Sven Stolpe: The Swedish Waugh


There aren’t very many well-known Swedish Catholics. The most famous is probably St Birgitta (as a Swedish St Birgitta scholar insists we should call her, to distinguish her from St Bridget of Kildare). The second most famous Swedish Catholic is also a woman, Queen Christina. In more recent times, a writer, journalist, hagiographer, playwright, cultural critic, and Catholic convert became well known in Sweden during large parts of the 20th century. The man was Sven Stolpe. And as so happens, he wrote a hagiography of St Birgitta, and wrote his doctoral thesis on Queen Christina.

    Sven Stolpe was born 1905 in Stockholm. His debut as a writer came in 1929 with a collection of essays. Thirty years later he defended his doctoral thesis on Queen Christina, ‘From Stoicism to Mysticism’, at Uppsala University. It is probably one of, if not the most well attended doctoral dissertations in Swedish history. His thesis led to an exchange with the prominent Swedish historian, Curt Weibull, who vehemently disagreed with Stolpe’s position that Queen Christina was interested in libertinism. Sven Stolpe had also been a schoolteacher, with strong views on what students should be reading. At one point he entered the classroom, and not liking a book, he chucked it out of the window!

    At the time of his dissertation, Stolpe was already a Catholic. But in the 1930’s, he had been drawn to the Oxford Group. The American Lutheran minister, Dr. Frank Buchman, founded the group proclaiming a need for ‘moral re-armament,’ which later became the group’s name with the abbreviated form MRA. Since 2001, the group has been known as Initiatives for Change.

     Early in his life, Stolpe had been interested in Catholicism, having published a book on French writers such as Paul Claudel and Charles de Foucauld in 1934 and 1936 respectively. The book was titled The Christian Phalanx, and Stolpe said in the foreword that as a young and insecure critic, he had found a ‘higher intellectual culture than the one I found in Sweden, but above all experiences and fates that I previously hadn’t been able to reach.’ In 1927-28, he had spent some time in Agra, near Lugano, Switzerland where he came in contact with Catholics. Theresa of Avila had a great influence on Stolpe. Later in life, he was a member of the Order of Malta and the French Legion of Honour. In 1947, Stolpe was finally received into the Catholic Church. 

    At the time of Stolpe’s conversion, there still wasn’t any Diocese in Sweden. It wasn’t until 1953 that the Venerable Pope Pius XII re-founded the Diocese of Stockholm. The conversion of Swedes to the Catholic Church was decriminalized in 1860, but the legislative ban on the founding of Catholic convents wasn’t abolished until as late as 1977. He published a collection of essays from different converts in 1955 under the title Why I Became a Catholic. Surprisingly, the Swedish Middle Ages played little to no role in the conversion of most of the authors. Neither did Catholic social teaching. What they often do have in common is a previous instruction in the fundamentals of Christianity from their childhood. Most answers vary, as one would expect, but a shared answer offered in the book is that the converts don’t know why they converted, only God does. A second common feature is the fact that Christ is truly present in the Sacrament.

    Sven Stolpe could without exaggeration be compared to Evelyn Waugh. Both were authors, journalists, and hagiographers, publishing well over 40 books each. They had little patience and a severe temper. They were both converts in a Protestant country, two decades between their conversions, Waugh having converted already in 1930. Their faith was present in their literature and they both partook in public intellectual life as conservatives. Waugh even visited Sweden, delivering the verdict that ‘Swedes are bloody dull.’ Stolpe was always more interested in French, rather than Anglo-Saxon culture, and soon after his conversion published a hagiography of Jean d’Arc. Finding Sweden too ‘atheistic or half-protestant,’ he thought he was too much at odds with his fellow countrymen and spent most of his career in Catholic countries.

    A theme in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is conversion. Charles Ryder finally recognizes the burning candle by the altar for what it is, a reminder that Christ is truly present in the tabernacle. More than twenty years after first meeting his friend, Sebastian Flyte, Charles kneels down in the chapel to recite ‘an ancient, newly learned form of words.’ The sacramental character of the book is clear, with discussions on marriage, vocation and extreme unction. Sven Stolpe wrote a similarly sacramental book, even being titled Sacrament. Monique, the main character, sees herself as a sacrament, and Stolpe presents the ideal of the virgin woman, who wants to resemble the Virgin Mary.

     ‘To be a sacrament for another person, to be so filled by Christ’s love, to be so transparent as to be loved for what one conveys rather than for who one is – a greater task and a greater joy cannot be imagined,’ says Monique. Sacrament here is not to be seen as an eighth sacrament, but rather as the Church is referred to as a sacrament (Lumen Gentium 1:1). Monique becomes sacred by choosing the life of purity inspired by the Mother of God, setting her apart from the rest. She desires more than anything to enter a convent, and any desire a man may have for her is superseded by her love of Christ. The comparison of Stolpe and Waugh should not be taken too far, but may suggest to an Anglophone audience the role Stolpe played in Swedish intellectual and literary life.    

     Stolpe’s temperament made him preach the love of neighbour and speak on spiritual matters at times, while at others he was caught up in vicious debates with his detractors. In one case he got into a verbal exchange of slurs with a Lutheran pastor after a televised debate. Many years later they would meet on another television show, reviewing the life of Sven Stolpe. They got on very well and Stolpe said their previous exchange was forgiven, forgotten, and a fit of the moment. He was known to say that he disliked meeting his opponents because he had the ‘bad habit of becoming good friends with them.’ In this discussion, Stolpe described Jesus as firm and tender—here meaning firm in conviction, and tender as generous of heart. The pastor agreed, adding that Jesus was tender with sinners and the poor, but firm with the hypocrites and oppressors.  

   Throughout his life, Stolpe maintained an ambiguous relationship towards his country of birth, which has been hinted at in this essay. In the book My Heroes, he writes about the Swedish genius – a particularly Swedish characteristic by which one knows he is intellectually ahead of his compatriots, but nevertheless retains a humorous stance towards life, exemplified by the former Archbishop of the Swedish Church, Nathan Söderblom, and the historian Erik Gustaf Geijer. Despite this, he believed being a Catholic and broadly conservative put him at odds with his own compatriots. Asked what he wanted to be remembered for, he responded ‘No, I don’t want to be remembered at all. I don’t think there is any risk for this, you see, that one would be remembered in the Swedish Soviet regime. There won’t be any of us left. There will only be a bunch of red-beards wherever you go.’

    Sven Stolpe died in 1996, and despite his unwillingness to be remembered, he has recently resurfaced in public awareness due to the publication of a biography, and one of his grandchildren being a well-known public figure in Sweden today. Whether he was right about the red-beards running Sweden, and if he embodied his idea of the ‘Swedish genius’, I shall leave the reader to decide.  

By Karl Gustel Warnberg