A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes Book Review

With my re-posting of John J. Reilly’s commentary on Summorum Pontificum yesterday, it seemed like a good time to review this book I read a couple of years ago.

A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the liturgical changes edited by Alcuin Reid, foreword by Joseph Pearce, afterword by Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford 123 pages Published by Ignatius Press (2011) ISBN 978-1-586176-52…

A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the liturgical changes edited by Alcuin Reid, foreword by Joseph Pearce, afterword by Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford 123 pages Published by Ignatius Press (2011) ISBN 978-1-586176-522-1

Evelyn Waugh is one of the most famous, perhaps the most famous English novelist of the twentieth century. Brideshead is of course his masterpiece, and the most adapted of his works. Waugh is also famously Catholic. A Bitter Trial collects letters, diary entries, editorials, and other miscellania from the end of his life on the subject of the changes occurring in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.

It was fascinating to see the period of the Second Vatican Council through the letters exchanged between Waugh and Cardinal Heenan. The good Cardinal seems to have shared some of Waugh’s distress at the changes that were at first proposed, and then imposed by the Second Vatican Council, but Cardinal Heenan also seems to have been compelled to present the party line in public. Reading his letters in this fashion, I get the impression that it all turned out in way the Cardinal didn’t much care for, but lacked the will or the ability to do anything about.

For example, contrast the Cardinal’s letter to Waugh from 25 November 1962:

Venerabilis Frater– as we say in the Council–I was delighted to see your article. There is nothing in there with which I don’t agree.

To this Pastoral Letter from the Cardinal in 1964 for Lent:

The faithful also feel strongly about these questions. I know that from your letters. Take, for example, changes in Holy Mass. Some of you are quite alarmed. You imagine that everything will be changed and what you have known from childhood will be taken away from you. Some, on the other hand, are all for change and are afraid too little will be altered.

Both these attitudes are wrong. The Church will, of course, make certain reforms. That is one of the reasons Councils are held. But nothing will be changed except for the good of souls. With the Pope, we Bishops are the Teaching Church. We love our Faith and we love our priests and people. We shall see that you are not robbed.

And finally this from Cardinal Heenan to Waugh in August of 1964:

But do not despair. The changes are not so great as they are made to appear. Although a date has been set for introducing the new liturgy I shall be surprised if all the bishops will want all Masses every day to be in the new Rite.

Which is of course exactly what happened, and what Cardinal Heenan was forced to impose on his own faithful, even though many of the laity didn’t want it. Cardinal Heenan did secure the Heenan Indult, which nonetheless was interpreted strictly. Summorum Pontificum was the exact reversal of the policy that mandated all Masses in the new Rite, except for special occasions. Something like it fifty years earlier would have resulted in a very different Church. As John Reilly would later note of the creation of a liturgy that incorporated the best elements of the Anglican tradition, such innovations tend to come too late to really change what needed to be changed.

The reason given in the Heenan Indult, and by the liturgists before that, was that allowing the use of the older Mass alongside the new Mass would damage Catholic unity. The existence of groups like the SSPX doubtless confirmed such fears, but one of the bitterest fruits of this policy is that nothing has fractured Catholic unity quite like the liturgical chaos that followed upon the well-intentioned liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council. The new Mass is perfectly capable of being celebrated with piety and reverence, but in practice it seems to have been felt that the rubrics of the Mass could be disregarded at will following the introduction of the new Mass. Endless controversy has followed.

This triumph of theory over experience is in many ways simply typical of the twentieth century. The same spirit can be seen at work in McNamara’s Folly, at about the same time. An excess of trust in expert opinion has not done us any favors. In its slow way, the Catholic Church seems to be recovering the liturgy, but the shocking sexual abuse revelations of the early twenty-first century [many of which occurred during the same time frame as the liturgical experimentation] are still fresh on everyone’s mind. Based on the experience of the liturgy, perhaps another fifty years will suffice to begin again.

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