Editor’s note: in this fascinating interview with Crisis Magazine, the acclaimed novelist Walker Percy discusses the vocations crisis, abortion, Vatican II, popes, and (of course) literature. The interview originally appeared in the July 1989 print edition of Crisis. It has been edited for brevity.
CRISIS: There is tremendous intellectual opposition in the Church to Pope John Paul II. What do you make of that?
PERCY: The poor man. I think he’s getting a bum rap. On TV, they usually say: This pope is a nice man, but he’s a Pole and just by nature reactionary. Yet if you look at his encyclicals, he’s quite liberal politically. He’s almost as critical of free-wheeling capitalism as he is of Marxism. He certainly doesn’t come across as a “conservative” in the usual sense. What his critics mean, although they won’t admit it, is that he is an orthodox Catholic, that he’s bound and determined to maintain the magisterium.
I was talking to a priest the other day who said he was leaving the Church. Why, I asked? Because nothing had changed, he said. Changed how? Well, the bishops should be more independent, the magisterium is too strong, it should be up to the bishops to determine the nature of the Eucharist, and so forth. I said, If you do that, what you’ve got is another Episcopal Church—just another church on the street: a Roman Episcopal Church, next to the Protestant Episcopal Church, and so on.
A couple of years ago you were asked what you thought of Cardinal Ratzinger. You said you didn’t know his work that well, but the right sort of people hated him, so he couldn’t be all bad.
[laughter] I guess I’ll go with that.
What do you think of the Catholic press?
I think it’s all over the place. It’s extremely pluralistic, which is good, and some of it I like, such as Crisis, which I like considerably better than the National Catholic Reporter.
Your writings embody a critique of many of the philosophies of people who now praise you extravagantly. What do you think of this paradox?
Who praised me extravagantly?
Well, when your last book came out, it was surprising to see your face splashed across the front page of the Washington Post “Style” section and the front page of the New York Times Book Review. All of these publications which ought, philosophically, to dislike you, seem to like you, while the mainstream Christian press, which ought to like you, has begun to complain that you don’t care enough about women, the poor, and so on.
Well, that may be a good place to be—misunderstood both by one’s fellow Catholics and by the secular press. For instance, I remember The Moviegoer was well received, and for the wrong reasons, I think. The Catholic novelist has to be very careful. He has to be under-handed, deceitful, and damn careful how he uses the words of religion, which have all fallen into disuse and almost become obscenities, thanks to people like Jimmy Swaggart.
I remember that The Moviegoer was well received and reviewed favorably by the New York Times and other papers. One reviewer said that the reason he or she liked it so much was that at the end of the novel Binx Bolling says something like, “When the word God is mentioned, a curtain comes down in my head; I can’t think about it. What I really believe is that a kick in the ass, in the right place, is the only thing a man can do.” That was read by non-believers to mean, a kick in the ass to the Church, you see, instead of to the nonbelievers. That may be my fault.
On the other hand, if the subject of religion comes up in a novel, or any hint of any kind of conversion or revelation, it’s disapproved of. The secular reviewers say: the author did a good job, his characters are well-drawn, and the plot moves along, but his religion shows. It’s a game you can’t win. What you do is, you tell the story. As Flannery O’Connor said, the worst thing the novelist can do is be edifying. She kept most specific references to the Church out of her work, yet God knows she was as powerful Catholic as I ever knew.
If Miss O’Connor popped out of the grave today, what would surprise her most about the Church?
I think probably the disunity, the near-sundering of the American Church. I think she would be horrified, and probably most of all by the nuns, by what happened to the Georgia nuns, to the Louisiana nuns, and I guess to most of the others. They completely fell apart. They were seduced, not by feminism—which the pope approves of, in the sense of the right of women not to be discriminated against—but by radical feminism. Many of the nuns I know were completely seduced by it, to the point of rebelling against any sort of discipline. They began to mix up the magisterium with macho masculinism, as if the Pope were Hemingway. I think that would horrify O’Connor more than anything else.
Speaking of Flannery O’Connor, how did you happen to use as the leitmotif of The Thanatos Syndrome a passage from one of her essays: Tenderness leads to the gas chamber.
Did she say that?
It’s at the end of her introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann.
I’m amazed. I would happily admit that I did that consciously because I’d love to give her the credit.
Could you explain what “tenderness leads to the gas chamber” means?
