Orwell and Catholicism

Article excerpt

GEORGE ORWELL ENJOYED RUMINATING in print over how a writer's social and political beliefs seem to move beneath what he writes like an underground stream. One of the twentieth century's greatest essayists in English, he was extremely sensitive to how subject matter and honesty weighed against style. Among other topics, this frequently led him to expand on several ideas about Roman Catholicism that pervade his essays and non-fiction. Throughout his career he seemed to adjust these ideas to fit into his own world view, the outline or model of politics that looms in the background--or right at the front--of so much of his writing.

John Rodden and Leroy Spiller are the only critics who have paid attention to this aspect of Orwell's thinking. But Rodden's main interest is Orwell criticism--how Catholic, Jewish, conservative, radical, and other critics have reacted to his work and whatever attention he paid to those groups--not the development of Orwell's attitude toward Catholics and his conclusions about them at the end of his career. Since the Church is an important institution and Orwell is an important writer, the subject is of interest. When reading his essays and journalism, we are able to follow a first-rate intellect's patterns of thought on a critical issue.

Spiller comes closest to making a thorough analysis of Orwell's attitude toward the Church, but he concentrates chiefly on his radical anti-Catholic shift during the Spanish Civil War and on the general anti-Catholic tone in his work. (1) But Orwell's anti-Catholicism went through more stages of development and decline than anyone seems to have noticed. Particularly significant is the concession, late in his career, that some Catholic and conservative writers, including Chesterton, Belloc, and Peter Drucker, may have been very astute in their political predictions, an achievement Orwell valued highly.


Orwell's arguments revolve around the importance of converts to Catholicism in British literature of the 1920s and 1930s (for instance, Evelyn Waugh); the political weight of the Church in British, Irish, American, and international affairs; and, above all, the Church as a universal institution with the appeal and the power of a vast organization, in direct competition with the Communist Party, a similar organization in his eyes. (2) He generally did not talk about "the Church," but rather about Catholicism or "the Catholics"; the tone of his comments range from mild antagonism to blunt hostility. The main point is that religion is always treated as politics pretending to be something else.

Orwell saw Catholicism as a reactionary force working against left-wing movements in the world, not as a moral force preaching a doctrine that was unique. He must have sensed, however, that something was missing from his definition of the Church, for his opinion shifted with the course of events in the middle of the last century, until finally his understanding of Catholicism must have seemed so inadequate that he stopped referring to it in his journalism, at least as an essential part of the paradigm he was always readjusting to display his world view.

A good place to start considering his attitude toward Catholicism is in the middle of his career, with "Inside the Whale," a long essay published in 1940. At first the scope of the essay appears to be fairly narrow, the literary career of Henry Miller and an appraisal of his novels, if they even are novels, for as Orwell comments, so much in Miller's books appears to be straight autobiography, and, many would add, laced with a good deal of fantasy. He praises Miller's Black Spring (1936), which he describes as an American's view of Paris, where Orwell himself had lived in the twenties, and that of an American who is completely apolitical; and with this last point he begins a long digression on writers who are political, and why they are.

He discusses how unique Miller is among British and American writers of the 1920s and 1930s. …