Buckley wasn’t a “conservative Catholic”

billbuckley The death of William F. Buckley Jr. raises the question of what journalists mean when they use words such as conservative and liberal. Buckley was a Catholic and a conservative. But was he a Catholic conservative?

All of the major newspapers think so.

In The New York Times, reporter Douglas Martin explained Buckley’s upbringing this way:

The elder Mr. Buckley made a small fortune in the oil fields of Mexico and Venezuela and educated his children with personal tutors at Great Elm, the family estate in Sharon, Conn. They also attended exclusive Roman Catholic schools in England and France. Young William absorbed his family’s conservatism along with its deep Catholicism.

Writing in The Washington Post, Bart Barnes suggested that Buckley’s first book reflected his conservative Catholic outlook:

By the time he founded National Review, Buckley had published his first major book, “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom” (1951), in which he accused the faculty of his alma mater of a pervasive bias against religion, individualism and capitalism. The book sparked a heated debate, which only helped elevate Buckley’s public profile. Academicians tended to see it as a polemic against liberal education, and some suggested it was a product of Buckley’s “militant Catholicism.”

In The Los Angeles Times, staff writer Scott Kraft notes that in the early 1950s, Buckley co-wrote a book in defense of Republic Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. His story states that Buckley’s Catholicism explains his decision to write it, implying that nothing else could explain why he would do such a crazy thing:

Buckley identified with McCarthy, who like Buckley was a Catholic with a deep hatred for communism. And although he regretted the damage McCarthy’s efforts might do to the reputations of innocent Americans, Buckley thought that paled in comparison to the damage and potential damage of communism, according to Judis, Buckley’s biographer.

None of the stories referred to Buckley as a conservative Catholic. But they leave the overwhelming impression that he was. Deep, militant, hatred — such words are rarely used to describe liberals or progressives, even though they apply to Catholics such as Dorothy Day or the Berrigan Brothers.

In fact, Buckley was not a conservative Catholic, in the religious, doctrinal sense of the term. He opposed the wisdom of church teaching on social and political issues. He favored decriminalizing drugs and wrote for Playboy. For a time, he defended southern segregationists and supported birth control. In other words, Buckley was not the intellectual godfather of Ray Flynn or Bob Casey, Sr.

This is not to suggest that Buckley was a liberal Catholic in the religious sense. Besides his lifelong opposition to socialism and communism, he opposed legalized abortion and opposed “Playboyism.”

So what was Buckley? He was an idiosyncratic Catholic. On political issues, he took conservative stands, as well as a few liberal ones. As an example of the latter, he wrote a book arguing that the state, not the free market, was better able to nurture citizenship and a sense of civic obligation. On religious issues, he was a mixture of both. His views are complicated. He called himself a Catholic and a libertarian. Go figure.

Journalists need to define their terms more precisely. Is a person a conservative in a religious or political sense or both?

Answering this question isn’t a matter of complicating matters. It’s a matter of telling readers the truth.

By the way, for a classic PBS dose of Buckley, click here for a tribute at the Charlie Rose show.

Print Friendly

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Mark wrote:

    To suggest that Buckley was a conservative Catholic is to look for ideological and religious coherence where there was little.

    Incoherent is about the the last word I’d use to describe Buckley’s thinking. But to each his own, I guess. For what it’s worth, religion reporter Gary Stern quoted a bit of an exchange between Buckley and Gergen on this matter:

    DAVID GERGEN: We have only a short time left, but I wanted to ask you, as a devout Catholic, and as a conservative, how do you then square your conservatism with views of the Catholic Church on social responsibility, the more modern views that have been promulgated by the Church?

    WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR.: There’s always a tendency in churches, as far as I can see, to say we’ve got to build one more gymnasium for the homeless. And I think we should build one more gymnasium—don’t get me wrong—but the attempt to suck spiritual energy into activity of that kind, in my judgment, doesn’t really pay off. There’s a spiritual hunger in the world, and that hunger is appeased by the worship of God and by an attempt to follow his commandments. Now, there is nothing in the social doctrines of the Church that can be said to be crystallized, that contradicts any position I’ve ever taken, unless you can come up with one.

  • Julia

    I agree with Mollie. Buckley was anything but incoherent. He is better described as an intellectual Catholic – that kind comes down all over the map in regard to social policy. Popes writing encyclicals and bishops writing position papers are not infallible and Catholic don’t have to toe the current official line they represent. Read the current USCCB voter’s guide – it’s anything but dogmatic.

    As far as being Catholic, I think WFB was a lot like Lord Acton – a serious, intellectual Catholic, deeply read, thoughtful, devout but not in lock-step with the Vatican political and social theories du jour. Lord Acton fought to prevent the promulgation of infallibility and I wouldn’t be surprised if Buckley would have done the same.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Mollie and Julia make good points. I will amend my statement on Buckley’s ideological coherence.