I don’t know what exactly Flannery said, but I was thinking of the Nazis and of my experience of the Germans, whom I liked very much. I was in Germany in 1934, the year after Hitler came into power. The Germans seemed to me extremely likable people, extremely sentimental people; they had tremendous tenderness in their conversations. After all, the romantic Gefuehl, openness to feeling, comes from the Germans. God knows they did great things with it: the great German composers from the nineteenth century, for instance. The apposition of German feeling, German tenderness, and the gas chambers struck me as a great mystery at the time. Yet is it a paradox? If Gefuehlor tenderness is all you have, it can lead anywhere. The opposite of tenderness is not cruelty.
That passage from O’Connor about the gas chambers is, in a way, the most political thing she ever wrote. It begins: “In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness” (emphasis added). Similarly, it seems that your last novel is, in one sense, the most political work you’ve written: the subject matter is Tom More foiling a plot against the public weal. Then there’s your recent, unsuccessful effort to publish a letter in The New York Times warning about the danger of taking innocent life by abortion, euthanasia, etc.
The Times was offended. Nothing offends the American liberal more than being compared to the German liberals of the Weimar Republic. There’s a book—not by Nazis, in fact long before the Nazis—advocating abortion and the elimination of life “without value.” It was written by German doctors of the Weimar Republic, which was probably the most liberal democracy in Europe. Not only did large-scale abortions start in the Weimar Republic, not under the Nazis, but euthanasia did, too, as did the elimination of the malformed and “unfit.” All these practices were justified in a book by two liberal Weimar physicians: The Defense of the Destruction of Life Without Value. The whole notion is very reasonable without the Christian ethic—no, it’s got to be more than the Christian ethic, it’s got to be an article of faith. We talk about the sacredness of life as if it’s a democratic swear-word, but unless you really mean it, what’s more reasonable than doing what the Weimar scientists did? Why bother with people whose “quality of life” is inferior?
Why are abortion rights so central a feature in the ideological canon of groups who are usually committed to what we would call compassion or tenderness?
That’s a very good question. If I had anything to say to the liberals, in the usual sense of that word, it is that I agree with them on almost everything: their political and social causes, and the ACLU, God knows, the right to freedom of speech, to help the homeless, the poor, the minorities, God knows the blacks, the third world—their hearts are in the right place. It’s actually a mystery, a bafflement to me, how they cannot see the paradox of being in favor of these good things and yet not batting an eyelash when it comes to destroying unborn life.
They also pride themselves on being scientific, yet the scientific consensus is, in the matter of Roe v. Wade, how wrong Blackmun was when he said there’s no scientific agreement about when human life begins. That’s absolutely untrue, scientifically. It was a stupid statement, and I’ve heard indirectly that he knew better. To get back to the liberals, I feel a great sorrow that this tremendous energy that goes into all the other causes with which I agree is not going into the protection of life.
Would the disregard of the spiritual have something to do with that? Many criticized the character Father Smith in your last book because he keeps leaving the world and going up into the fire tower to wrestle with his God. Spiritual life, it seems, is unimportant; only good works matter.
Absolutely. That’s the Christian scandal: the emphasis on individual human life. Absent that, what’s wrong with improving the quality of life? What’s wrong with getting rid of people who get in the way? What’s wrong with putting old, miserable people out of their misery? What’s wrong with getting rid of badly handicapped, suffering children. Once you’re on that slippery slope, where does it end? It ends in the gas chamber. If the consensus is that the Jews are bad for the polity, what’s wrong with getting rid of Jews? How do you make the argument that we shouldn’t get rid of Jews, or gypsies, or Catholics, or “anti-social blacks”?
What now provides the subject matter of literature? It used to be regional experience—what was distinctive about my small town or this big city. If everyone has the same narrow body of experience, what becomes the great topic for a writer?
Well, I can speak for myself. I’m not interested in the South except as a backdrop, a setting. To over-simplify vastly, I work on a couple of premises. One is that twentieth-century man is deranged, literally deranged. In this society, which is post-Christian, post-modern—the era doesn’t have a name yet—there is no coherent theory of man, as I say in my Jefferson lecture. The only theory of man in the air is what comes from the popular media, which is a kind of a pop scientific idea which I say is fundamentally Cartesian and incoherent.
Tocqueville—an amazing fellow—said it 150 years ago: All the Americans I know are Cartesians without having read a word of Descartes. He meant that an educated American believes that everything can be explained “scientifically,” can be reduced to the cause and effect of electrons, neurons, and so forth. But at the same time, each person exempts his own mind from this, as do scientists. I see this endemic Cartesianism, and my criticism is that it leaves us without a coherent theory of man. Consequently, modern man is deranged.
