Catholic Maverick: A Profile of William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of the most influential conservative magazine in America, host of the longest-running commentary program on national television, syndicated columnist since 1962, spy novelist, harpsichord recitalist, deep-sea sailor, lecturer to thousands of enthusiastic college students each year, a man whose cruising speed is invariably ten miles over the official limit, will, mirabile dictu, celebrate his 70th birthday this November. It comes as no great surprise, therefore, to learn that the 38th book he is now writing will not be another thriller nor a collection of his latest columns and essays but a spiritual autobiography. Revealing that a book about his Roman Catholic faith was “very important” to him, Buckley told me, “The Church has to have its champions.”

Bill Buckley raised the crusader’s standard in his very first work, God and Man at Yale, published 44 years ago, when he declared that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world.” He has been duelling and defeating the atheists and their assorted fellow travelers ever since. When a Playboy magazine interviewer asked whether “most dogmas, theological as well as ideological, do not crumble sooner or later,” Buckley replied firmly, “Most, but not all.” When the interviewer pressed Buckley, “How can you be so sure?” back came the ringing words, “I know that my Redeemer liveth” — not “think” or “hope” but “know.” As he once explained, “I’m not tortured by the problems that torture a great many other people because I do very sincerely and very simply believe in God and in the whole of the Christian experience. And there are enough resources in it to show me where to go.”

Where and how did he get such certainty, such faith?

William Francis Buckley, Jr., was born on November 25, 1925, in New York City, the sixth of ten children. His father, William F. Buckley, Sr., was a Texas oilman who made a fortune in Mexico in the early 1900s. A devout Catholic, the senior Buckley “worshipped three earthly things: learning, beauty, and his family.” He was an avid reader who constantly recommended books to his children, including the political works of radical libertarian Albert Jay Nock, who often visited the Buckley home.

The senior Buckley took his faith seriously. During the Mexican revolution, he joined an underground that hid priests whose lives were threatened, and concealed religious artifacts that might have been seized by rebel armies. He was a laissez-faire capitalist and passionate anti-communist who regarded communism, according to his son, John, as the “anti-Christ.” Bill learned to fight for what he believed to be important — his Church, his country, and his family — from his father. His mother, Aloise Steiner, was the beautiful daughter of a successful New Orleans banker. A college graduate whose poems were published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, she married Will Buckley in 1917 and spent the rest of her life happily raising her large family and charming a wide circle of friends. Her son, James, says that “hers was the dominant influence when it came to such essentials as faith . . . and consideration of others.” Aloise Buckley prayed for everything, even good weather, saying that “nothing was too unimportant for God.” The children would usually gather in her room at bedtime to hear stories about the American Revolution and the lives of the saints. Bill learned to say the Rosary from his mother; and still says it every day.

In the Buckley household, Lent was taken seriously. The keyboard of the piano was locked on Good Friday, and the children collected in their mother’s room to talk about and reflect upon the Passion of our Lord. Bill’s was an eclectic childhood with stays in Venezuela, France, England, New York City and, finally, Sharon, Connecticut, where his father bought a 47-acre estate, Great Elm. Part of the house was converted into a private school and tutors were hired to teach the children (until the age of thirteen) everything from apologetics to piano to woodcarving. Bill spoke fluent French and Spanish before English. His sister Aloise Buckley Heath once explained that “there was nothing complicated about Father’s theory of child-rearing: he brought up his sons and daughters to be absolutely perfect.” Bill was closest to perfection and became the apple of his father’s eye, according to his brother, Reid, through an extraordinary combination of “intellectual brilliance” and “moral control.”

For all of the Buckleys, the Church was at the center of their lives. When Bill and his sister, Patricia, perhaps aged eight, overheard their father and mother saying that two sisters (and family friends) were fated to go to hell because they had not been baptized, the two young Buckleys determined to act. The next time the two women visited Great Elm, Bill and Patricia waited until they were taking an afternoon nap and then sneaked into the guest room and baptized them with holy water. For sometime thereafter, whenever non-Catholic guests stayed overnight, Bill and Patricia would get up in the middle of the night and silently baptize the visitors, until their mother discovered what they were doing and ordered them to stop (but not before they had saved several souls).

Counter-revolutionaries

In Patricia’s words, they were “rollicking Catholic mavericks” in the middle of a predominantly Protestant community. Encouraged by their father to be independent and opinionated, all of the children, but particularly Bill, came to regard themselves as counter-revolutionaries against the current zeitgeist of America — Protestant and New Deal Democratic.

