Walker Percy and the Atticus Finch Question

The great Southern writer had the wisdom and courage to admit that the cultural Stoicism of men like his beloved Uncle Will suffered from a tragic flaw and was “no longer good enough for the South.”

In a 1956 article in Commonweal magazine, “Stoicism in the South”, author Walker Percy wrote of “a momentous change which has taken place in a single generation”: namely, that

until a few years ago, the champion of Negro rights in the South, and of fair-mindedness and toleration in general, was the upper-class white Southerner. He is their champion no longer. He has, by and large, unshouldered his burden for someone else to pick up. What has happened to him? With a few courageous exceptions, he is either silent or he is leading the Citizens’ Councils.

Percy’s reflections have taken on a special poignancy recently, I would suggest, in light of the public reactions to Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

The Most Extraordinary Man I Have Ever Known”

Few characters in American literature have inspired the respect-bordering-on-reverence reserved for Atticus Finch. Peggy Noonan wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal of a friend who told her: “I can’t bear to lose Atticus. I’ll just cling to Gregory Peck and pay no attention to what the author is publishing. They just keep taking away my heroes.” Later she said of Harper Lee: “I’ll never forgive her.” Ms. Noonan says of Atticus Finch that:

part of his power as a figure of literature—as a figure of American life—is that he wasn’t only on the right side, he was on the right side in the right way. He was for my generation the perfect father figure: calm, reliable, full of integrity and always there—the kind of father anyone would want and few would have.

I know of a man with the name “Atticus” tattooed on his leg. Asked why he replied: “Because Atticus Finch is the greatest man I know.”

It is as though an entire generation of white American children had felt reading or watching the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird what Jean-Louse “Scout” Finch would have felt in that remarkable scene where the Reverend Sykes tells her, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” How, then, is it possible that Jean-Louise could later in life find that man, her father, the great defender Atticus Finch, had become a member of one of the notoriously racist “Citizens’ Councils”?

To Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, this merely shows that “this is exactly the kind of bigot that Atticus has been all along.” The sub-title of Peggy Noonan’s article suggests more modestly that “A fictional hero turns out to be as complicated and flawed as the real ones.” Gopnik’s statement seems unhelpful, for it allows no distinction between Atticus Finch and the hateful Bob Ewell, or between Atticus Finch and the lynch mob he faces down on the steps of the jail. And yet if we agree with Peggy Noonan that Atticus is “flawed,” we also want to know how. So too, saying the U.S. budget is “complicated” is true, but merely stating the fact won’t help us solve the problem or even understand it any better.

For this reason I suggest we return to the reflections of Walker Percy, a man who had to face similar flaws in his own “Atticus Finch,” the great hero of his youth, his Uncle Will. Walker Percy and his mother had been taken in after his father’s suicide by his uncle, Will Percy: a man whose house had become a center of arts and civic life. William Faulkner was a frequent guest. So was the black poet Langston Hughes. Indeed “Uncle Will,” Percy informs us, “was regarded in the Mississippi of his day as a flaming liberal and nigger-lover and reviled by the sheriff’s office for his charges of police brutality [against blacks].” Of him Walker Percy was to write: “he was the most extraordinary man I have ever known.”

And yet Percy was also as saddened by what he came to understand about his Uncle Will’s racial attitudes as any reader of Go Set a Watchman has been about Atticus Finch’s. Percy was forced to admit in the introduction he wrote for his uncle’s memoirs, Lanterns on the Levee, that his uncle’s views “on race relations, for example, diverge from my own,” and “and have not been helpful, having, in my experience, played into the hands of those whose own interest in these matters is deeply suspect.”

How does one think about a man who was so noble in so many ways, but who turns out to have had an especially tragic flaw? Was it the result of something deeply hateful in his character? Or rather a certain lack of vision and understanding: a failure to see that a set of values and principles that had worked well enough in one set of historical and cultural circumstances might not do so forever?

