After the close of the 2020-21 Olympics, the gymnast Simone Biles, who identifies as Catholic, took to her Instagram account to declare herself “prochoice” regarding the issue of abortion. The news, as they say, went around the world—instantly. In that announcement Miss Biles also alluded to her negative experience as a foster child, one that apparently shaped her views on the life issues generally. But her main point, relative to abortion, was personal autonomy: “Your body. Your choice.”1
In his rosary meditation on the Visitation, Bishop Robert Barron discusses Mary’s key role in what the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar called the “theo-drama,” God’s plan for salvation as revealed in Scripture (Luke 1:3956). Pregnant with Jesus, she hastens to visit her cousin Elizabeth, whom she has learned is also pregnant. Mary, says Bishop Barron, acts as she does because she is following God’s “direction.” But in today’s secular culture, we are bedeviled by the “ego-drama,” the story “I’m writing, I’m producing, I’m directing, and I’m starring in.”2
Miss Biles is an actor in an ego-drama. When, as a Catholic, she adapts the mantra of the secular culture and proclaims herself “pro-choice,” she is following not God’s direction but her own. As are presidents and other high-ranking politicians when they too reject—as Catholics—the Church’s teaching on abortion.
In January 1988, 15 years after Roe v. Wade, Walker Percy—doctor, novelist, philosopher, and father—sent a letter to the New York Times in which he observed that the abortion issue “seems presently frozen between the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ positions, with the latter apparently prevailing in the opinion polls and the media.” The Times and other “honorable institutions,” he wrote, while defending human rights in general, “may not accept the premise of the sacred provenance of human life,”3 a position that had implications beyond abortion.
This, I suspect, is where Percy, one of America’s best-known writers at the time, discredited himself with the editorial staff. For here he recalled various leaders of the pre-Nazi Weimar Republic: “physicians, social scientists, jurists, and the like” who, with “the best secular intentions” for improving German society, advocated “getting rid of the unfit and the unwanted.” Percy’s point was that “once the line is crossed,” and the principle that “innocent life can be destroyed for whatever reason” is accepted, there is no clear marker for when to stop the killing:
Depending on the disposition of the majority and the opinion polls—now in favor of allowing women to get rid of unborn and unwanted babies—it is not difficult to imagine an electorate or a court ten years, fifty years from now, who would favor getting rid of useless old people, retarded children, anti-social blacks, illegal Hispanics, gypsies, Jews . . .
Why not?—if that is what is wanted by the majority, the polled opinion, the polity of the time.
The Times didn’t publish the letter.4 But seven years earlier, the paper had run an op-ed of Percy’s titled “A View of Abortion, with Something to Offend Everybody.” In it he called out some of his “allies” for giving him “as big a pain as [his] opponents.” Many “so-called pro-lifers,” he complained, “seem pro-life only on this one perfervid and politicized issue.” But there was, he went on, “nothing new” about that. The reason for his op-ed, Percy said, was to “call attention” to a “con job” that pro-choicers “have hit on in the current rhetorical war”:
The current con perpetrated by some jurists, some editorial writers, and some doctors, is that since there is no agreement about the beginning of human life, it is therefore a private religious or philosophical decision and therefore the state and the courts can do nothing about it. This is a con . . . religion, philosophy, and private opinion have nothing to do with this issue.
Such vexed subjects as the soul, God, and the nature of man are not at issue. What we are talking about and what nobody I know would deny is the clear continuum that exists in the life of every individual from the moment of fertilization of a single cell.
There is wonderful irony here. It is this: the onset of individual life is not a dogma of the Church but a fact of science. How much more convenient if we lived in the thirteenth century, when no one knew anything about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were legitimate.5
Abortion advocates have perpetrated this con job, which had its roots in Harry Blackmun’s Roe v. Wade opinion, for going on fifty years, ignoring science and promoting slogans like “Your body. Your choice,” which are easily apprehended and repeated by young people (like Miss Biles) who may as well be living in the 13th century as far as their familiarity with microbiology goes. But even those who would acknowledge the argument from science don’t necessarily accept it as a reason to prohibit abortion. Because in the age of the ego-drama, only I can decide what’s best for me. Unbridled autonomy is a sacred operating principle of contemporary secular culture, one that affects us all, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is a clear threat not only to unborn life but to the fundamental sense of community that also protects other vulnerable lives from being deemed “unworthy of life.”
Between his 1981 op-ed and 1988 letter, Percy published perhaps the most unorthodox work of his career, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book (1983),6 a witty yet serious spoof of the self-help genre that invites the reader to think hard about the nature of . . . the self. While I can’t begin to do the book justice, for my purposes here I would like simply to single out Percy’s description of the “autonomous self,” one of a multiplicity of selves he examines.
The autonomous self . . . sees itself as a sovereign and individual consciousness, liberated by education from the traditional bonds of religion, by democracy from the strictures of class, by technology from the drudgery of poverty, and by self-knowledge from the tyranny of the unconscious—and therefore free to pursue its own destiny without God (Lost, 13).
Percy describes the autonomous self as being “savvy to all the techniques of society,” and appropriates them according to his or her discriminating tastes, whether it be learning “parenting skills,” consciousness-raising, consumer advocacy, political activism liberal or conservative, saving whales, TM, TA, ACLU, New Right, square-dancing, creative cooking, moving out to country, moving back to central city, etc.
