The treatment of the utterly helpless and vulnerable was, for Flannery O’Connor as for all Christians, the index of a church’s or a culture’s moral life. This was not a matter of her mere opinion but of her deepest conviction, and here she stood with the central Christian tradition. Whereas Scripture itself remains silent about abortion and infanticide, Christian tradition is astonishingly vocal. From the very beginning, Christians were known as the people set apart from their pagan neighbors by not killing their allegedly unwanted babies….
Though Flannery O’Connor’s death came more than a quarter-century before Walker Percy’s, the latter shared her worry about the nihilistic gas that is asphyxiating our church and culture alike. Percy believed that it was having an especially deadening effect on certain souls who sit in the high places of American cultural and ecclesiastical power. Only two years before his own death in 1990, Percy wrote a letter to “The New York Times,” which it refused to publish. That our national “newspaper of record”: refused to run a plea voiced by one of our major novelists makes the letter all the more worth hearing:
The most influential book published in German in the first quarter of
[the twentieth] century was entitled “The Justification of the Destruction of Life
Devoid of Value.” Its co-authors were the distinguished jurist Karl Binding and
the prominent psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, Neither Binding nor Hoch had ever
heard of Hitler or the Nazis. Nor, in all likelihood, did Hitler ever read the book.
He didn’t have to…..
I would not wish to be understood as implying that the respected
American institutions I have named [The New York Times, the United States
Supreme Court,, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization
of Women] are similar or corresponding to pre-Nazi institutions.
But I do suggest that once the line is crossed, once the principle gains
acceptance–juridically, medically, socially–[that] innocent human life can be
destroyed for whatever reason, for the most admirable socio-economic,
medical, or social reasons–then it does not take a prophet to predict what will
happen next, or if not next, then sooner or later. At any rate, a warning
is in order.
Depending on the disposition of the majority and the opinion polls–
now in favor of allowing women to get rid of un-born 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….
Like Percy, O’Connor discerned that our consumerist culture that is centered
on advertising and entertainment would end by killing bodies no less than
souls…But all the things that count, especially all Christian things, are matters
of communal obligation and obedience, not of private preference or choice.
For each person to determine the moral meaning of the universe for himself is a
recipe not only for individualist anarchy and social chaos but also for what
Christians have defined as slavery. True liberty is found, as Christ and all the
saints have expressed…not when we define reality for ourselves but when we
conform ourselves to the reality that God has established in Israel and Christ
and the church. The Book of Common Prayer gives this free and faithful life its
proper name–“the service which is perfect freedom.” For Cranmer and the
sixteenth century, the word “service” retained its Latinate sense: it did not
and does not mean anything akin to civic club volunteerism, but joyful slavery to
the triune God.