The Risks of Self-Righteous Censure and the Ideological Illusions of Innocence

One thing that Walker Percy teaches us is not to be too self-righteously dismissive too quickly. It’s not merely that men like his Uncle Will or the Atticus Finches of the South were “complicated,” so too was the situation in the South. We should ask how much of our eagerness to dismiss our forebears publicly can be attributed to mere ideological posturing? Walker Percy had little regard for “the Northern ideologist”: that is, “the ritualistic liberal who sacrifices the human encounter for the abstract liberal passion, who prefers the company of Jews and Negroes not because of the personal qualities of this or that Jew or Negro, but because they are Jews and Negroes, because of the ritual value of the gesture.” He was equally critical, however, of the Southerners who touted “states’ rights” which, although it “once signified a healthy sense of local responsibility,” had become a partisan slogan signifying something quite different: “When a politician mentions states’ rights, it’s a better than even bet that in the next sentence it will become clear what kind of states’ rights he is talking about. It usually comes down to the right to keep the Negro in his place.”

Worse yet, however, thought Percy, was the tendency on both sides of the partisan divide to dispense itself from full responsibility for the problem by using the other as a scapegoat.

The North, after all, freed the slaves and afterwards the Northerner wore an aura of righteousness which he would still be wearing if only the slaves’ descendants had stayed in the South. Who would have supposed that a hundred years later Northern cities would have large, undigested, and mostly demoralized black ghettos…. The South, on the other hand, has always managed to comfort itself by pointing to the hypocrisy of the North — not realizing that it is a sorry game in which the highest score is a tie: ‘Look, they’re as bad as we are!’

And yet apart from all the fighting, “the embarrassing fact” remained, insisted Percy, that “the Negro is not treated as a man in the North or the South, and if you think the North is better, ask James Baldwin.”

We too might ask ourselves, with some embarrassment, whether after decades of enforcing politically correct speech codes the plight of black people of any of the other disadvantaged groups we say we want to help in American society is really any better than it was before we developed our current hypersensitivity to people’s every word and gesture as crucial signs of their ideological orthodoxy.

Gopnik recounts a scene near the end of Go Set a Watchman in which Jean-Louise is sitting with Calpurnia, her beloved nanny, the woman who took care of her for years after the death of her mother.

“Cal,” she cried, “Cal, Cal, Cal, what are you doing to me? What’s the matter? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”

Calpurnia lifted her hands and brought them down softly on the arms of the rocker. Her face was a million tiny wrinkles, and her eyes were dim behind thick lenses.

“What are you all doing to us?” she said.

“Did you hate us?” Scout asks, and Calpurnia shakes her head no.

“This is credible,” writes Mr. Gopnik, “but the scene, and the book, would have been stronger if she hadn’t.”

The scene Adam Gopnik wishes Harper Lee had written fits nicely with his own preconceived meta-narrative about life in the South and about the relationship he thinks must have existed between blacks and whites. It is, one might say, a “convenient narrative.” There is just one problem: it’s too pat, too easy, to be honest to the complexity of the situation.

It is comforting for a certain sort of person raised in the North, as I was, to imagine that black people in the South always hated and despised the members of the white upper class. We are very comfortable watching a movie like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained because we like to imagine that all wealthy Southerners were like the character played by Leondardo DiCaprio: unscrupulous, uncaring, disgusting, a man who deserved to be fed to the dogs. And we are not entirely uncomfortable thinking that any black man who would have lived inside the house devoted to the service of such a man must have been a disgusting traitor to his race. We rejoice at the end when the entire house is dynamited, killing all inside, as Django, the bounty hunter-killer, rides off with his sweetheart by his side. Shane is better precisely because the man of violence knows he can never enjoy such innocence. The violence of Django Unchained offers a faux cultural catharsis for the injustices that continue to plague our cities and the murder of hundreds of black men gunned down in the streets every year, not by white plantation owners, but by fellow citizens, many of them black.

The virtue of Harper Lee’s scene is that it doesn’t merely feed our desire for comforting narratives. It shows a complexity that Mr. Gopnik wishes weren’t there: namely, that Calpurnia really loved these children at the same time as she bemoaned the injustices of the society of which she was a part. Calpurnia was as complex as the South.

