See you later, alligator?

popepraying.jpgThe Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a press release yesterday denouncing a “vile column” distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate titled “Death for the Pope.”

The document contained a statement by League President William Donahue. The “kindest thing” that could be said of the columnist, opined Donohue, “is that he’s gone off the deep end”:

“It matters not a whit that he calls the pope ‘a major historical figure,’ because even the most inveterate anti-Catholic must acknowledge as much. Indeed, even the biggest Catholic basher in the world is not likely to write, ‘So, what is wrong with praying for his death?’ If you have to ask, sir, then you are beyond hope.”

So who was this heretic who openly pined for the pope’s death? Hans Küng? Frances Kissling? James Carroll? Gary Wills? Try William F. Buckley Jr.

Yes that William F. Buckley Jr. In his syndicated column (which one reader sent to me with a note that read “Dude, this column has GetReligion post written all over it”), Buckley began, “At church on Sunday the congregation was asked to pray for the recovery of the pope. I have abstained from doing so. I hope that he will not recover.”

Buckley did quite a bit of throat-clearing before he got around to explaining why he would not join in the entreaties for the pope’s recovery:

[T]he pope almost died the day that he was taken to the hospital. “We got him by a breath,” one medico leaked the news, and another said, “If he had come in 10 minutes later, he would have been gone.”

The temptation is, always, to pray for the continuation of the life of anyone who wants to keep on living. The pope is one of these. In the past, he recorded that he did not plan ever to abdicate, that he would die on the papal throne.

Buckley called it “presumptuous” to suppose that John Paul’s decision not to abdicate was “motivated by vainglory” and then proceeded to do just that:

What exactly he had in mind we do not know, but can reasonably assume that he was asserting pride in physical fortitude, consistent with his days as a mountain climber and a skier. Perhaps there is an element of vanity there.

“We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do,” said the Vatican secretary of state. Buckley rejoined,

What to do includes clinging to the papacy as a full-time cripple, if medicine, which arrested death by only 10 minutes, can arrest death again for weeks and even months. But the progressive deterioration in the pope’s health over the last several years confirms that there are yet things medical science can’t do, and these include giving the pope the physical strength to coordinate and to use his voice intelligibly.

“So,” the old polemicist concluded, “what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings? And for the opportunity to pay honor to his legacy by turning to the responsibility of electing a successor to get on with John Paul’s work?”

An interesting discussion of this column can be found in the comments threads of Amy Welborn’s Open Book. One reader called Buckley’s proposal the “Euthanasian Prayer.” Welborn herself has refrained from comment except in one headline: “Pope to Buckley: ‘Suffer this.’”

I was not surprised that Buckley wrote this column or that it generated a lot of debate. Buckley has been dropping broad hints lately that old age is closing in on him. This has affected the way he thinks about this world and whatever comes next — though I argued in my recent Books & Culture appreciation that this shift has been a long time coming.

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  • Stephen A.

    This is a very complicated issue, that’s for sure. A few observations:

    I have to say the poster who called his words the “Euthanasian Prayer” was intensely clever. I liked that a lot.

    I’m also glad you did not call this fellow Buckley a “conservative” in the posting, since he has clearly left all claim to that title years ago, perhaps when he started promoting legalized dope, if not smoking it.

    This is Example A in the case to illustrate the battle between the “culture of life” folks who value life and those who find nothing wrong with putting old people down like wounded horses, along with “inconvenient” babies.

    I have to suspect that someone will soon be making some suggestions on a certain 80-year-old former conservative’s future healthcare options.

    Baby Boomers, particularly, had better learn the obvious lessons in his “prayer for death” rather quickly and teach their children well on the topic of respecting elders as valued members of society, even if they are infirm.

    Or else they need not worry much about getting Social Security checks from the life-hating generation who will follow them, since they will have learned the lesson of Buckley’s prayer.

  • Gavroche

    It seems to me that once the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights saw the title to the piece they decided that they were against it. I read the article a few days ago when it came out and was quite fond of the article. I know WFB to be a devout Catholic and think that a few quotes were taken out of context to craft their extremely short press release. It was almost as if they wanted us to believe that the title “Death to the Pope” was to be equated with “To the Guillotine!”

    I know nothing of this Catholic organization, but I’m left wondering if there was some sort of presupposed bias against him to begin with.

  • Stephen A.

