would have regarded Joy’s first marriage as null and void on the grounds of “ligamen” or a prior bond on the part of Bill Gresham, who had been married and divorced before he met Joy.

  • Is it is possible that the author was presenting people who were under the mistaken impression of how the church dealt with matters and acted accordingly? (I’ve never read Brideshead)

    It is not uncommon though for authors, even sometimes catholic authors, to present the church in a more rigid or legalistic manner than it actually is… and in some ways it is a stereotype often employed in the popular culture.

    God Bless,

  • Interesting post, Darwin. The same thought had crossed my mind second time I read it. Perhaps Waugh was relying on the readers’ ignorance, his point being that Charles was an occasion of sin for Julia–that Julia’s change of heart has her wanting a purer state of life. I never liked Julia–and Charles always seems so wimpy. I never could believe in their love as a higher love. And yet I like the book. Best is the dying Signum Crucis, and Sebastian’s finally finding peace.

  • And yet something Waugh reveals to us, through Lady Julia, is that sometimes God gives us extravagant grace through which we can do what seems impossible and unbearable. When He speaks to us in such a way, the only possible answer is a resounding, if fright-filled, “Yes!”