Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 6.4 (2003) 150-163
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George Orwell's Anti-Catholicism
CATHOLIC READERS AND CRITICS have praised George Orwell's rejection of totalitarianism in his famous novel 1984 , and his critique of what Orwell saw as Stalin's corruption of the Bolshevik revolution in his political fable, Animal Farm. This praise is appropriate. In 1984, Orwell, a long-time socialist, describes the horrors of a system that subsumed all individual liberty to the power of a totalitarian political party; likewise, in Animal Farm, he unflinchingly describes the realities of Stalin's rise to power.
But, as Catholics, we should not attribute Orwell's insights to a Christian perspective. His insights resulted from his commitment to objective truth. Orwell examined the ideologies of the right and the left in the light of lived experience and reason, but he did so without the illumination provided by faith and an understanding of man's unique place in creation and the special role of the Catholic Church in bringing light and life to mankind. Orwell was an agnostic who recognized that Western Civilization owed much to Christianity, but he denigrated the importance of faith in the lives of individual human beings. He was nostalgic for the language and liturgy of the Church of England, but he considered all religions as remnants of a prescientific [End Page 150] epoch. In addition, Orwell was vehemently anti-Catholic. Throughout his adult life, Orwell consistently attacked the church and her adherents. By using the divine gift of reason and the natural virtue of honesty, Orwell reached conclusions that are compatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church regarding the rights of man and the dignity of labor. He did not, however, perceive this connection. He lived and died as an enemy of the Catholic Church.
George Orwell was born Eric Blair in 1903. He was the son of a conventional member of the colonial British government of India and a sometimes unconventional housewife whose friends were Fabian socialists and whose female relatives were active in the suffragette movement. He was baptized in the Anglican Church as a baby, but he did not mature as a Christian. In fact, Orwell reported that until he was fourteen years old he accepted "mechanically the Christian religion without having any sort of affection for it." 1 Further, Orwell stated that rather than loving God as he was enjoined to do, he "hated him, just as I hated Jesus." 2 Orwell's understanding of the Trinity was incomplete to say the least.
As an adult, Orwell rejected all religious belief as a sign of intellectual immaturity—"pie in the sky" 3 thinking—that was a hallmark of earlier ages of human history but was unnecessary and untenable in the twentieth century. Orwell's antireligious stance led him to the astounding proposition that "the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries." 4 His antireligious stance was especially severe regarding "those stinking Catholics" 5 and the Catholic Church, which he described as "parasitic." 6
According to Christopher Hollis, one of Orwell's early biographers and a convert to Catholicism, Orwell's conception of man and the purpose of human existence was that "[m]an should be decent and happiness is the end of man." 7 Orwell did recognize that many men, even if they are happy, do not act in "decent" ways. They could, in fact, act in very selfish and inhumane ways. Hollis believes that Orwell was, in effect, faced with the question: "What sanction could [End Page 151] one provide that would induce the bad to behave decently?" 8 In his book, A Study of George Orwell: The Man and His Works, Hollis points out that in various essays Orwell demonstrates that he understands that religion offers an answer to this question; that is, if wrongdoing is not punished in this life, it will be punished in the next, and virtue will then be rewarded. According to this line of reasoning, virtue is motivated by the...