Why Are You a Catholic? The Late Novelist’s Parting Reflections

The question, Why are you a Catholic?, arouses in me, I’ll admit, certain misgivings. One reason, the first that comes to mind, is that the prospect of giving one’s “testament,” saying it straight out, puts me in mind of an old radio program on which people, mostly show business types as I recall, uttered their resounding credos which ended with a sonorous Ed Murrow flourish: This—I believe.

Another reason for reticence is that novelists are a devious lot to begin with, disinclined to say anything straight out, especially about themselves, since their stock in trade is indirection, if not guile, coming at things and people from the side so to speak, especially the blind side, the better to get at them. If anybody says anything straight out, it is apt to be one of their characters, a character moreover for which they have not much use.

But since one is obliged by ordinary civility to give a response, the temptation is to utter a couple of sentences to get it over with, and let it go at that. Such as:

I am a Catholic, or if you like, a Roman Catholic, a convert to the Catholic faith. The reason I am a Catholic is that I believe that what the Catholic Church proposes is true.

I’d as soon let it go at that and go about my business. The Catholic faith is, to say the least, very important to me, but I have not the least desire to convert anyone or engage in an apologetic or polemic or a “defense of the Faith.” But a civil question is entitled to a civil answer, and this answer, while true enough, can be taken to be uncivil, even peremptory. And it hardly answers the question.

One justifies the laconicness as a reaction to the current fashion of confessional autobiographies written not only by showbiz types and writers and politicians but by respectable folk as well, confessions which contain not only every sort of sonorous This—I Believe but every conceivable sexual misadventure as well. The sincerity and the prodigality of the conversions seem to be understood to be virtues.

There is also a native reticence at work here. It has to do with the disinclination of Americans to discuss religion and sex in the company of their peers.

When the subject of religion does arise, at least in the South, the occasion is often an uncivil one, a challenge or a provocation or even an insult. It happens once in a while, for example, that one finds oneself in a group of educated persons one of whom, an educated person of a certain sort, may venture some such off-hand remark as

Of course the Roman Catholic Church is not only a foreign power but a fascist power.

or, when in a group of less educated persons, perhaps in a small town barbershop, one of whom, let us say an ex-member of the Ku Klux Klan—who are not bad fellows actually, at least hereabouts, except when it comes to blacks, Jews, and Catholics—when one of them comes out with something like

The Catholic Church is a piece of shit.

then one feels entitled to a polite rebuttal in both cases, in the one with something like, “Well, hold on, let us examine the terms power, foreign, fascist—” and so on, and in the case of the other responding in the same tone of casual barbershop bonhomie with, say, “Truthfully, Lester, you’re something of a shit yourself, even for white trash—” without in either case disrupting, necessarily, the general amiability.

Yet another reason for reticence in matters religious has to do with the infirmity of language itself. Language is a living organism and as such is subject to certain organic ailments. In this case it is the exhaustion and decrepitude of words themselves, an infirmity which has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the sentences they form. The words of religion tend to wear out and get stored in the attic. The word religion itself has a certain unction about it, to say nothing of born again, salvation, Jesus, even though it is begging the question to assume therefore that these words do not have valid referents. And it doesn’t help that when religious words are used publicly, at least Christian words, they are often expropriated by some of the worst rogues around, the TV preachers.

So decrepit and so abused is the language of the Judeo-Christian religions 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. Or else words can become slick as coins worn thin by usage and so devalued. One of the tasks of the saint is to renew language, to sing a new song. The novelist, no saint, has an humbler task. He must use every ounce of skill, cunning, humor, even irony, to deliver religion from the merely edifying.

In these peculiar times, the word sin has been devalued to mean everything from slightly naughty excess (my sin was loving you) to such serious lapses as “emotional unfulfillment,” the stunting of one’s “growth as a person,” and the loss of “intersubjective communication.” The worse sin of all, according to a book I read about one’s growth as a person, is the “failure of creativity.”

One reason the poet and novelist these days have a hankering for apocalypse, the end of the old world and the beginning of the new, is surely their sense that only then can language be renewed, by destroying the old and starting over. Things fall apart but words regain their value. A boy sees an ordinary shell on the beach, picks it up as if it were a jewel he had found, recognizes it, names it. Now the name does not conceal the shell but celebrates it.

Smart-mouthed Answer

Nevertheless, however decrepit the language and however one may wish to observe the amenities and avoid offending one’s fellow Americans, sometimes the question which is the title of this article is asked more or less directly.

When it is asked just so, straight out, just so:

“Why are you a Catholic?”

I usually reply,

“What else is there?”