Inspired by his mother, Bill Buckley came to have a personal relationship with God. When the family toured Europe, relates biographer John Judis, Bill often went off to pray in a church rather than tour a museum. He frequently served at mass as an altar boy. When he was 16, he wrote his mother: “Probably the greatest contribution you have given me is your faith. I can now rely on God in almost any matter.” Undoubtedly, he was remembering a few years earlier when, at age 13, he was sent to England to be enrolled at St. John’s Beaumont, the leading Catholic version of an English “public” (i.e., private) school. Run by the Jesuits, St. John’s was the first place where Bill encountered intellectually rigorous Catholicism. “One begins to sense,” he said later, “that there are depths in a position that one tended to accept rather two dimensionally.”

While at St. John’s, he learned that his mother’s life was threatened by her current pregnancy. He deliberately knelt throughout mass every morning (the kneelers in those days had no soft padding) and asked God to spare his mother and the baby. His prayers (and penance) were answered, and his belief in God was deepened. When he entered Yale in September 1946, after being discharged from the army, 20-year-old Bill Buckley was ready, by reason of his father’s unstinting preparation and his own extraordinary ability, to take on the world. He has, in fact, changed the world. Over the last 50 years, he has been responsible, more than any other one person, for shaping the modern American conservative movement.

Born during the middle years of President Calvin Coolidge, Buckley wrote his first book while Harry Truman was in the White House, founded National Review during the “modern Republican” years of Dwight D. Eisenhower, launched his newspaper column when John F. Kennedy was eyeball to eyeball with Nikita Khrushchev, ran for mayor of New York City just after Lyndon B. Johnson had whipped Barry Goldwater for the presidency, criticized Richard Nixon for going to China and Jimmy Carter for not staying in Georgia, reached his political apogee during the golden years of Ronald Reagan, made numerous excuses for George Bush (a fellow Yalie), and now surveys, with general satisfaction, our brave Newt world. In most of what Buckley has done, a constant theme is his essentially orthodox Catholicism. He is not, in Michael Novak’s phrase, a “flying buttress” Catholic who never goes inside the Church, but a deeply believing Catholic who, in his own words, “had a very early love affair” with Christ.

Because of a wisecrack in National Review some thirty years ago (“Mater Si, Magistra No”) and his opposition to Humanæ vitæ (“It’s not an obvious violation of the marital ideal to permit contraception”), Bill Buckley is sometimes cited by liberal Catholics as one of theirs. But consider these sturdily traditional positions by Buckley on matters of faith and morals.

Original sin. “I just know no explanation for what it is that we face every day in our lives that is so illuminating as is the concept of original sin. . . . The glory of Christianity is that it enables us to overcome original sin.”

Heaven and Hell. “I grant the probability that Hell is not a place in which the devil is required to maintain a Fahrenheit temperature of 220 degrees, or that Heaven is not a place of pink clouds and those fat little winged cherubs, but I don’t doubt that there are two conditions, two posthumous conditions, one of them a condition of desolation and the other a condition of joy.”

Papal infallibility. “I do believe in the infallibility of the Pope, I believe in it as an act of faith. . . . [But] unless the Pope makes it unmistakably clear, as was done for instance on the question of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that this is intended to be infallibly true, it is prudent to suppose that an infallible pronouncement was not intended.”

The role of Mary in Catholic life. “Mary, it seems to me, is all of those things that the litany says about her. . . . She is not divine, but a veneration of Mary as the exemplary woman it seems to me cannot conceivably be thought of as in any way profane.”

Pre-marital sex. “I see no reason at all to alter the Church’s traditional stand against fornication. The observation that ‘everybody does it’ is utterly irrelevant.”

Freedom of conscience vis-a-vis Church authority. “The Church has an obligation to especially emphasize the fact that to follow one’s conscience without a total consultation and submissive consultation with the contending position as specified by the Church is an act of hubris, and as such something that tends ultimately to distinguish the pagan rather than the Christian.”

Practicing the faith

Buckley was guided by his faith when he started National Review in 1955, which included Catholics like brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell; his sister Priscilla, an experienced journalist; European intellectual Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn; and associate publisher James P. McFadden, who came aboard a year later. The magazine provided a voice and a political context for younger Catholic conservatives like Kieran O’Doherty and Dan Mahoney, who later founded the New York Conservative Party, and Patrick J. Buchanan, who would become a newspaper columnist, TV commentator and political candidate, just like Bill Buckley. Buckley also hired Frank Meyer, a former communist who had studied at Princeton, Oxford, and the London School of Economics, to edit the book section. Meyer was responsible for developing an integrated theory of liberty and order that became the magazine’s political philosophy — “fusionism.” As Meyer summed up fusionism:

Although the classical liberals forgot that in the moral realm, freedom is only a means whereby men can pursue their proper end which is virtue, they did understand that in the political realm freedom is the primary end.