A Yankee’s Introduction to the “Complicated” South

Years ago, I made my first sojourn into the South and found myself being called a “Yankee” for the first time in my life. I had always assumed that we were all “Yankees” up here north of the Rio Grande. I can remember being taken to the wedding of the daughter of a Louisiana sheriff: a “big man,” both in girth and in his position within the local community. His daughter had gone to a prestigious local Catholic girl’s school and had been raised in large part, I was informed, by a black nanny. At his point, I made some reference to the movie Gone with the Wind and how I supposed young women in the South treated their nannies. I was told in no uncertain terms from someone outside the family who did not come from wealth that a young woman of this sort would “never, ever sass back to her nanny” or she knew “she would get a wuppin’,” first from her nanny and then from her mother. Indeed, at the wedding, the nanny sat in the front row with the family and stood with the rest for the wedding photos. The mother of the bride had several photos taken with just her and their “Calpurnia” and joked to those who didn’t know her: “Meet my sister!”

Now before the reader too quickly concludes that I was being taken in by one of the “good” whites, or that I was entirely comfortable with all this, let me add that it was also explained to me by the same person on this same trip that the nanny and her family and nearly all of the other blacks in town lived over there, on that side of the tracks. They had their own community with its own social hierarchy. “They wouldn’t want to live over here,” I was told. Later, I was to discover that the children of upper and middle class black families were not allowed to play with the children of families their parents considered “poor, white trash.”

It seemed that no one in town was supposed to mix with the poor, white trash. If the category is unclear to you, think of Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella from To Kill a Mockingbird. This introduction to Southern culture caused me to re-think why Tom Robinson might say of Mayella Ewell that he “felt sorry for her.” We see Atticus wince at this, knowing how it would sound to the poor, white trash members of the jury. “You, a black man, felt sorry for her?” asks the prosecutor Mr. Gilmer incredulously.

My first extended stay in the South also forced me as a Northerner to confront the uncomfortable fact that there were, even by the late 1980s, dozens of black mayors serving comfortably in the South and even a black governor, while there were very few in the North, and those who were in office always seemed to exist under a cloud of suspicion and a continual state of controversy. “If you think it’s better in North,” says Walker Percy, “ask James Baldwin.” “Was it better?” I had to ask myself. But then again, to say that perhaps it wasn’t worse in the South was no great prize.

What it suggested, though, was that perhaps some Southern communities were building upon a legacy of mutual respect — albeit a mutual and very separate respect — that I had not been aware existed, given the comforting narratives of Southern intolerance I had imbibed as a child growing up in the North. The problem, I thought, was them, not us. We had fought a war to bring their oppressors to heal. So why weren’t blacks in the North more grateful to us? Why were they rioting in our streets? Detroit, Chicago, Boston, and New York weren’t Birmingham, Atlanta, and Houston, after all. Were they?

Tu Quoque

Gopnik believes that because “the particular kind of racial rhetoric that Atticus embraces (and that he and Jean Louise are careful to distinguish from low-rent, white-trash bigotry) is a complex and, in its own estimation, ‘liberal’ ideology,” thus “there is no contradiction between Atticus defending an innocent black man accused of rape in ‘Mockingbird’ and Atticus mistrusting civil rights twenty years later. Both are part of a paternal effort to help a minority that, in this view, cannot yet entirely help itself.” “And so, beneath Atticus’s style of enlightenment,” contends Mr. Gopnik, “is a kind of bigotry that could not recognize itself as such at the time.”

There is a certain amount of truth in that statement, but not yet enough. Were Southern whites like Will Percy or Atticus Finch really guilty in their paternalism? And if so, were they the only guilty ones? Are there perhaps others whose style of “Enlightenment” results in them not recognizing their own bigotry?

Was there no paternalism in the North, for example: no sense that one was entitled to gratitude for having helped lower class blacks get a “leg up on life”? And were Southerners the only ones who reacted badly when unelected federal judges ordered busing to integrate the schools? Or did Northern whites not react much as Southern whites had done before them?

Walker Percy writes with sadness that his Uncle Will, had he been alive during the 1950s, would have found most members of his own class “not exactly embattled in a heroic Göterdämmerung, not exactly fighting the good fight as he called it, but having simply left, taken off for the exurbs, where, barricaded in patrolled subdivisions and country clubs and private academies, they worry about their kids and drugs.” Didn’t Northern cities empty out to the suburbs as well? Is Detroit the shell of what it once was because whites stayed to face with Stoic resolve whatever challenges fate had in store? Or precisely because they did not?