I justify this smart-mouthed answer when I sense that the question is, as it usually is, a smart-mouthed question. In my experience, the question is usually asked by two or three sorts of people. One knows quite well what is meant by all three.

One sort is perhaps a family acquaintance or friend of a friend or long-ago schoolmate or distant kin, most likely a Presbyterian lady. There is a certain type of Southern Presbyterian lady, especially Georgian, who doesn’t mince words.

What she means is: how in the world can you, a Southerner like me, one of us, of a certain class and background which encompasses the stark chastity of a Presbyterian church or the understated elegance of an Episcopal church (but not a Baptist or Methodist church), a Southern Christian gentleman, that is to say—how can you become one of them, meaning that odd-looking baroque building down the street (the wrong end of the street) with those statues (Jesus pointing to his heart which has apparently been exposed by open-heart surgery)—meaning those Irish, Germans, Poles, Italians, Cajuns, Hispanics, Syrians, and God knows who else—though God knows they’re fine people and I love them all—but I mean there’s a difference between a simple encounter with God in a plain place with one’s own kind without all that business of red candles and beads and priest in a box—I mean, how can you?

The second questioner is a scientific type, not just any scientist but the sort who for certain reasons has elected a blunt manner which he takes to be allowed by friendship and by his scientific mien—perhaps a psychiatrist friend with their way of fixing the patient with a direct look which seeks to disarm by its friendly directness, takes charming leave to cut through the dross of small talk and asks the smiling direct question: “Why are you a Catholic?” But there’s a question behind the question: I mean for God’s sake religion is all very well, humans in any culture have a need for emotional bonding, community, and even atonement—in the sense of at-one-ment—I myself am a Unitarian Universalist with some interesting input of Zen lately—but I mean as if it were not strange enough to elect one of those patriarchal religions which require a Father God outside the cosmos, not only that but that he, this Jewish Big Daddy, elected out of the entire cosmos to enter the history of an insignificant tribe on an insignificant planet, it and no other, a belief for which, as you well know, there is not the slightest scientific evidence—not only that but of the several hundred Jewish-Christian religions, you pick the most florid and vulgar of the lot—why that?

Yet another sort could be a New Age type, an amorphous group ranging from California loonies like Shirley MacLaine to the classier Joseph Campbell who, as wildly different as they are, share a common stance toward all credos: that they are to be judged not by their truth or falsity, sense or nonsense, but by their mythical liveliness. Here the question is not challenging but congratulatory, not: “Why are you a Catholic?” but “So you are a Catholic? How odd and interesting!”

Episcopalians are too polite and gentlemanly to ask the question—and are somewhat inhibited besides, by their own claim on the word Catholic.

Jews, whatever they may think of the Catholic Church, are too intuitive to ask the question, having, as they do, a sense of a commonality here which comes of being an exotic minority, which is to say: never mind what I think of your religion or you of mine; we’ve both got enough trouble at least to leave each other alone.

So the question remains: “Why are you a Catholic?” Asked from curiosity alone, it is a civil question and deserves a civil answer.

Accordingly, I will answer here in a cursory, somewhat technical, and almost perfunctory manner which, as unsatisfactory as it may be, will at least avoid the usual apologetic and polemic. For a traditional defense of the Catholic claim, however valid it may be, is generally unavailing for reasons both of the infirmity of language and the inattentiveness of the age. Accordingly it is probably a waste of time.

My answer to the question, then, has more to do with science and history, science in its root sense of knowing, truth-seeking; history in the sense that, while what is true is true, it may be that one seeks different truths in different ages.

The following statements I take to be commonplaces. Technically speaking, they are for my purposes axioms. If they are not perceived as such, as self-evident, there is no use arguing about them, let alone the conclusions which follow from them.

Here they are:

The old modern age has ended. We live in a post-modern as well as a post-Christian age which as yet has no name.

It is post-Christian in the sense that people no longer understand themselves, as they understood themselves for some fifteen hundred years, as ensouled creatures under God, born to trouble and whose salvation depends upon the entrance of God into history as Jesus Christ.

It is post-modern because the Age of Enlightenment with its vision of man as a rational creature, naturally good and part of the cosmos which itself is understandable by natural science—this age has also ended. It ended with the catastrophes of the twentieth century.

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.

As the century draws to a close, it does not yet have a name but it can be described.

It is the most scientifically advanced, savage, democratic, inhuman, sentimental, murderous century in human history.

I will give it a name which at least describes what it does. I would call it the age of the theorist-consumer. All denizens of the age tend to be one or the other or both.