  • Dennis Colby

    I sort of agree with Mark’s original statement. I don’t think Buckley’s political views were incoherent – he was a libertarian profoundly shaped by anticommunism. But I think Mark raises a useful question about whether his Catholicism was as coherent. Opposing racial segregation was not merely a “Vatican political and social theory du jour,” it was an acknowledgement of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the mystical body of Christ. Arguing – as Buckley did in 1957 – that whites in the South had the moral authority to override the wishes of the majority and to use violence to do so is hardly “coherent” in view of a “neither Jew nor Greek” understanding of Christianity.

    I think the coverage of his religion in the obits I’ve read has been respectful, but somewhat shallow. I’d like to see a deeper examination of what religion meant to Buckley, and whether he ever felt a tension between his Catholicism and his conservatism.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    If Buckley never changed his views from 1957 then the last comment might pertain. But I think most obits, with a few noticeable exceptions, have shown the development of that thought. Very few have mentioned what Buckley himself said.

    Peter Robinson over at National Review posted a brief snippet of an interview that dealt with two topics on which he changed his mind — Vietnam and civil rights:

    WFB discussed his thinking on both during an episode of Uncommon Knowledge, devoted to the signal year of 1968, that we taped with Christopher Hitchens during the thirtieth anniversary year, 1998. Regarding Vietnam, I asked if WFB regretted that we had ever gone into Indochina in the first place. His answer, simply: “Yes.” And, regarding civil rights, the following:

    BUCKLEY Well, we opposed that act on the grounds that it asked for constitutional liberties, in an age in which constitutional liberties were being mobilized for this cause and that, rather with abandon. And we saw them addressing a situation which we doubted could be addressed in that way, but I have a very full perspective on life in the South in those days, and it was life that simply assumed that whatever headway blacks made would be made within their own culture and that federal interposition would be simply a renewal of the Civil War. That was wrong. But that deception was very, very engaging.

    ROBINSON And at what stage did you decide that it was wrong? What I’m interested in—did the movement itself change your thinking and that of your family?

    BUCKLEY No, what changed it was 10 or 15 years after he had passed. I said to myself, “I don’t think those constitutional arguments on which we relied were misspoken, nor do I think them opportunistic, but we’ve got here a situation in which a better thing happens…[even though it] would [also] have happened by orderly pursuit of a constitutional decorum. I feel the same way about getting to the war against Hitler. I think it was full of deception, hypocrisy. I think that Roosevelt did things entirely different from what he intended…[but] I’m glad he did.

    For the entire exchange, in print or on MP3 player—including, of course, Christopher Hitchens’s side of the arguments—click here.

    All opponents of racial segregation need not have the same policy prescriptions for overcoming it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    There’s always a tendency in churches, as far as I can see, to say we’ve got to build one more gymnasium for the homeless. And I think we should build one more gymnasium—don’t get me wrong—but the attempt to suck spiritual energy into activity of that kind, in my judgment, doesn’t really pay off. There’s a spiritual hunger in the world, and that hunger is appeased by the worship of God and by an attempt to follow his commandments. Now, there is nothing in the social doctrines of the Church that can be said to be crystallized, that contradicts any position I’ve ever taken, unless you can come up with one.

    Interesting quote. He is right, of course, but what does “attempting to follow the commandments” really mean? What about the corporal works of mercy? How does attempting to fulfill these relate to the commandments? Then, of course, there are the two great commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, which sum up all the others. And Buckely certainly wasn’t pursuing the “evangelical counsels” which are certainly part of the picture as well, and not just for clergy, monks, nuns, and sisters. In short, for me, it seems that Buckley never really came to terms with our Lord’s words when he said, “It is easier for a camel [or possibly, "rope"] to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” This life and thought, then, bears the marks of an incoherence born of a cognitive dissonance rooted in the conflicts between his faith and his uncritical embrace and defense of an inherited and elevated socioeconomic status.

  • http://www.universityclub.com wrigley peterborough

    I’ll have the good Father know that Wm. Buckley was indefatigably eleemosynary. He channeled his vast resources in very charitable ways. Read his bio and you’ll see the examples. Naturally, he thought charity was best arranged by individuals, voluntarily, and not by the state. I’m sure you’ll agree, coming from the tradition you do, that it’s probably the most expedient way to work your way into heaven, no?

  • http://caveatbettor.blogspot.com caveat bettor

    There’s political conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and religious conservatism. He was mostly the first.

    And wasn’t Jesus a libertarian, more than any other contemporary bumper sticker that we could slap on the back of his foal?

  • Dennis Colby

    Mollie,

    Very few have mentioned what Buckley himself said.

    Do you think that’s a problem? I do. Shouldn’t “show, don’t tell” apply to obits as well as regular news stories?

    Also, I realize his thought changed over the years as events repeatedly proved him wrong, but his views in 1957 certianly pertain to a discussion about his religious views. He was a Catholic in 1957, and supporting violence in defense of racial segregation was incompatible with the Catholic Church’s teaching then as now. Over the course of his life, the tension between his political views and his religious tradition continued.

  • Mike Finnigan

    The Catholic Church preahes about Jesus, but it doesn’t preach, or practice the teachings of Jesus. Neither did Buckley

  • http://www.nationalreview.com Ramesh Ponnuru

    Mark’s view that to be a “conservative Catholic” Buckley would also have to be an intellectual godfather to Flynn and Casey strikes me as idiosyncratic. But to each his own.

