Saturday, July 15, 2017

What's in your response?

Shortly before he died in 1990, one of my favorite authors, Walker Percy, set himself to reflecting on his answer to the question, “Why are you a Catholic?”  Among the reasons he is a favorite are, in no particular order, his being from Birmingham, fascinated by language and what it indicates about human nature, a convert to Catholicism, best friends with Shelby Foote, piercingly critical of the postmodern therapeutic mindset, ironic, self-deprecating, and funny.  In the heat of summer, when it feels like we are in the South that Percy called home, here are some passages from his answer to that question:
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 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…
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…
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.
If you like these excerpts, you can find the whole article online, or better yet in the book that collects his essays, Signposts in a Strange Land.   But it could also fill an afternoon of summer leisure simply to sit down with a pen, or keyboard, and try to answer for yourself the question, “Why are you a Catholic?” 

Monsignor Smith

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