Darwin, Newton, and Freud were theorists. They pursued truth more or less successfully by theory—from which, however, they themselves were exempt. You will look in vain in Darwin’s Origin of the Species for an explanation of Darwin’s behavior in writing Origin of the Species. Marx and Stalin, Nietzsche and Hitler were also theorists. When theory is applied, not to matter or beasts, but to man, the consequence is that millions of men can be eliminated without compunction or even much interest. Survivors of both Hitler’s holocaust and Stalin’s terror reported that their oppressors were not “horrible” or “diabolical” but seemed, on the contrary, quite ordinary, even bored by their actions, as if it were all in a day’s work.

The denizens of the present age are both sentimental and bored. Last year the Russians and Americans united to save three stranded whales and the world applauded. It seemed a good thing to do and the boredom lifted for a while. This was not true unfortunately of the million Sudanese who died of starvation the same year.

Americans are the nicest, most generous and sentimental people on earth. Yet Americans have killed more unborn children than any nation in history.

Now euthanasia is beginning.

Don’t forget that the Germans used to be the friendliest, most sentimental people on earth. But euthanasia was instituted not by the Nazis but by the friendly democratic Germans of the Weimar Republic. The Weimar Republic was followed by the Nazis.

It is not “horrible” that over a million unborn children were killed in America last year. For one thing, one does not see many people horrified. It is not horrible because in an age of theory and consumption it is appropriate that actions be carried out as the applications of theory and the needs of consumption require.

Theory supersedes political antinomies like “conservative” vs. “liberal,” fascist vs. communist, Right vs. Left.

Accordingly, it should not be surprising that present-day liberals favor abortion just as the Nazis did years ago. The only difference is that the Nazis favored it for theoretical reason (eugenics, racial purity), while present-day liberals favor it for consumer needs (unwanted, inconvenient).

Nor should it be surprising that for the same reason liberals not only favor abortion but are now beginning to favor euthanasia as the Nazis did.

Liberals understandably see no contradiction and should not be blamed for favoring abortion and euthanasia on the one hand and the “sacredness of the individual,” care for the poor, the homeless, and the oppressed on the other. Because it is one thing for a liberal editor to see the poor and the homeless on his way to work in his own city and another to read a medical statistic in his own paper about one million abortions. A liberal may act from his own consumer needs (guilt, sentimentality) and the Nazis may act from theory (eugenics, racial purity) but both are consistent in an age of theory and consumption.

The Nazis did not come out of nowhere.

It may be quite true what Mother Teresa said—if a mother can kill her unborn child, then I can kill you and you can kill me—but it is not necessarily horrifying.

America is probably the last and best hope of the world, not because it is not in the same trouble—indeed the trouble may even be worse due to the excessive consumption in the market place and excessive theorizing in academe—but because with all the trouble it preserves a certain innocence and freedom.

This is the age of theory and consumption, yet not everyone is satisfied by theorizing and consuming.

The common mark of the theorist and the consumer is that neither knows who he is or what he wants outside of theorizing and consuming.

This is so because the theorist is not encompassed by his theory. One’s self is always a leftover from one’s theory.

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?

The consumer, who thought he knew what he wanted—the consumption of the goods and services of scientific theory—is not in fact satisfied, even when the services offered are such techniques as “personal growth,” “emotional maturity,” “consciousness-raising,” and suchlike.

The face of the denizen of the present age who has come to the end of theory and consumption and “personal growth” is the face of sadness and anxiety.

Such a denizen can become so frustrated, bored, and enraged that he resorts to violence, violence upon himself (drugs, suicide) or upon others (murder, war).

Or, such a denizen may discover that he is open to a search for signs, some sign other than theorizing or consumption.

Post-modern Signs

There are only two signs in the post-modern age which cannot be encompassed by theory. One sign is one’s self. No matter how powerful the theory, whether psychological or political, one’s self is always a leftover. Indeed the self may be defined as that portion of the person which cannot be encompassed by theory, not even a theory of the self. This is so because even if one agrees with the theory, what does one do then? Accordingly the self finds itself ever more conspicuously without a place in the modern world, which is perfectly understood by theorizing. The face of the self in the very age which was itself designed for the self’s understanding of all things and to please the self through the consumption of goods and services—the face of the self is the face of fear and sadness because it does not know who it is or where it belongs.

The only other sign in the world which cannot be encompassed by theory is the Jews, their unique history, their suffering and achievements, what they started (both Judaism and Christianity) and their presence in the here-and-now.

The Jews are a stumbling block to theory. They cannot be subsumed under any social or political theory. Even Arnold Toynbee, whose theory of history encompassed all other people, looked foolish when he tried to encompass the Jews. The Jews are both a sign and a stumbling block. That is why they are hated by theorists like Hitler and Stalin. The Jews cannot be gotten around.

The great paradox of the Western World is that even though it was in the Judeo-Christian West that modern science arose and flourished, it is Judeo-Christianity which the present-day scientific set of mind finds the most offensive among the world’s religions.

Judaism is offensive because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other. Christianity is doubly offensive because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, he and no other.

One cannot imagine any statement more offensive to the present-day scientific set of mind. Accordingly it is Hinduism and Buddhism, which have no scientific tradition but whose claims are limited to the self, its existence or nonexistence, which are far less offensive to the present-day scientific set of mind, are in fact quite compatible.

The paradox can be resolved in only two ways.

One is that both the Jewish and Christian claims are untrue, are in fact nonsense, and that the scientific mindset is correct.

The other is that the scientific method is correct as far as it goes, but the theoretical mindset, which assigns significance to single things and events only insofar as they are exemplars of theory or items for consumption, is in fact an inflation of a method of knowing to a totalitarian worldview and is unwarranted.

Semitic Arthurian

Now that I have been invited to think of it, the reasons for my conversion to the Catholic Church, this side of grace, can be described as Roman, Arthurian, Semitic, and semiotic.

Semitic? Arthurian? This is funny because what could be more un-Jewish than the chivalric legend of Arthur? And who could be more un-English than the Old Testament Jews?

Or are they? Or could it in fact have been otherwise? My first hero and the hero of the South for a hundred years was Richard I of Ivanhoe, who with his English knights in the First Crusade stormed the gates of Acre to rescue the holy places from the infidel. But earlier than that: there was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. If one wished to depict the beau ideal of the South, it would not be the crucified Christ, but rather the stoic knight at parade rest, both hands folded on the hilt of his broadsword, his face as grave and impassive as the Emperor’s. In the South, of course, he came to be not the Emperor or Richard but R.E. Lee, the two in one.

Bad though much of Southern romanticism may be, with Christianity and Judaism and Roman valor seen through the eyes of Sir Walter Scott, how could it have been otherwise with me? After all, the pagans converted by St. Paul did not cease to be what they were. One does not cease to be Roman, Arthurian, Alabamian. One did, however, begin to realize a few things. The holy places which Richard rescued and whether he thought about it or not were, after all, Jewish, and he probably did not think about it because his crusaders killed Jews every which way on the way to the Holy Land. Yet Scott succeeded in romanticizing even the Jews in Ivanhoe. But did the European knight with his broadsword at Mont Saint Michel make any sense without the crucified Jew above him? A modem pope said it: whatever else we are, we are first of all spiritual Semites. Salvation, the Lord said, comes from the Jews.

In a word, thanks to the Jews one can emerge from the enchanted mists of the mythical past, the Roman and Arthurian and Confederate past, lovely as it is. For whatever else the Jews are, they are not mythical. Myths are stories which did not happen. But the Jews were there then and are here now.

Semitic? Semiotic? Jews and the science of signs? Yes, because in this age of the lost self, lost in the desert of theory and consumption, nothing of significance remains but signs. And only two signs are of significance in a world where all theoretical cats are gray. One is oneself and the other is the Jews. But for the self that finds itself lost in the desert of theory and consumption, there is nothing to do but set out as a pilgrim in the desert in search of a sign. In this desert, that of theory and consumption, there remains only one sign, the Jews. By “the Jews” I mean not only Israel, the exclusive people of God, but the worldwide ecclesia instituted by one of them, God become man, a Jew.

It is for this reason that the present age is better than Christendom. 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.

I do not feel obliged to set forth the particular religious reasons for my choosing among the Jewish-Christian religions. There are times when it is better not to name God. One reason is that most of the denizens of the present age are too intoxicated by the theories and goods of the age to be aware of the catastrophe already upon us.

How and why I chose the Catholic Church—this side of grace, which leaves one unclear about who does the choosing—from among the Judeo-Christian religions, Judaism, Protestantism, the Catholic Church, pertains to old family quarrels among these faiths and as such is not of much interest, I would suppose, to the denizens of this age. As for them, the other members of the family, the Jews and the Protestants, they are already all too familiar with the Catholic claim for me to have to repeat it here. It would be a waste of their time and mine. Anyhow I do not have the authority to bear good news or to proclaim a teaching.

  • Walker Percy

    Walker Percy, Obl.S.B. (1916 – 1990) was a Southern author from Covington, Louisiana whose interests included philosophy and semiotics. Percy is known for his philosophical novels set in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, the first of which, The Moviegoer, won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. He devoted his literary life to the exploration of "the dislocation of man in the modern age." His work displays a unique combination of existential questioning, Southern sensibility, and deep Catholic faith.

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