Some might find this an admirable vision. But cannot such freedom also be problematic? Is there a point when the autonomous self runs out of internal resources necessary for conducting a decent life? For being a good person? In a discussion of the autonomous self and religion (Lost, 157), Percy observes that “the God-party, at least those who say ‘Lord, Lord’ most often, are so ignorant and obnoxious that most educated people want no part of them.” Yet, he goes on,
as obnoxious as are [Protestants, Catholics, and Jews] none is as murderous as the autonomous self who, believing in nothing, can fall prey to ideology and kill millions of people—unwanted people, old people, sick people, useless people, unborn people, enemies of the state—and to do so reasonably, without passion, even decently, certainly without the least obnoxiousness.
And it can do so with a clean conscience since such killing is done for the Greater Good.
As for Percy’s Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, it is not at all difficult to imagine any one of them “identifying” as a member of their faith group and yet, as an autonomous self, paying little or no attention to its precepts and doctrines. The autonomous self is often practically formed before he or she receives formal religious instruction. It “follows its own counsel,” as the Psalmist avers (81:12), a solitary confabulation with little wisdom exchanged. It thus may not regard the theology, disciplines, rituals, and sacraments of a church as sources of formation and guidance.
It is not a case of hypocrisy. That concept is irrelevant here. The autonomous self may simply decline on the front end and all along to see that abortion, for instance, is the killing of a human being. (It is in fact likely not seen.) And if one does not so see it, the thing does not exist. In a passage in Percy’s Love in the Ruins, his protagonist Dr. More muses at one point about his colleagues:
“There still persists in the medical profession the quaint superstition that only that which is visible is real.”7 That profession is not alone in holding this view.8
The autonomous self, Percy would argue, is the result, in part, of the now centuries-old Cartesian split in which that self, imagining that it validates its own existence by cogitation, is left wandering, lost in the cosmos, not knowing whether he or she is a “heart fastened to a dying animal” (Yeats) or an “intellectual soul” (Aquinas) incarnate. It is the condition that Percy addresses again and again: in Love in the Ruins and its sequel The Thanatos Syndrome, in essays both early and late, and quite explicitly in Lost in the Cosmos. The autonomous soul may think he or she “don’t need no hep,” like Flannery O’Connor’s potential prophet in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”9 But it is a delusion born of the very predicament in which he finds himself trapped.
The Tom More of Thanatos for his part discerns finally that the autonomous—and secretive—scientific scheme of his fellow physicians, aimed at “social betterment,” is in fact destructive of the human project in general and of the individual human person in particular. One cannot simply drug people, collectively or individually, into better behavior without undermining their very nature. Better living through chemistry has its limits.
Back to Miss Biles: She is hardly to blame for her espousal of the doctrine of the autonomous self. It is one of the reigning doctrines of the secular age in which we live, the ancient view of Adam and Eve revived for the twentyfirst century. It is like the air we breathe and as readily available. One has to be radically, heroically counter-cultural not to take it in and be corrupted by it. To fall prey to it is not only a harmful self-delusion, but may also lead one to presume power over another’s being to which one has no right.
Like some other laypeople, well known and unknown, Percy himself does not speak for the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. That said, he did take great pains to discern and understand Catholic teaching and made a considerable effort to live according to its lights. I contend that one cannot discern much of anything simply by echoing the easy, far-left platitudes of the day. A serious, fundamental re-seeing and re-thinking is in order. Properly to form one’s vision and conscience, a person—of whatever faith—has first to listen to what his or her church teaches and then make an effort to understand why it does so. Do its authorized spokespersons and lay faithful make a cogent case for the communion’s core beliefs, especially as these impinge upon the life issues? If so, then unmitigated individual autonomy may begin to fade.
As Percy notes in the final section on the autonomous self in Lost in the Cosmos, one can with great difficulty reenter—from the abstracted state of autonomy—an ordinary, concrete life “under the direct sponsorship of God.” It is not what many would see as a spectacularly exciting life, but it can be rewarding beyond the dreams of avarice. It is “the life which is life indeed” of which St. Paul speaks (1 Tim. 6:19, RSV).
In a late essay, “The Holiness of the Ordinary,” Percy pays homage, as a Catholic writer, to just such a life. It is, in brief, the sacramental life, one in which “the sacraments, especially the Eucharist . . . confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world” (Signposts, 369). One can find great joy in such a life—as a writer, a gymnast, a mother or father, and not least as a member of that body in which the individual person, young or old and with no special skill, is honored and held sacred without the troubling and fallacious assertion of autonomy.
2. The Rosary (Joyful Mysteries) with Bishop Robert Barron Bing video
3. Walker Percy, “An Unpublished Letter to the Times,” Signposts in a Strange Land (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), 349-351.
4. The letter was subsequently published in the Spring 1988 issue of the Human Life Review.
5. Signposts, 340-342.
6. Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983). Cited hereafter parenthetically in the text.
7. Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins: The Confessions of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971), 29.
8. Seeing with the eyes is not the only way, of course, to know. The unborn child one may bear in one’s own body may be unseen except through technological imaging, but if “seen” truly with the eye of the heart is a gift beyond casual calculation. Such seeing will always be a challenge to the autonomous self, for it calls upon one to refocus vision toward another.
9. Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Collected Works (New York: Literary Classics of the United States), 150. The Cartesian split arguably affects mostly those who elect to be affected. St. Augustine in The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1993) answers the Cartesians of his day on their own terms. I quote briefly: “For we both are, and know that we are, and delight in our being, and our knowledge of it. . . In respect of these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token I am” (370).