By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 23, 2018
Over the past few weeks—in the wake of the crisis in the Catholic Church—I’ve had a number of experiences, encounters, and exchanges that have been by turns puzzling, maddening, and serendipitous.
Two weeks ago, for example, when my family and I were enjoying several days in New York City, we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We walked slowly and solemnly through that magnificent church, lit some candles, and offered a few prayers. We’d been walking around Manhattan all morning, and it was near lunch, and we were all hungry and a bit irritable. As we were preparing to leave the cathedral, a voice came over a microphone, quietly announcing—almost apologetically to the throng of tourists—that Mass would begin in just a few minutes.
“Get in a pew,” my wife said to me and our boys. “We’re staying.”
So we found a place near the front, at the foot of the stairs leading up to the high altar, and we joined about fifty or sixty other ordinary people, most of them who looked like nearby office workers, for a simple low Mass in one of the most extraordinary churches in the United States. I think the entire liturgy lasted about 25 minutes, including the brief homily.
We were all glad that my wife insisted we stay, and aside from receiving the sacrament, I was most happy by the fact that my sons were impressed not with the short liturgy, but that the Mass was, as they innocently observed, “just like at home.”
Just like at home.
So the other day, when a student challenged me in class as to why I’m a Catholic, I said simply “it’s home.”
“Yeah, I know,” the student sighed. “I’m Catholic too.”
These incidents each demonstrate why, for me, I stay Catholic. William Faulkner said that “we don’t love because; we love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
Walker Percy put it more simply. When asked why he was a Catholic, he answered simply, “What else is there?”
I have been reading a lot of classic Catholic apologetics lately, which I’ve found helpful in dealing with the scandals, and I remain struck by the tone and insights offered by Walker Percy’s short essay “Why Are You A Catholic?”
A belief in the truth
Percy wrote the essay in 1990 for a collection edited by Clifton Fadiman, “Living Philosophies,” and the essay is reprinted in Percy’s own collection “Signposts in a Strange Land.” The piece remains one of the best contemporary short defenses of the faith.
As a Southerner and a novelist, Percy was often called to act as a public defender of Catholicism, whether he wanted to or not. His regional identity and his artistic vocation led many people to presume that the Catholic Church would be alien to him. Percy’s essay briefly and brilliantly proves otherwise.
Percy begins by stating simply, “The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe what the Catholic Church proposes is true.”
He then acknowledges that making such a declaration is problematic. Socially, as a Southerner, Percy was not much given to discussing religion and politics in polite conversation. Yet more importantly, Percy acknowledges linguistic reasons for his wariness. Because language is organic, a living thing, it can wear out. The meanings we once attached to the language of Christianity have in many ways become exhausted. Percy writes that “So decrepit and so abused is the language of the Judeo-Christian religion that it takes an effort to salvage them, the very words, from the husks and barnacles of meaning which have encrusted them over the centuries.” Indeed, Percy says, “one of the tasks of the saint is to renew language, to sing a new song.”
Why Catholic? The evangelical Protestant asks out of a kind of mystified bemusement; the scientist out of skepticism; the spiritualist out of what Percy calls a “mythical liveliness.” Percy answers the question from a position of clear reason and logic, and affirms what he asserts to be facts:
“We live in a post-modern as well as a post-Christian age.”
“It is post-Christian in the sense that people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some 1,500 years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble, and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into human history Jesus Christ.”
“The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia.”
Percy, who was a trained physician, concludes his diagnosis by critiquing the paradox of the 20th century. In the most scientifically and technologically advanced era in human history, the 20th century was also the most savagely violent.
Fulfilling his duties as novelist, philosopher, and linguist, Percy therefore gives the present age a name. He calls our age “the age of the theorist-consumer.” The problem with this age, consequently, is that “neither the theorist nor the consumer knows who he is or what he wants outside of theorizing and consuming.”
Looking for signs
Percy was often at his best, and his most scathing, when he went after the self-help gurus and other hacks who preach a gospel of materialism and personal fulfillment, and he pulls no punches here: “For even if one becomes passionately convinced of Freudian theory or Marxist theory at three o’clock of a Wednesday afternoon, what does one do with oneself at four o’clock?”
Lest you think Percy’s essay is a depressing lament, there are two key moments in the piece that are luminous. One comes at the end; the first in the middle. The first is this: in an age defined by relativism, materialism, self-absorption, and shifting trends the good news is that we are offered a choice. We can choose self-destruction or nihilism, or we can choose to look for what Percy calls “signs.”
For Percy, there are two key signs in our present age that cannot be explained or absorbed by theory. One is the self, for the self can never be fully explained or understood without the miracle of revelation.
The second is the Jewish people, “a stumbling block to theory,” because of their incredibly unique role in salvation history, and therefore human history. While Percy acknowledges his own conversion to Catholicism was aided by ideals of heroism and valor that are inherent in both Southern and Roman culture, he sides primarily with historical fact rather than myth.
“In this desert, that of theory and consumption, there remains only one sign, the Jews. The Jews were there then and they are here now.” And of course through this people, God became incarnate and humbled himself to share in our humanity.
Placing a genuine and revealed understanding of the self in company with indisputable historical fact leads to belief, and for Percy that belief is best expressed in the Catholic Church.
The second hopeful conclusion at the end of the essay affirms the role of the seeker. “In the old Christendom, everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony; which is to say, open to signs.”
At a time in our Church when so many are questioning their faith and the role of the Church, Percy’s essay offers a number of helpful insights. For one, we do not follow our Catholic faith blindly; we can support our faith by reason and informed argument. Secondly, we can support our faith through the power of myth but also through objective historical fact. Third, in affirming our faith as an antidote to the woes of theory and consumption we can, most importantly, remain open to the possibility of signs, of the persistence of mystery and wonder in a world marked by catastrophe.
In renouncing the catastrophe that Percy deplores, we can therefore embrace what Tolkien calls, Eucatastrophe, “the Consolation of the Happy Ending … Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.