Waugh’s Helena, Father General, and the reality of revelation

George Weigel

Evelyn Waugh’s slim and critically unappreciated novel, Helena, was something of a literary experiment for a modern master of English literature. The eponymous heroine, mother of the Emperor Constantine, talks in her youth like a flapper from the Roaring Twenties; the storytelling is spare, absent the lush prose of Brideshead Revisited; Waugh’s preference for “the picturesque [over] the plausible” in historically questionable matters is enough to offend a squadron of academics. At bottom, though, the novel, the only one of his books Waugh ever read aloud to his children, is an act of faith in the reality of revelation.

Which makes it an especially appropriate read during Lent-2017.

Helena, whom Waugh first portrays as the horseback-riding, tomboy daughter of the British King Coel (that “merry old soul”), marries a rising young Roman legionary, Constantius, and with him has a son, Constantine. For political reasons, Constantius trades in Helena for a trophy wife, and while he climbs the greasy pole of Roman military politics, she retires to the rural quiet of the empire’s periphery and eventually becomes a Christian. Reunited with her son after he establishes himself as Number One in Rome and begins to lay plans for a new capital, Constantinople, Helena discovers that post-persecution Christianity in Rome is embroiled in theological controversy, with various forms of Gnosticism threatening to reduce the faith to an arcane “knowledge” (the Greek “gnosis”) accessible only to the elite.

So the elderly Helena, a practical British girl and something of a populist despite her status as Dowager Empress, decides to put paid to that nonsense by going to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and recovering the instruments of the passion: the physical evidence that Christianity, rather than being an esoteric myth, is founded on real events that happened to real people at a real time in a real place – events that so changed those people and those they taught that the Christian movement converted a considerable part of the Mediterranean world before Constantine (always on the lookout for the main chance) joined the winning side. Helena’s quest, which has its climax during Lent, is rewarded by the discovery of the True Cross.

Helena is full of Waugh’s humor – including a hilarious putdown of Edward Gibbon and the anti-Christian motif in his Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire – which makes for easy and amusing reading. The author’s intent, however, was entirely serious. He knew that Gnosticism was a protean heresy that re-occurred across the centuries. And as a convert (like his heroine), Evelyn Waugh chose the best tools at his disposal, his well-honed abilities as a wordsmith, to take a standagainst the modernist tendency to reduce revelation to myth – and to make ourselves the judges of revelation, rather than being judged by it.

Shortly before Lent-2017, the newly-elected General of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa, SJ, gave an interview in which he was asked about Cardinal Gerhard Mueller’s recent statement that “no power,” including popes, councils, and bishops, could change the words of Jesus on marriage and divorce. Father Sosa brushed that off by saying that “no one had a [tape] recorder,” so that it’s up to us to put Christ’s words in the appropriate context, presumably drawn from contemporary experience. Father Sosa insisted that this was not “relativism;” be that as it may, it certainly is Gnosticism, of a distinctly modern form.

In its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, the fathers of Vatican II wrote that Scripture, and the continuous Tradition which lives from it, “are like a mirror, in which the Church, during its pilgrim journey here on earth, contemplates God, from whom she receives everything…”  A few paragraphs later, the Council fathers affirm that the authors of Scripture “consigned to writing whatever [God] wanted written, and no more.” So, no, no one had a tape recorder; the gospel writers had something better – the assistance of the Holy Spirit in preparing texts that included “whatever [God] wanted written, and no more.”

It has been clear for over two years that the marriage/divorce/holy communion controversy pits those who, with Vatican II, affirm the reality of revelation against those who insist that experience and history judge revelation. We can be grateful to Father Sosa for underscoring this point in an unmistakable way.

COMING UP: On “owning” the Church

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The question of “who owns the Church” has had a stormy history in Catholic America, although the terms of reference have changed considerably over time. In the 19th century, “lay trusteeism” – lay boards that owned parish property and sometimes claimed authority over the appointment and dismissal of pastors – was a major headache for the U.S. bishops. Today, the question is more likely to arise from the wetlands of psychobabble; thus one Midwestern diocesan chancellor recently spoke about a diocesan “needs assessment” that “can give ownership to the people,” presumably of their lives as Catholics.

A similar imagery of ownership was used during the Long Lent of 2002, in response to the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance. In March of that year, a religious sister in Boston, the epicenter of the crisis, said, “This is our Church, all of us, and we need to take it back.” Similar sentiments are heard today from “pastoral planners” who take their cues from Protestant megachurches in which creating a feeling of “ownership” on the part of the congregation, often by blurring the border between sacred and profane, is very much part of the marketing-and-retention strategy.

Lent is always a good time to ponder this business of “ownership,” and Lent-2017 seems an especially apt moment to reflect on it. For “ownership” is being contested in the Church in sharp ways: the college of bishops is divided on questions of sacramental discipline; prominent Catholic leaders claim something like an “ownership” of Scripture and tradition, by which they decide what in revelation is binding and what can be jettisoned; the half-century long struggle about who “owns” Vatican II continues to rage on.

A serious reflection on the questions, “Who owns the Church?” and “What does this ‘ownership’ mean?” will begin with the Word of God: in this case, the Last Supper discourse of Jesus in John’s gospel. There, the Lord makes the matter rather clear: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide…” [John 15.12-16].

The Church is not ours; the Church is Christ’s. We did not create the Church; Christ did – “You did not choose me, but I chose you….” No earthly power creates the Church and no earthly power owns the Church. The Church was created by the Lord Jesus, and it is his, not ours. So the Church is not ours to “take back,” and it is not ours to “own,” because it never belonged to us. And if we make the Church our own, we defy the Lord whose Church it is.

That’s been hard to grasp for a very long time, as we learn from another New Testament text that repays reading during Lent, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. There, Paul unwinds a sixteen-chapter-long argument to drive home one essential point: no merely human institution – no matter how clever, pure, or sensitive to its members’ “needs” – can remit a single, small sin. Only the ministry of the Church can do that. And the ministry of the Church can do it because of the salvific history that is recalled when, in confession, we bow before the words of absolution: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins…”

It is Christ’s Church, and the Church celebrates the sacraments through Christ’s power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. During Lent, a season in which the great sacraments of Baptism, the Eucharist, and Penance come into high relief, it is good to think on that, pray over it, give thanks for it – and perhaps resolve, in the future, to avoid imagery and language that suggests that “this is our Church.”