In these books you seemed to have solved a problem that Tocqueville and Flannery O’Connor both worried about, namely, What will writers have to write about as modern life becomes ever more prosaic, safe, and comfortable? It seems that a safe and comfortable existence can produce more than enough turmoil in a soul to provide a writer with drama.
Yes, Will Barrett in The Last Gentleman had it made, did everything, accomplished everything, then had a mid-life crisis and started falling down in the sand traps on the golf course. This fits in well with a recent discovery called the “Florida Syndrome.” A psychiatrist in St. Petersburg studied a lot of people, good people, who did the right American thing: worked hard for 30 years, saved their money, retired, and went to live in this American Eden in Florida (or Southern California or Phoenix). They feel entitled, and are entitled, to be rewarded for a life of toil, usually pretty dreary. After 30 years they go to Florida, and a very large percentage, according to this doctor, get depressed, get disoriented, feel terrible, so bad that a lot of them move back to their little house in Dubuque. I was pleased to hear that. [laughter]
I like one thing that Einstein said—I couldn’t understand much else that he said. Somebody asked him, How did it happen that you got into nuclear physics, this extraordinarily theoretical work? He said, I did it to escape the dreariness of ordinary life in this world. He said, I mean dreary. He was living an ordinary middle-class, German, Jewish life. From what I observe, even with the huge consumption in this country, an awful lot of people are very unhappy, find life very dreary, and move a lot—all the time. I know a couple— both of them over 70—who move from one condominium to another, looking for a different golf course. [laughter]
You mentioned the absence among people of a shared view of life. The conventional view seems to be: Who needs that? Everyone should come up with his own philosophy. Why bother with an overarching, teleological point of view? What’s wrong with this commonplace privatization of “values”?
Well, I can’t do better than quote Mother Teresa. She said about abortion: “If a mother can kill her unborn child, I can kill you, and you can kill me.” The privatization of values could lead to that, couldn’t it?
You once said you converted because of “Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true.” What can the Church do to reap converts?
Well, that’s the answer. The only chance the Church has of ever making converts, or even getting vocations within her own people, is to remain true to herself. God knows, it’s hard. The Holy Father is trying to cleave to these very unpopular teachings on monogamy, abortion, contraception, and all the others. The poor man is having the hardest time in the world. He’s going squarely against the entire zeitgeist of the modern world. But if he doesn’t do it… well, what’s happened with so many religious orders? They’ve become so “liberal,” so unrecognizable as religious orders, that they’re not getting any people coming in. Why bother? Vocations are down dramatically. Why not? They were not down when I became a Catholic; we had a flourishing Benedictine community right in the little town where I lived. The nuns have disappeared, folded. They’ve gone in all kinds of different directions, every kind of feminism.
Vatican II, of course, was the opening of the Church to the modern world. The idea was precisely to make Catholicism more relevant, to attract more converts. Was Vatican II in any sense a mistake, or at least imprudent tactically?
I don’t think so. I think the Church will weather that. There was nothing unorthodox about Vatican II; it is no abridgment of dogma or doctrine. I think a lot of people use Vatican II as an excuse to chuck the whole thing, to throw out the baby with the bathwater. They talk about Vatican II, but what they really want to do is get rid of the Magisterium, get rid of the Eucharist, and you know what Flannery O’Connor said about that: “If it’s only a symbol, the hell with it.”
Didn’t you once tell an interviewer who asked about the “heroic role” of the writer: “Hell, I can’t think of any writer who was heroic, except maybe Flannery O’Connor”?
That’s true for me. Writers are a pretty sorry lot, to tell you the truth, a bad lot altogether.
Your work often makes one think of Chesterton: both of you make so much use of paradox and comedy. Why do authors with Christian concerns use paradox and comedy?
Kierkegaard said that the comic is of the same essence as the religious. Even though they appear to be bipolar, one springs from the other. Only a true believer can see how funny it all is. It just seems so natural to me, maybe I can’t even analyze it.
To get back to your question about the Catholic media, if I had one wish for Catholic journalism, it would be to have something like the Jews have in Commentary. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with Commentary; if you want to find out about current Jewish thought, Commentary comes to mind right away. It’s extremely well done. I wish there was a journal like it for Catholics. Maybe Crisis can do something like that.