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By Paul Kengor
It’s common knowledge that William F. Buckley Jr., considered by many to be America’s most important public intellectual of the second half of the 20th century, was Catholic. What has remained uncertain for many is how faithful he was to the teachings of the Church. With the release of a new book, Buckley biographer Lee Edwards is seeking to clear up the confusion.
“He was a good Catholic all his life, not just at the end,” Edwards told the Register. “His faith was central to his life and career.”
Edwards, who knew Buckley for decades, has just published William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement (ISI Books, 2010). The biography chronicles what you’d expect: Buckley’s upbringing, his college years, those who influenced him and those he influenced, his founding of National Review, his syndicated column, and his hosting of “Firing Line,” which was a staple on PBS for more than three decades.
But what leaps out of Edwards’ biography, at least to me, is Buckley’s faith, which was far deeper than I realized. I imagine many Register readers share my misperception, for Buckley was, fairly early on, branded with a reputation as something of a “cafeteria Catholic” — and the label stuck with him for far longer than it should have.
The problem surely owed much to a Latin expression meaning “The Church is my mother but not my teacher.” The phrase was spoken to Buckley, not by him, although he did quote it in National Review. Father George Rutler, the popular host of EWTN’s “Christ in the City,” cited the misunderstanding when he memorialized Buckley for InsideCatholic.com after Buckley’s death in 2008.
“It annoyed him to be thought arbitrary in religion,” wrote Father Rutler. “The line attributed to him, Mater, Si; Magistra, No (literally ‘Mother, Yes; Teacher, No’) was not his, and while he even published in a book his difficulties with some doctrines, he proved Newman’s point that a thousand difficulties do not make one doubt. By his own admission, the Lourdes pilgrim never knew one moment of lost faith and was precise in moral obedience, as when he wanted to do exactly the right thing about extraordinary care when Pat was dying.” (Pat was his wife of 56 years.)
I should acknowledge that I, like other avid Buckley readers, always knew he was Catholic. I began reading National Review as an agnostic and then as a Protestant. I noticed immediately the unmistakable Catholic presence, from Buckley’s own abiding interest in the Catholic faith to that of regular writers like Richard John Neuhaus before he became the Father Neuhaus of First Things, EWTN and the public square. References to the Church in National Review came naturally and thoughtfully and were a jolt to my non-Catholic sensibilities; alien as they were, they brought me my first respect for the Catholic Church. Later, I also read Buckley’s spiritual autobiography, Nearer, My God (Mariner Books, 1998), which explored his faith in some detail.
George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II, calls Buckley one of the most publicly influential American Catholics of the 20th century. Yet, what’s apparent from Edwards’ biography is that Buckley held much back from his readers, keeping much close to the vest — keeping what was most common to him, literally day in and day out, private.
Who knew, for instance, that William F. Buckley Jr. prayed a Rosary every day of his life beginning as a teenager? Who knew that, later in life, he was a daily communicant? And that’s just for starters.
Fittingly, Edwards opens his biography with the scene at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral one April 2008 morning: the funeral Mass for Bill Buckley. The homily for the conservative icon was delivered by Father George Rutler, who explained that the first “formative academy” in the life of this erudite man had been his father’s dinner table, where the young Buckley was instructed that life’s most important things are “God, truth and beauty,” and that the ultimate categories were not “Right and Left but right and wrong.”
For Buckley, it all began in New York City, on Nov. 24, 1925, where he was born the sixth of 10 children to William F. Buckley Sr., a Texan and Irish Catholic, and Aloise Steiner Buckley, the devoutly Catholic daughter of a New Orleans business executive. “Billy” would be immersed in Catholic thought and prayer in Mexico, where the traveling Buckleys lived on and off, and thanks to the care of two Mexican nurses who lived with the family wherever they went. (He learned to speak Spanish before mastering English.) At 5 his parents enrolled him in a Catholic boarding school in England. As a schoolboy, Buckley began all his essays with the initials A.M.D.G.: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater Glory of God). As one of his brothers described him, Billy was very serious and early on combined “intellectual brilliance with moral control.”
As an adolescent, Buckley attended St. John’s Beaumont, a Catholic school run by Jesuits in England. There, he attended daily Mass, praying earnestly for the health of his mother, who was enduring a difficult pregnancy. He found a special reverence for Our Lady and her place in his mind and in heaven as “an indispensable character in the heavenly cloister.” It was here, at age 13, that he began a daily Rosary. It was a practice he continued for the next 70 years, up through and beyond a 1994 visit to Lourdes.
In Edwards’ book, we see the influence of certain Catholic conservative intellectuals on Buckley, such as Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham and Russell Kirk, all the way to the impact of Catholic teachings like subsidiarity. As for the latter, subsidiarity was fundamental to Buckley’s brand of conservatism; it seems to explain certain policy positions better than laissez-faire or libertarian philosophy.
This is no small fact. It would mean that the Catholic faith has been influential in undergirding the domestic-economic thinking of the entire postwar conservative movement. Stated another way: Thanks to William F. Buckley, the Catholic faith played a far greater role in shaping America’s political dialogue than most Americans realize.
Likewise significant, the Church’s anti-communism reinforced Buckley. Generally, anti-communism served as the theological-theoretical underpinning that galvanized those conservatives of all stripes housed under Buckley’s roof at National Review. Communism was the singular secular heresy they all agreed was evil and should be opposed. The Catholic Church agreed too. It seems no coincidence that in the November 1955 inaugural issue of National Review, Buckley and the editors — echoing (intentionally or not) the precise language of the 1937 papal encyclical Divini Redemptoris — declared themselves at battle with “satanic” communism.
All along, whatever the politics and problems of the day, Buckley’s faith seemed the one constant. “My faith has not wavered,” he declared. It didn’t waver even as he grappled with challenging issues, doctrines and councils.
To be sure, Buckley admitted an uneasiness with the changes ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. Every bit the conservative, he preferred the long-standing traditions and rites and the Mass the way it had been. Edwards touches on this to a degree; Buckley himself addressed it at length in his autobiography.
Buckley also struggled to accept the Church’s teaching on contraception, and did so openly, prompting Catholics to question his fidelity and orthodoxy. As Edwards notes, however, Buckley worked through this teaching, finally submitting himself to the Church. “It is true that he favored contraception early on,” Edwards says, “but changed his position to acceptance of the Holy Father’s teaching.”
Indeed, Buckley addressed this too, in Nearer, My God, notably in Chapter 12, which concerns marriage, priestly celibacy, divorce, abortion and birth control. Again and again, even when he personally struggled with the teaching, Buckley chose to think with the Church:
On marriage and divorce: “I see the Church as echoing the word of the Lord on marriage.” On contraception: “My own incomplete understanding of the natural law balks at the central affirmation of Humanae Vitae, even as I’d of course counsel dutiful compliance with it.” On fidelity in general: “Which side to observe? But the answer, for a Catholic, has got to be: the position taken by the Pope, as spokesman for the magisterium.”
In a nutshell, that’s faithful Catholicity. It’s also honest. Buckley openly admitted his struggles, doubts and misgivings, but, in the end, he submitted his conscience to the Church’s teachings because he believed that the Church is what it claims to be.
For William F. Buckley Jr., it was a faith that began at his earthly father’s table and finished, daily, at his heavenly Father’s table. It included praying for his earthly mother through the intercession of his heavenly Mother, whom he thought of day in and day out until his final days. As Lee Edwards describes it, Buckley’s religion was an “unwavering Catholic faith.”
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand and the forthcoming Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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