What Kind of Catholic Was Walker Percy?

Walker Percy

Walker Percy

Today, Gil Bailie of The Cornerstone Forum posted the following “interview” with Walker Percy (all written by Percy himself):

Q: What kind of Catholic are you … a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A: I don’t know what that means. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: Yes.
A: Yes.
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, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean …
Q: I don’t understand. Would you exclude, for example, scientific humanism as a rational and honorable alternative?
A: Yes.
Q: Why?
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 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.
A: Grabbed aholt?
A: A Louisiana expression …
A: 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: I don’t know. God does strange things …
Q: But shouldn’t one’s faith bear some relation to the truth, the 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.

Timothy Brock comments:

Percy admits he is a dogmatic Catholic and explains why: The alternatives (open-mindedness, other secular and religious ideologies) are simply unsatisfactory because they don’t inspire him. Notably, “scientific humanism,” he believes, robs life of its “delight and mystery.” Walker then defines God as “infinite mystery and infinite delight,” a being therefore deserving of our belief and worthy of our worship.

Assuming for the moment that “scientific humanism” is repellent to mystery and delight (which it is not), what about all the other religious alternatives? Sufism? Judaism? Russian Orthodoxy? Have they neither mystery nor delight? What about all the Protestant offshoots of Roman Catholicism?

But Percy has announced right up front that he is closed-minded, so he will not consider religious alternatives in this interview with himself. Why [is he closed-minded]? Because he is attracted by “Christianity’s rather insolent claim to be true, with the implication that other religions are more or less false.” Note that he has switched the subject from Catholicism to Christianity. Perhaps he could not bring himself to call his own Church’s claims “insolent.”

At the beginning, Percy leads us to expect he will defend his belief in Catholicism, but in the end, he only explains why he is a Christian, not why he is specifically a Catholic. Perhaps Lutheranism is not closed-minded enough for him?

So there are his reasons for belief in the dogma of the Catholic Church. He has worked it all out and decided not to “settle for anything less than” infinite mystery and delight. But wait, if we are talking about a conscious decision-making process here, then how do we account for his answer to the interlocutor’s question:

“How do you account for your belief?”

And he answers,

“I can only account for it as a gift from God” (from which others, as the interviewer explains, have been excluded).

Then he has been chosen by God. No decision was involved. All his “reasons” (mystery and delight, etc.) were ex-post-facto rationalizations.

My feeling is that Percy wrote this imaginary interview to fend off massive doubts and uncertainties. Born into a family scarred by multiple suicides, Percy saw open-mindedness as a dangerous tendency leading to loss of control. The downward spiral had to be aborted at any cost, even the suspension of one’s critical faculties.

What is most peculiar about this interview is its tension between what is essentially an experience of “openness” (to mystery and delight, whose supreme expression is God), and Percy’s own rather weary embrace of closedness and his attraction to “insolent claims” of exclusive truth.

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1 comment so far

  1. thebentangle on

    There’s something SO ironic about Gil Bailie’s posting this “interview” from Walker Percy. I’m thinking of the many visitors to Gil’s site who would have been immediately “de-friended” for suggesting that (conservative) Catholics are dogmatic and closed-minded, or that the Church’s truth claims are “rather insolent.” Yet here, Percy, a Catholic, seems defiantly proud of his dogmatism and closed-mindedness.

    So what’s the deal? How did Percy get under the wire? I suspect Gil’s posting illustrates a familiar human tendency: Once a writer or thinker earns our admiration, we’ll uncritically praise anything s/he says, no matter how unexceptional, inane, or contradictory of our own values and opinions. We’d rather distrust ourselves than the Great Man (okay, Person).

    I do it, too. The more enthusiastic I am about a writer, the harder it is for me to accept that s/he might be wrong about anything or guilty of intellectual sloppiness. But it happens.


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