    I fear he adds to the already-considerable confusion about the Mater et Magistra business. Note first that Mark’s own link does not support the conclusion that Bill originated the phrase Mater si, Magistra no. Anyone who actually reads Bill’s comments on the matter in the magazine (principally in August and September of 1961) will see that he did not at any point in that controversy oppose the authority of Church teaching on social and political matters, as Mark stated.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00368463715994694203 FrGregACCA

    I’ll have the good Father know that Wm. Buckley was indefatigably eleemosynary. He channeled his vast resources in very charitable ways. Read his bio and you’ll see the examples. Naturally, he thought charity was best arranged by individuals, voluntarily, and not by the state.

    My main point is that Buckley never seemed to let his faith get in the way of his thought, or his lifestyle, for that matter. However, you are right. He favored altruism (apparently as long as the status quo was maintained) over against the likes of Ayn Rand. However, he apparently never grasped the fact, as evidenced by the above quote, that “keeping the commandments” was not simply a matter of purely private behavior, divorced from the worship of God or, for that matter, its impact upon society, whether large or small. The question of the role of the State is not directly relevant, but I would note that libertarian (or other forms of) anti-statism is the product of the Englightenment, not traditional Christian thought.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Like Mollie, Ramesh makes a good point. Buckley did not deny the authority of the church to teach. He just denied the wisdom of that teaching. I will change my post accordingly.

    That said, I stand by the rest of my post.

  • http://proecclesia.blogspot.com/ Jay Anderson

    Ramesh,

    I’ve been seeing that “Mater et Magistra business”, as you put it, all over the blogs as left-liberal Catholics try to denigrate WFB and his legacy. They’ve even resorted to dragging out some quote from Archbishop Chaput where he seems to be calling WFB the father of cafeteria Catholicism. I’ve also seen others (myself included) do our best to defend him against the charge. Unfortunately, there’s scarce little to go on, and we’re left with a situation much like the one where everyone knows that Charles Wilson said “What’s good for GM is good for the country.” Except he never said it.

    I wish you would write something at National Review to definitively address the matter once and for all.

  • http://proecclesia.blogspot.com/ Jay Anderson

    And Mark, just to clarify:

    My comments above about those denigrating WFB and his legacy are not directed toward you or this post.

  • Clarke Fountain

    Regarding what Jay Anderson said: “Unfortunately, there’s scarce little to go on…”

    Maybe it’s not unfortunate. This would seem to me to be a good thing. It would appear, on that evidence, that the estimable Mr. Buckley made an effort to keep his beliefs and religious practice largely private. He was, after all, primarily a political commentator.

    Perhaps it is merely a fancy of mine to imagine that this is so, but that he seems to have had the modesty to refrain from making it a practice to publicly comment on religious topics or reveal his very private opinions outside the sphere of his main competence is a mark of the quality of the man.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    I blogged about Buckley and “Mater si, Magistra no” more than five years ago. A correspondent, who IIRC was a library employee at CUNY, verified from hardcopy originals that the following unsigned observation in the 26 August 1961 issue was the actual source of the phrase: “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles: ‘Mater si, Magistra no.’” Repeat, that was no more than an unsigned observation.

    See my “Mater si, Magistra no”? Revisited.

  • http://proecclesia.blogspot.com/ Jay Anderson

    “I blogged about Buckley and “Mater si, Magistra no” more than five years ago.”

    Lane,

    You did an excellent job covering the topic, and in fact, yours seems to be the “go-to” source for those of us defending WFB against the charge.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    I see that now. :-)

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    I have added a P.S. to my blog entry noting that WFB himself eventually attributed the observation to Gary Wills.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Here is WFB again, in his own words from a 2005 interview:

    Lopez: Anything you wrote during your tenure that you regret?

    Buckley: I had belated second thoughts about the wisdom of republishing a quip of Garry Wills’s in my “For the Record” column. It was the phrase: “Mater si, Magistra no,” in response to a papal encyclical that got us into lots and lots of trouble with the liberal Catholic press over lots and lots of years.

    So there you go. The link Mark provided has Wills confirming that it was his quip.

  • http://www.sharpiron.org Christian Beyer

    Mr. Buckley made an effort to keep his beliefs and religious practice largely private. He was, after all, primarily a political commentator.

    I think this is true. I’ve read every issue of National Review for over the past 30 years and just about all of Mr.Buckley’s works of non-fiction and the occasions on which he spoke about the details of his faith seemed to be rather rare. One of the best pieces that I remember him writing was in the aftermath of the great natural disasters of a few years back. A very well put together and very clear response to popular evangelical rhetoric.

    One could appreciate Mr. Buckley’s discourse on politics and morality from whatever point on the theological compass you happened to be sitting – including atheism.

  • Martial Artist

    I find it interesting that no one posting comments on this blog, based on the lack of any reference to it, including the author of the post itself, appears to have read Buckley’s Nearer, my God: an autobiography of faith. Perhaps there would be more understanding of his understanding of the magisterium were that not the case.

    Blessings and regards,
    Martial Artist

  • http://www.sharpiron.org Christian Beyer

    Oops.You’re right.