Breathing Again, Thanks to Walker Percy

“For our beloved old U. S. A. is in a bad way. Americans have turned against each other; race against race, right against left, believer against heathen. . . .Vines sprout in sections of New York where not even Negroes will live. Wolves have been seen in downtown Cleveland, like Rome during the black plague.” Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins

Occasionally, I find it hard to breathe in the stifling atmosphere we now live in day after day. It’s not just the moral collapse, nor the rank “economization” of political life, nor our cultural degradation, nor the remainders of the sordid scandals that still haunt the Church we love. No, what ails me is the literal dis-integration of the social fabric that results from all these things, where genuine human communion is reduced to a very narrow group of family and friends. It’s not healthy. But a Catholic can’t easily identify with the general public any longer. As Catholic novelist Walker Percy rightly anticipated a half century ago, “Americans have turned against each other.”

Percy, a trained psychiatrist turned author, foresaw this breakdown as disastrous for both the mental and spiritual well being of persons, the true “catastrophe” that he writes about in Love in the Ruins (and in the sequel, The Thanatos Syndrome). He writes in an inimitably humorous style, which is necessary to enable readers to persevere through the dark seriousness of the novels. Like Dr. Percy’s fictional alter ego, Dr. Tom More, you need a good sense of humor – and occasional bourbon – to make you way through the novel, let alone through the life that it accurately foresaw, as we now know.

Among the numerous problems that would make a societal recovery likely impossible, Dr. More at one point briefly details the decline of American literature, where great works like the Southern gothic novel eventually “gave way to the WASP homosexual novel, which has nearly run its course.” And, then, ironically, he adds “The Catholic literary Renaissance, long-awaited, failed to materialize.” He is right of course, but not for a lack of effort on the part of More’s creator. Percy along with Flannery O’Connor and a few others made valiant efforts, but little else followed.

Another problem Percy predicted is the collapse of the political parties – their becoming incapable of addressing the ills tearing the country apart. The old Democrat Party, More says, has given way to a new left party with the acronym, “LEFTPAPASANE, which stood for what, according to the right, the left believed in: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the Pill, Atheism, Pot, Antipollution, Sex, Abortion Now, Euthanasia.” Sound familiar?

Walker Percy
Walker Percy

But Percy and his fictional doctor are likewise sarcastic about the other party “The old Republican Party has become the Knothead Party. . . .The first suggestion [for an acronym] being the Christian Conservative Constitutional Party, and campaign buttons were even printed with the letters CCCP before an eastern-liberal commentator noted the similarity to the initials printed on the backs of the Soviet cosmonauts.” Meanwhile, conservatives countered with the slogan “no man can be too Knotheaded in the service of his country.” Percy was too Catholic to be partisan.

Similarly, the Catholic Church, says More, is in a poor position to save the country: “Our Catholic Church here split into three pieces: (1) the American Catholic Church whose new Rome is Cicero, Illinois; (2) the Dutch schismatics who believe in relevance but not God; (3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.”

Now while we have no formal schism – yet – the general outlines here are certainly familiar. Because of deep divisions, the Catholic Church today is politically impotent, to say the least. It lacks the leadership to make it anything else. In this forecast, too, Percy was quite accurate.

So why do I say Percy helps you to breathe again? Because he gets us out of the intellectual smog that tries to deny that things are really bad in America. This also helps you to again see the world as it really is. Smog blinds, as well as stifles the breath of life. Percy helps us to see the truth, as does every great novelist, and he does so from a truly Catholic vision of reality.

Dr. More’s problem with his wife, who has left him, gives us a clue to the problem we face. He deeply loves this valley girl from Virginia who in mid-life gets caught up with some New Age creeps. More quips, “They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine.” At one point, she tells Tom what she believes is his “problem”: “You’re not a seeker after the truth. You think you have the truth, and what good does it do you?” And, “Who was it who said if I were offered the choice between having the truth and searching for it, I’d take the search?” Her husband replies, “I don’t know. Probably Hermann Hesse.” Indeed.

Pace Dr. More’s wife, Walker Percy never gave up his own search for the complex truth about this life, precisely because he possessed the truth about salvation and the next life. He didn’t escape into disembodied New Age abstractions or the concrete comforts of good Southern bourbon. Instead, he found the way into becoming a Benedictine Oblate just before he died. We should be deeply grateful for what he was and did.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.

  • Michael DeLorme

    It’s good to remember that while the Southern tradition may be at bay, it’s not entirely inaccessible.

    • Michael, that, too, is another good book to add to the stack: The Southern Tradition at Bay, by Richard Weaver. Weaver and others defend the Natural Order. Fr. Pilon has so neatly listed the symptoms of our malaise. How do all the civilizational wheels come flying off at once? Modernism stiff arms natural Order, thus, the modernism project is a maelstrom of disorder.