Bigotry and Busing — Community and Caring

Adam Gopnik thinks Jean-Louise Finch a bigot for saying about Brown vs. Board of Education: “Well, sir, there they were, tellin’ us what to do again.” Were there no Northerners who resented being told what to do by unelected federal judges, clearly acting beyond their Constitutional authority? It’s at least arguable that the modern judiciary’s disposition to think it can bring about large-scale cultural transformations through judicial fiat has been inspired by the illusion that every new decision is another Brown v. Board of Education. This even though the Court’s decision in Brown had little effect on the schools, and it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed legislatively that the country saw real state-by-state change. Robert Frost once wrote that “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” Might it not also be true to say that “Legislatures are the right place for democratic governance; I don’t know where it’s likely to go better”?

And consider the issue: busing, breaking up traditional community schools in order to send children elsewhere for education and socialization. Now think back on Harper Lee’s depiction of the “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama, with its collection of colorful personalities: the Barber Sisters (Miss “Tutti” and Miss “Fruitti”); Walter Cunningham, Jr., who covers his entire dinner in molasses; Miss Stephanie Crawford, the town gossip; the always-odd but much-beloved “Dill,” patterned, it is said, on Harper Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote; and of course the ultimate outsider, Arthur “Boo” Radley. “The poor, the sick, the miserable, and the mad” as Walker Percy would say elsewhere.

Scout doesn’t want poor Boo’s identity revealed to the lady gossips in town. It would be like “killing a mockingbird” that hadn’t done no harm to anybody. Imagine what someone like Atticus might think about busing in a host of outsiders into that town with all its lovable, yet peculiar, sometimes downright ugly personalities. We can love the oddness in our own families, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to have them put on display for others.

Atticus can teach his own son a lesson about a racist woman like Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, dying and trying to kick an addiction to morphine, by making his son read to her each day for a month. But he could scarcely do so with someone else’s child. Indeed, it’s not without reason that one of the most troublesome characters in the book is Scout’s first grade teacher, Miss Caroline Fisher, new to the community and upset that Scout has been reading at home with her father. “Your father doesn’t know how to teach,” she informs the young girl and forbids her to read with Atticus at night.

In his wisdom, Atticus demands that Scout show respect for the new teacher, saying: “We could not expect her to learn all Maycomb’s ways in one day,” and then takes the occasion to impart another important lesson: “You never really understand a person until you “learn to look at things from his point of view,” he tells his daughter, “until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” And yet despite the teacher’s wishes, he and Scout continue to read together at night just as before.

Will Percy had a house in which classical literature, music, and poetry figured prominently in the life of young Walker Percy and his best friend Shelby Foote. An entire room was given over to their airplane models. Civic leaders stopped by to discuss politics, and nearly every major literary figure of the South stopped through. Langston Hughes read his poetry; Faulkner stopped in to play tennis.

Can anyone imagine either of these men — the one fictional, the other real — reacting with apathetic detachment while their children were bused to another school in another town in accord with the educational plans of a federal bureaucrat?

Paternalism” Good and Bad: What Kind of Father?

As for the accusation of “paternalism,” Walker Percy grants in “Stoicism in the South” that “words like paternalism and noblesse oblige have become dirty words these days.” “But is it a bad thing,” he wonders, “for a man to believe that his position in society entails a certain responsibility toward others? Or is it a bad thing for a man to care like a father for his servants, spend himself on the poor, the sick, the miserable, the mad who come his way? It is surely better than watching a neighbor get murdered and closing the blinds to keep from ‘getting involved’” — a clear reference to the circumstances surrounding the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City. “It might even beat welfare.”

That last line was a quick stiletto thrust up under the ribs. We Northern liberals do love our welfare, don’t we? It allows us to pay the government to do the charitable work for the poor we ourselves are too busy making money to do. The poor? Inner-city schools? Black youth? Don’t we pay taxes to take care of all that?

Will Percy had his problems, but at least he was a man who believed that his position in society entailed a very definite “responsibility toward others: the poor, the sick, the miserable, and mad that came his way,” not to mention taking into his own house the widow and orphaned son of a family member consumed in the “scandal” of suicide (imagine the gossip!), making room in his house for artists and financing the only theater in their small town. He nurtured the talents not only of his nephew, Walker Percy, and his friend, the historian Shelby Foote, but of many others such as Hodding Carter, whose famous newspaper Will Percy helped found. How many of today’s ideologically pure liberals, hypersensitive to every possible sign of variance from the ideological orthodoxy of the times, can say the same? There are many forms of “paternalism” — many ways of thinking about the kind of pater or “father-figure” one wants to be.

