But what a remarkable and mysterious quote. What did she mean? I suspect if Miss O'Connor were writing in today's parlance she would have used the word “compassion” instead of “tenderness.” All sorts of things are done these days in the name of “compassion.” If one attempts to suggest a reference to objective standards of right and wrong one risks, in today's society, being branded as “uncompassionate.”
The late American novelist Walker Percy, who also happened to be a devout Catholic, discussed this quotation in an interview in the July/August 1989 issue of Crisis magazine. He speaks there of what he refers to as the “Christian scandal” in the eyes of the modern world: the emphasis on individual human life.
“Absent that,” Percy says, “What's wrong with improving the quality of human life? What's wrong with getting rid of people who are in the way? What's wrong with putting old, miserable people out of their misery? What's wrong with getting rid of badly handicapped, suffering children? Once you're on that slippery slope, where does it end? It ends in the gas chamber. If the consensus is that Jews are bad for the polity, what's wrong with getting rid of the Jews? How do you make the argument that we shouldn't get rid of Jews, or gypsies, or Catholics, or 'anti-social blacks?'”
We are now well along on that slippery slope in the United States of
America. In the 1990s, we made a quantum slide further down when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the terminally ill have a Constitutional “right to die.” As we enter the 21st century we are faced with baby parts trafficking, human stem cell research where “left over” human embryos are destroyed, cloning, and even animal-human hybrids. These, like legal abortion, are ostensibly in the name of “compassion.” We are, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, governing by compassion, in the absence of faith, and the result is death. Will it lead to the gas chamber? What is to stop it?
Percy commented in the same interview on a book produced in the days of the Weimar Republic of Germany called, The Defense of the Destruction of Life Without Value. I have also heard that title translated as The Defense of the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life. He noted that during the Weimar Republic legal abortion and euthanasia became widespread in that society. Later, he was visiting Germany in the 30s before the war broke out, and found the people to be very tenderhearted. He wondered how the gas chambers could have been erected in a society of such kind, caring people.
In America today, religion, especially in its traditional forms which reject moral relativism, is widely attacked as uncaring and uncompassionate. (Moral relativism is the attitude that says we invent our own truth: “whatever is true for you.”) But if you think about it, what else besides the Judeo-Christian tradition is standing between you and the gas chamber? If we abandon a way of governance that considers itself accountable to God, and put in its place a system which makes up “truth” as it goes along, accountable to nothing but a vague concept of “compassion,” who is safe? Whoever seizes power and decides how “compassion” is defined, that's who, until someone with a bigger gun comes along.
With each step down the slippery slope we draw closer to this scenario. We are that much deeper into the Culture of Death Pope John Paul warns us about. Compassion and tenderness are among our finest and noblest emotions, but when they are not governed by truth, and when they replace truth as governing principles as if by an “angel of light,” they can only lead unto the jaws of death.