  • Michael Dowd

    Walker Percy helped me get me back on a spiritual path. It started while I was working in the burnt out city of Highland Park in an atmosphere not unlike the one described by in Love in the Ruins. I ended up reading all of Walker’s books and communicating with him a little. What he was saying seem to fit my life. This was a time not long before I joined AA. Anyway, after reading his books I started reading all the books that he read: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, etc and, then, finally saying the hell with it and decided to read the Catechism of the Catholic which I thought was great start. Let us pray for Walker and thank him for all the help he provides.

    • Any recommendations on a good gateway book to the works of Percy?

      • Try the Moviegoer.

      • Read Pilgrim in the Ruins by Jay Tolson, a beautiful book that serves as a biography of Percy but is much more.
        And if you choose The Moviegoer pay close attention to the end of the novel and especially to the Epilogue.

      • Gail Finke

        Lost in the Cosmos. It’s not a novel but a weird indescribable book. But it has a novelette/story IN it, and many small essays. You can read it in bite-sized chunks and it does give you a feel for what he’s like and his view of things.

  • Eleanor Marie

    “But a Catholic can’t easily identify with the general public any longer…(3) the Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go.”
    This is why we need to think of the Benedict Option, as described by Rod Dreher. I have been living this way for some time as a Third Order Carmelite.

  • Fr Kloster

    I will never forget the words of a priest friend from the Caribbean islands who, ironically at the time, was studying to be a licensed psychiatrist. “You Americans are so quick to get psychiatric help. In my country, we have friends.”

    We are indeed a society isolated from one another; a true flock needs other sheep to insulate and protect against the wolves.

  • Quo Vadis

    The recent scandals in the church has weakened Her moral authority. Couple this with liberal Bishops, who seem to want to be more popular with their flock and less “offensive” than adherence to strict Catholic teaching and confusion has resulted across the board. Contraception is sort of ok. Politicians who say they are Catholic and openly promote and vote for abortion and never condemned by church authorities. In fact, Catholics continue to vote them into office.

    Couple this with continued support by the church of illegal immigration, a clear violation of the law and at odds with the catholic teaching as stated in the catechism and why do you think the country is in the state is is in now ?

    • ZuzanaM

      I agree and know of a contradiction that the USCCB are not willing to see in regard to Catholic illegal immigrants. In reality, the illegals are breaking the 9th Commandment, in that they covet their neighbor’s land and lifestyle. Once they are here they are forced to ‘bear false witness’ as to their citizenship. One on one, I am very charitable to my neighbors who are here illegally. However, I have attended Spanish Mass and noticed that there are many who do not go up to receive the Lord during Communion. When I asked my priest why, he said they cannot get marriage licenses and are living together and having children. The Hispanic Catholic knows and honors their Faith better than most American Catholics. Sadly, the choice they make to enter the US without permission isn’t one that allows them to live by the commandments of God.

      • PCB

        Its quite the stretch, the connection you suggest as a reality, concerning the 9th Commandment. Additionally, I know of nothing that prevents the priest from marrying these people in the Church, and thus keeping them out of sin – marriage license is a secular requirement towards legal recognition of the union.

        • Quo Vadis

          The priest is given the authority to marry civilly by the state and sacramentally by the church. I do not know if they are in conflict if they perform the ceremony without a proper license as this may be a requirement of their civil authority . That is a question for a Canon Lawyer.

          I know that a discussion I had with a priest one time said ultimately, in the future, if they are forced to marry same sex couples, they will remove the ability to perform the civil portion of the marriage from their authority and only perform the sacramental function.

          • FreemenRtrue

            I would not bet on that but hope you are right.

    • Not to mention liberation theology.
      And this Pope went to Cuba and served Mass for Castro, but refused to meet with dissidents and did not visit jails in Cuba where to become jailed all one had to do was desire to be free.
      Yet he was proud of himself for visiting a jail in Philadelphia where to become jailed you had to have committed crimes.

      It is funny that when liberals read Love in the Ruins, they see the perspicacity of Percy about conservatives and when conservatives read it, they see his recognition of the silliness of liberals.
      I wonder what Percy would make of students who get accepted to Yale who cry because they are not feeling safe there. Self absorption seems to be the rage these days even among our leaders and some candidates. Percy would have a field day.

  • Romulus

    LITR is a very timely read; thanks for the reminder.

    I was always under the impression that Percy was trained as a pathologist, not a psychiatrist.

    • John II

      That’s true. And that’s also how he contracted tuberculosis while working on the corpses of deceased derelicts in New York. His consequent time spent in a sanatorium in upstate New York (all this happened before the advent of drug treatment for the kind of tuberculosis he had) led to his conversion after many, many lengthy conversations with a fellow patient whom he befriended and who happened to be a well-informed Roman Catholic. Whence Percy’s rather forced decision not to be a medical doctor and, eventually, to become a writer.

      Providence works that way.

      • Romulus

        I seem to recall that Percy did see a psychiatrist for a while — though one may reasonably ponder who was analyzing whom.

  • Dave

    Percy’s pellucid prescience is a wonder to behold. We have come to this state of affairs in part, I think, because we Catholics (including converts, of which I am one), have allowed our faith to become protestantized, reduced to the personal and therapeutic, abandoning the very public character of the Faith and its insistence that the common good be ordered according to principles of natural law. We all know what has happened since the Vatican itself closed down Cardinal O’Boyle from disciplining theologians dissenting on Humanae Vitae — and we have all seen how its famous paragaph 17 has been fulfilled. Quo Vadis is right that the bishops have not yet recovered their moral authority since the Long Lent; those who think they have, fool only themselves. Fr. Kloster’s observation is great, but it needs to be coupled to the observation that the American way of life — suburbanization, single-use zoning, two-income families, commutation to and from work, school, and everything — mitigate against the formation of friendships, as does the atomization of the extended family and the frequent work-related moves to which so many of us are subject. Ours is an unstable society, by the choice of those who manipulate for profit. Is the Benedict Option right? I’m not so sure, unless those who gather in enclave are open enough to being joined by others who seek the peace and stability the Option promises to bring, and possess the resources — spiritual, sacramental, and moral — to form people into stable patterns of life (intentional charismatic communities was one such intent, and it isn’t clear, at all, that they have succeeded). The way forward is to acknowledge that almost everything about American life — and now, to a lesser extent, European life too, lesser, because Europe’s Christian roots are deeper (even if starving) — is anti-human, anti-social, and anti-Catholic. Unless we are willing to be public about our Catholicism, we too will fall to That Other Religion that does not hesitate to be public in its demands for the ordering of the public and private lives of its believers and its subjects. I think that’s enough for now.

    • Michael DeLorme

      Dave, you’re a fine writer and a wise thinker so I cavil, I suppose, in wishing for smaller bite-sized paragraphs. But please consider it.

      • Dave

        OK

  • Manfred

    Thank you for an excellent column, Father. It is what we have come to expect.
    Alas, we are exactly where the Fathers(?) of the Second Vatican Council wish us to be. Pope Francis is proof of that.

  • This is an excellent reflection, Fr. Pilon. The current atmosphere is stifling- political correctness reduces all communication to the weather, and even that may not be a safe recourse in the days of “Global Warming”. Friendships wane, disconnection prevails.

    Percy, “didn’t escape into disembodied New Age abstractions…” But most have. The Natural Order is jettisoned and we are free floating. No wonder we are Lost in the Cosmos. Thankfully, we have you and Fr. Schall and Fr. Murray who keep tossing out tethers.

  • William Beckman

    Another good gateway for Percy and the discussion here is Ralph Wood’s Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

  • RaymondNicholas

    Great culture and religious devotion produces great art; low culture and secular humanism produces low art, or vulgar art. Simply because the former understands intrinsic truth and beauty, and the latter lost it and does not recognize it when it is revealed.

  • JohnnyVoxx

    Father, I would think you deep down know that the “(3) Roman Catholic remnant, a tiny scattered flock with no place to go” is in fact what is left of the Church of God. Strangely, it is making a comeback in the vocations to the traditional (read: Catholic) orders and centers which offer the Old Rite of Mass. Why not throw in with us and condemn Vatican II for what it was and is, and demand a return to, and a rebirth and restoration of, traditional Catholic liturgy, theology, works of mercy, and militant declaration of the truth of the Catholic Faith? Really, what do any of us have to lose in doing so at this point?

    • rehtus333

      If you condemn Vatican 2, you condemn the Holy Spirit. St. Pope John Paul 2 the Great based his whole Papacy on Vatican 2. If you deny Vatican 2, you deny St. John Paul 2 and all his teachings. If you deny St. John Paul 2, you deny his Sainthood. If you deny his Sainthood, you deny everything the Church stands for and her authority.

      • disqus_m19tZJbgvr

        The declaration of sainthood is not a tenant of faith, which must be believed. Not like the teachings of the Church down through the ages, most of those years, BEFORE Vatican II. Your logic is poor and your conclusion specious. One only has to look at the fruits of the changes, enabled not necessarily put into place, made possible by Vatican II and one is led to question if indeed, the Holy Spirit was present with the council in the way you would imply. Necessarily, NOTHING was promulgated by the Vatican II council, by the invocation of Papal infallibility And this may have in effect been the working of the Holy Spirit.

        Catholics are leaving the Church, vocations are almost non-existent (except for traditional vocations), the clergy are aged and failing, there is rampant falling away from Catholic teaching, all the way up to Cardinals. Tell me rehtuss333, are these the fruits of the Holy Spirit?

      • JohnnyVoxx

        I condemn heresy, from whosever lips it falls.

      • Patricia Von Plinsky

        clarify something for you. John Paul II is officially in the Book of Saints as Pope Saint John Paul II. The reason Pope always comes first is because the Holy Spirit Chooses the Pope but to become a Saint the person has to intercede for someone to God. So always when stating a Pope who is a Saint put the Pope title first and the Saint second!