Walker Percy came to believe that the ultimate problem with the aristocratic gentleman of the South was that his brand of Stoic “fatherhood” always implied a distance, a degree “above,” a matter of respect that had to be preserved. His Uncle Will Percy’s Stoic paternalism was of a sort based on an aristocratic, hierarchical vision of society — with certain people of “distinction” and “character” at the top: a cultural “elite.”

The “nobility and graciousness” of the Old South, says Percy, was not primarily Christian in character; rather it “was the nobility and graciousness of the Old Stoa.” Yet, this Stoicism, because it “was based on a particular hierarchical structure,” argues Percy, “could not survive the change” — the change that had, as his Uncle Will once put it, put “the bottom rail on top,” whereby “a lower-class, itchy-palmed breed … had dispossessed the gentry who had in turn been the true friends of the old-style ‘good’ Negro.”

Thus as it worked to “ennoble” and “empower” the lower classes, the Stoicism of the South tragically sowed the seeds of its own destruction. “Its most characteristic mood,” says Percy, “was a poetic pessimism which took a grim satisfaction in the dissolution of its values — because social decay confirmed one in his original choice of the wintry kingdom of the self. He is never more himself than when in a twilight victory of evil…. His finest hour is to sit tight-lipped and ironic while the world comes crashing down around him.

Think of Atticus Finch sitting quietly and calmly in front of the jail with Tom Robinson inside as the lynch mob descends. Did he really suppose that by the force of his personality alone, some calming words, and perhaps because of his position within the community, he could ward off the passions of this mob of “poor, white trash”? It was fortunate for him (and more so, for Tom Robinson) that young Scout runs out of the bushes to stand helplessly and innocently by his side. Perhaps viewers will recall the scene:

Scout:

I said, “Hey,” Mr. Cunningham. How’s your entailment getting along?

Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember? We had a talk. I went and got my daddy to come out and thank you. I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter; he’s a nice boy. Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you? You know something, Mr. Cunningham, entailments are bad. Entailments…

Atticus, I was just saying to Mr. Cunningham that entailments were bad but not to worry. Takes a long time sometimes…

What’s the matter? I sure meant no harm, Mr. Cunningham.

At this, the men dispersed. What strength and dignity of position could not achieve, weakness, humility, and expressions of mutual recognition did.

How different things might have been had these Stoic gentlemen taken as their model of fatherhood the Christian notion of God the Father: the one who deigns to unite Himself to our suffering. “Mercy, misericordia in Latin, implies “suffering with.” It is a love that unites itself to the suffering of the beloved. It is a love that is both incarnational and sacramental: that sees itself as an instrument of a self-emptying love. Its model is the Virgin Mary, who in her humble fiat, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” made possible by her cooperation with God’s grace a love with the power to change the world. Its model is John the Baptist who, after a lifetime’s struggle against the hypocrisy and sinful structures of his day, said to God’s Redeeming Love Incarnate: “I must decrease so that He can increase.”

“What the Stoic sees,” writes Percy,” is the insolence of his former charge,” and “this is what he can’t tolerate, the Negro’s demanding his rights instead of being thanked for the squire’s generosity.” For “it was not the individual, after all, who was intrinsically precious in the Stoic view — rather, it was one’s own attitude toward him, and this could not fail to be specified by the other’s good manners or lack of them. If he became insolent, very well: let him taste the bitter fruits of his insolence.”

The nobility of [the southern Stoic gentleman], wrote Percy, “was the nobility of the natural perfection of the Stoics, the stern inner summons to man’s full estate, to duty, to honor, to generosity toward his fellow men and above all to his inferiors — not because they were made in the image of God and were therefore lovable in themselves, but because to do them an injustice would be to defile the inner fortress which was oneself.”

Seeing all men and women as made in the image of God, by contrast, means we can never keep them at a comfortable distance. Being in the image of God means that we are called upon to unite ourselves to them in love and with a mercy that shares their suffering. Understanding that all men and women are made in the image of God and are made for union with God also relativizes all merely human social hierarchies. “The Stoic has no use for the clamoring minority,” writes Percy, “the Christian must have every use for it.” For the Christian, “the urban plebs is not the mass which is to be abandoned to its own barbaric devices, but the lump to be leavened.”

