“Dishevelled white men were staring ahead with vague, uncomprehending eyes, to the end of the room where two candles burned. The priest turned towards them his bland, black face .... ”
Evelyn Waugh knew that a vision of Africans proclaiming the faith to whites would startle his readers in 1933. But it is a literal description of many American and European parishes today. At the church nearest me, self-satisfied Irish-Americans listen to an Igbo priest preach, and then complain about his accent at brunch.
On the level of the universal Church, the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah has become the most full-throated defender of Catholic faith. When he quotes John’s Apocalypse, European bishops are baffled. I cannot imagine what they think when he promises that in the battle against secularism, “Africa, like the Vendée, will resist!”
The Holy Ghost Fathers who rigorously catechized Sarah are long gone, as are the French colonial textbooks that taught him he was descended from the Gauls. Even so, I sometimes think we are heading toward the world described by Waugh. He got the idea from John Gray’s novel Park, whose hero is transported to a future in which savage Englishmen live underground while civilized Africans cultivate England’s green and pleasant land, celebrating splendid Latin liturgies, studying the perennial philosophy...
When I mentioned Waugh’s story on Twitter recently, I was inundated with messages from members of the alt-right, who told me that Christianity is for “cucks”—short for cuckold, a slur they hurl against whites who don’t subscribe to their racial theories. I think I was even called a social justice warrior. Who guessed that Evelyn Waugh would one day appear as a paragon of wokeness?
Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. Waugh is usually caricatured as a bellowing, gin-swilling bigot, the collective id of pimply conservative boys. This is about as accurate as my youthful impression that Jane Austen was a writer of pretty trivialities, just because my big sister once tried to force Emma on me. As it happens, I think those alt-right accusations had some truth to them. Christianity really is for cucks, and no one knew it as well as Waugh.
One sees this most clearly in Sword of Honour, his novel about one man’s disillusionment while fighting World War II. At the outset of the story, Guy Crouchback is living alone in Italy in self-imposed exile. As a pious Catholic, he still believes himself married to the woman who left him eight years before, but he has nonetheless been “deprived of the loyalties which should have sustained him.” England may be his country; Virginia may be his wife. But neither one will claim him.
When war is declared, Guy at last has a purpose. “Now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.” He goes to pray at a crusader’s tomb—then it’s off to join the army. Once in uniform, he even hopes to retake his wife.
Instead of enjoying conquest, he suffers a series of humiliating erotic and military defeats. Guy tries to seduce his wife and fails. She instead becomes pregnant by her former hairdresser, a man named Trimmer who through a series of comic mishaps becomes an unlikely war hero. Guy’s aspirations to success in field and bed are deflated by perfect parody. Virginia fears scandal and tries to abort the child before desperately asking Guy to acknowledge it as his own. He chivalrously agrees. He is a cuckold, a cuck. By embracing this role, he becomes true Christian and knight.
At the end of the war, Guy is stationed in Yugoslavia, where his exertions serve merely to shore up the coming Communist reign. His dreams of facing off against an allied Hitler and Stalin have given way to the reality of midwifing red terror. He is stripped of his last illusions when a female acquaintance denounces the men who thought war would make them heroes:
It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed…I knew Italians—not very many, perhaps—who felt this. Were there none in England?
“God forgive me,” Guy says, “I was one of them.”
Like Fr. Martin’s Christ, Waugh’s hero learns from a wise woman. He sees that Christianity is not a matter of blood, or of race, or of victory in this world. It requires us to accept defeat in this life so we might enjoy triumph in the next. A Catholic cannot be certain that his line will continue or his country thrive. He only knows that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church. This is why Waugh could happily entertain the idea that black men would bear forth a faith and culture abandoned by whites. Perhaps it will not happen, but no Christian would mind if it did.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow.