Q: How do you account for your belief?
A: I can only account for it as a gift from God. —Walker Percy (1916-1990), a prize-winning American writer from Louisiana who converted to Catholicism in mid-life
It is time to step back for a moment from the chaos and insanity of the modern West, where the words “father” and “mother” are being abandoned, where divorce is passing the 50% mark and rising, where new forms of marriage are being approved, where the economic system is hollowing out the middle class and enriching the “.01%,” where ISIS beheads Christians, human trafficking is rampant, and the Church seems uncertain and divided.
Ok. Where to start.
The American William Donohue, head of the Catholic League, a group which defends the Catholic faith, on May 1 wrote an important comment on the US Supreme Court’s oral arguments on marriage in late April: “The oral arguments proved why the gay marriage issue is before the Supreme Court: radical individualism and radical egalitarianism are the driving ideologies,” he writes. “In the second set of oral arguments, the word ‘dad’ was never mentioned, and the word ‘father’ was cited only once. ‘Mom’ was mentioned once, and ‘mother’ was never cited. There was zero discussion of religion. The words ‘right’ and ‘rights,’ however, were cited 24 times, but the words ‘responsibility’ and ‘responsibilities’ were never mentioned. Neither were the words ‘kin’ and ‘kinship.’”
So we are in a world of “radical individualism” which seems intent on tearing down traditional faith, and the traditional family. What to do?
Hold fast. Stay the course. Keep the faith.
This brings me to Walker Percy.
Percy’s thought, his philosophical essays, deepened my understanding of language and logos. (I wrote a college thesis on his thought. I was also privileged to meet him for an afternoon at his home in Covington, Louisiana, outside New Orleans.)
In a piece called “Questions They Never Asked Me,” collected in Conversations with Walker Percy, Percy said some things which relate to our current malaise.
It seemed appropriate to cite them here, to help give us some perspective.
Q: What kind of Catholic are you?
Q: No. I mean are you liberal or conservative?
A: I no longer know what those words mean.
Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A: I don’t know what that means, either. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.
Q: To say nothing of Judaism and Protestantism.
A: Well, I would include them along with the Catholic Church in the whole peculiar Jewish-Christian thing.
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: It’s not good enough.
Q: Why not?
A: This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Q: But isn’t the Catholic Church in a mess these days, badly split, its liturgy barbarized, vocations declining?
A: Sure. That’s a sign of its divine origins, that it survives these periodic disasters....
Q: You don’t seem to have much use for your fellow Christians, to say nothing of Ku Kluxers, ACLU’ers, northerners, southerners, fem-libbers, anti-fem-libbers, homosexuals, anti-homosexuals, Republicans, Democrats, hippies, anti-hippies, senior citizens.
A: That’s true — though taken as individuals they turn out to be more or less like oneself, i.e., sinners, and we get along fine...
Q: How do you account for your belief?
A: I can only account for it as a gift from God.
Q: Why would God make you such a gift when there are others who seem more deserving, that is, serve their fellowman?...
A: You want me to explain it? How would I know? The only answer I can give is that I asked for it, in fact demanded it. I took it as an intolerable state of affairs to have found myself in this life and in this age, which is a disaster by any calculation, without demanding a gift commensurate with the offense. So I demanded it. No doubt other people feel differently.
Q: But shouldn’t faith bear some relation to the truth, facts?
A: Yes. That’s what attracted me, Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that other religions are more or less false.
Q: You believe that?
A: Of course.
(Here ends the citation from Walker Percy.)
The point is this: the faith that has been handed down to us is the most beautiful thing in the universe, gives meaning to the universe — and it is given to us as a gift for us to treasure, preserve and hand on. We are not worthy of this task, but it is what we are called to. As was Percy.
Robert Moynihan PhD is the editor of Inside the Vatican, from where this article is adapted.