A Leaven in Society?

And yet, this last comment should force us to think more about the kind of “leavening” Catholics are currently providing, especially in light of studies such as Charles Murray’s Coming Apart that document the tragic consequences for the lives of America’s underclass of the “sexual revolution” initiated by the college-age, bourgeois-bohemian sons and daughters of America’s upper classes. It should force us to think more about the kind of “leavening” we’re providing, especially in light of the “crony capitalism” that seems to have become widespread in the culture.

Walker Percy writes of his Uncle Will that his attitude toward the “sexual revolution” would have been that: “Fornicating like white trash is one thing, but leave it to this age to call it the new morality.” “Nor would he be shocked,” says Percy, “by the cynicism and corruption, the stealing, lying, rascality ascendant in business and politics — though even he might be dismayed by the complacency with which they are received: ‘There have always been crooks, but we’ve not generally made a practice of reelecting them, let alone inviting them to dinner.’” What sort of moral witness does contemporary Catholicism provide? Whom do we invite to dinner? Whose approval do we seek?

In the closing lines of that famous 1956 essay “Stoicism in the South,” Percy noted with sorrow that:

The Stoic-Christian Southerner is offended when the Archbishop of New Orleans calls segregation sinful (or discusses the rights of labor). He cannot help feeling that religion is overstepping its allotted area of morality. In the comfortable modus vivendi of the past, he had been willing enough to allow Christianity a certain say-so on the subject of sin … He is therefore confused and obscurely outraged when Christian teaching is applied to social questions. It is as if a gentleman’s agreement had been broken.

The archbishop Percy is referring to was the famous Archbishop Rummel who, already in the 1940s, admitted black students into his seminary; had the “white” and “colored” signs removed from every Catholic parish; and in 1953, a year before the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown, wrote the first of two strong pastoral letters to be read out at mass in every parish in the archdiocese exhorting the faithful that “there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.”

Subsequently, in 1956, the year of Walker Percy’s essay, Rummel announced that he intended to desegregate all the Catholic schools in the archdiocese. The reaction? As one historical account has it:

Tempers ran hot. Most parish school boards voted against desegregation. Rummel didn’t budge. A year earlier, he had closed a parish when its people objected to their newly assigned black priest. But to compound the archbishop’s troubles, many parents had moved their children from public to Catholic schools, hoping to avoid desegregation. Members of the Louisiana legislature threatened to withhold then-available public funds for Catholic schools if Rummel went ahead with his plans.

In the final lines of his essay, Walker Percy wrote this:

So far, Archbishop Rummel has been answered only by having his name booed by the Citizens’ Council and by having a cross burned on his front yard. The secular press is silent; the [Southern aristocrats] are silent if they are not booing; many of his Protestant colleagues are silent; more sadly, his own flock wavers. But sooner or later the archbishop must be answered. And the good pagan’s answer is no longer good enough for the South.

So too in our own day, when a few brave Catholic bishops dare preach against the evils of abortion and euthanasia, the secular press remains silent, even in the face of the recent Planned Parenthood videos; many of their Protestant colleagues and fellow bishops remain silent; and most tragically of all, the flock wavers, with many of today’s Catholics feeling, as did the Catholics in Walker Percy’s day, that when a bishop calls support for abortion sinful (or discusses the rights of labor), a certain “gentleman’s agreement has been broken.” How much have things really changed?

Walker Percy had the wisdom and courage to admit that the cultural Stoicism of men like his beloved Uncle Will suffered from a tragic flaw and was “no longer good enough for the South.” Will this generation of Catholics have the wisdom and courage to admit that the lifestyle liberalism of today’s cultured elite and the autonomous individualism which stands behind both the abortionists at Planned Parenthood and the crony capitalists at America’ largest corporations, are no longer good enough for the nation?

We like to think that we’re not like the crowds of Catholics who booed and demonstrated against Archbishop Rummel in 1956. But are we so different? Are we so anxious about the Atticus Finch question because we’re worried that something was lacking in him? Or that something very much the same may still be lacking in us? If he and men with the nobility of Walker Percy’s Uncle Will didn’t have the wisdom and wherewithal to respond to the challenges posed to them by the Gospel in their day and age, can we be so sure that we are showing the wisdom and wherewithal to respond to the challenges of ours?


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 40 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.