    The strong reaction of the Catholic organization could be due to the fact that Buckley’s piece (“obituary”?) about John Paul II, never once mentioned the Culture of Life for which he has spent his entire career in the church.

    For a pope who has championed life – life in fetuses, life for the sick, and life up until the natural end of life – to ever think he himself would hope or pray for death is unthinkable.

    Buckley’s column also shows that “economic” conservatives (libertarians) just don’t GET what motivates cultural conservatives, and illustrates that there IS a significant difference in the two worldviews. Even if Buckley used to be the former, he is certainly now the latter.

  • Jeremy Lott

    Ugh. I call bull#%^@ on all the libertarian baiting on this website lately. People are not bad or morally disordered if they think that maybe it’s a bad idea to kick people’s doors down, imprison a record percentage of the population, and constantly erode property rights and common sense in the futile attempt to stop people from using drugs. In a previous thread, a reader used a basic logical error to reason that libertarians must by and large be pro-choice, disregarding actual on-the-ground experience with flesh and blood libertarians. (The error: most libertarians are secular, most secularists are pro-choice, therefore most libertarians are pro-choice; which is a bit like that bit in Monty Python where a knight reasons that a woman is a witch if she weighs the same as a duck because witches burn and wood burns, and wood floats and ducks float, therefore if the woman weighs the same as a duck…) Some libertarians are wrong on life issues but not all, and not Bill Buckley. He is against both abortion and euthanasia, and people really should read his column a few times before firing off a reaction to it.

  • greekgeek

    Yah, Jeremy.

    What you said. :)

  • Will

    Long, long ago, in an administration not far away, Mr. Buckley replied to a complaint that his criticism of Vice-President Agnew’s rhetoric was akin to “parsing King Henry’s Agincourt speech” with something to the effect that if the trumpeter in battle does not play clearly, his signals will not be understood.

    I would say that issuing a column headed “Death to the Pope” (assuming the title was picked by him and not an editor) shows a neglect of his own advice.

  • Stephen A.

    Libertarians aren’t being “baited” they are being “outed” for their amoral views on social issues.

    It’s interesting to hear them squeal when their aberant, extremist and permissive views are exposed and their claim to being “conservative” is finally shown to be the lie that it is.

    I would suggest that libertarians stop trying to ignore or cover up the underlying message of Mr. Buckley’s commentary on the pope’s hoped-for death. I can’t understand how it can be any more transparent: he wants the pope dead – NOW.

  • Jeremy Lott


    >Libertarians aren’t being “baited” they are being >”outed” for their amoral views on social issues.

    Really? And what are those views? Is Buckley in favor of euthanasia? No. Abortion? No. He simply had the audacity to share his opinion that John Paul II would be better off in heaven and the church would be better off with a pope who wasn’t clinging precariously to life.

    Now, I happen to disagree with that judgment — both the analysis of the pope’s health and the idea that JPII can’t in some way lead the church, even in his suffering.

    But — wait! — I’m a libertarian. According to you, I couldn’t possibly believe that. I guess I should change my mind pronto.


  • Stephen A.

    Jeremy, it would be a rare libertarian indeed that didn’t buy into certain libertarian orthodoxies, but I guess I just have to admit that you’re a heretic in the temple of radical individualism.

    An honest person would also have to admit that Buckley’s views on merciful death – just short of mercy killing – are at odds with Catholic teaching that all life is precious, regardless of its condition. I’m not a Catholic, but I can understand why some would be outraged at Buckley’s assertions that anyone would be better off dead.

  • Harris

    To complain about Buckley’s opinion is to ignore the far larger elephant in the room.

    Isn’t the problem that the Pope cannot or does not choose to retire? The question that Buckley seems to be wrestling with is that of the Pope’s diminished capacities for his functioning in the papal office. If the only way that office can be left is through death, then the culture of life rhetoric stand against another important good, that of sound leadership. Office and life are not the same, and the confusion at the Vatican stops breeds the confusion in the press.

  • Stephen A.

    Whether the pope should retire if he can’t fulfil his official duties or whether he should give up on life and die for the good of the Church he heads are two radically different concepts.

    It’s the difference between hoping your boss leaves the company because she can’t handle the workload on the one hand, and hoping she is killed tomorrow on the way in to work “for the good of the company” on the other.

    Papal retirement is not without precedent in the Roman Catholic Church, although it has happened only once, in the Middle Ages, and only because a rival pope had been proclaimed.