For all his orthodoxy, Buckley never hesitated to criticize the Church’s politics, particularly when it was not sufficiently anti-communist. Upon the publication of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Mater et Magistra, in July 1961 (shortly after Fidel Castro publicly acknowledged he was a communist, and one month before the Berlin Wall went up), National Review commented that the document (which focused on the problems of developing countries and called for an end to Western colonalism) “must strike many as a venture in triviality coming at this particular time in history.” In the next issue, the magazine wisecracked: “Going the rounds in Catholic conservative circles: ‘Mater si, Magistra no.‘ ” The remark, given Buckley by fellow Catholic Garry Wills, was a play on the Castro slogan, “Cuba si, Yanqui no.” Led by the Jesuit magazine, America, liberal Catholics counterattacked, accusing Buckley and his magazine of everything but burning the Pope at the stake. America accused National Review of disloyalty to the Church and stated that it owed “its Catholic readers and journalistic allies an apology.” Buckley politely responded in a public letter that National Review was “no more a Catholic magazine because its editor is a Catholic than the present [Kennedy] administration is a Catholic administration because its head is a Catholic.” He urged America to reconsider its anathema and to join forces with National Review against the true common enemy — communism.

Buckley continued to oppose John XXIII’s and Paul VI’s attempts to promote detente but rejoiced when John Paul II, among other actions, joined with President Ronald Reagan in a dazzlingly effective campaign during the 1980s to suppose he trade union Solidarity and undercut the communist regime in Poland.

The matter of contraception

It is probably on the issue of contraception that Buckley has most consistently opposed the Magisterium of the Church, although, according to Garry Wills, he was initially bothered at the prospect of public dispute. Following the publication of Humanæ vitæ, Buckley stated that the anti-contraception dogma grew out of an “anti-Manichaean argument” that “fleshly pursuits were unhealthy.” More than two decades later, he told me that the Church had to decide between contraception and abortion because if it continued to insist that “contraception violates the moral law,” it would weaken its proper and needed moral arguments against abortion.

National Review strongly condemned the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1972. Buckley remains resolutely pro-life although he argues that the Republican plank on abortion in 1996, rather than supporting a human-life Constitutional amendment, should reaffirm that “life should be protected” but then argue that the position of voters in individual states on abortion, “rather than that of the courts, should prevail.” Buckley also justifies his contraception position by arguing that Humanæ vitæ was not declared ex cathedra — and is therefore not an unfallible doctrine. For him, contraception cannot be separated from the population explosion which he once called the “second most important problem in the world, after ideological communism.” He has quoted approvingly Catholic convert Clare Boothe Luce, who once declared that the difference between abortion — “the Hiroshima bomb of birth control” — and a contraceptive has got to evoke “some sense of moral distinction.”

Predictably, Buckley was quick to question John Paul II last fall when he led the battle against birth control at the United Nations conference in Cairo. By suggesting that contraception and abortion are “equally sinful,” Buckley argued, the Pope had edged “the Vatican out of the picture as an important player” in the continuing dialogue about overpopulation.

When I asked Buckley if he had read Janet Smith’s splendid book, Humanæ Vitæ: A Generation Later or was familiar with her case against contraception and for natural family planning, he admitted that he had not. I promised to send him a copy. Hopefully, we will find in his spiritual memoirs serious consideration of Dr. Smith’s central argument, based on John Paul II’s writings, that:

It is essential that Man understand that since the fall his sexual passions have been disordered and his understanding of himself has been flawed. Proper use of sexuality requires the development of the virtue of self-mastery, for it enables one to order one’s passions and to acquire a true understanding of the meaning of sexuality . . . it is necessary that the procreative power of the conjugal act remain unimpaired; otherwise the truth of the act is thwarted; the spouses are telling a lie with their bodies.

And perhaps there will be an acknowledgement of the finding by the noted Catholic historian, John T. Noonan (whose work Buckley admires) that from St. Jerome and St. Augustine through St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Charles Borromeo up to the coming of Vatican II, “no Catholic theologian has ever taught, ‘Contraception is a good act.’ ”

Summing up

When I asked Buckley if he thought he would go to Heaven, he quickly replied, flashing that famous smile, “I want very much to.” He added, as much for himself as for every pilgrim, “anybody who is searching for God will find Him.” By the grace of God, Bill Buckley found Him at a very early age and has been assiduously practicing the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity ever since. He has usually been a dutiful son of the Church who even served as a lector for three years at St. Mary’s Church, Stamford, Connecticut, before finally concluding that he was distracting the faithful with “meaningless and utterly uncommunicative objurgations.” (Here, for once, his rhetoric fails him. Reading the Old Testament or the letters of St. Paul to a congregation cannot be likened to a harsh rebuke.)

He is a believer in God’s salvific love. After visiting St. Bernadette’s birthplace in France, he wrote that as many as fifty thousand people, the great majority of them healthy, visit Lourdes every day, not to be cured of a physical malady but to seek reconciliation with God. He is a free spirit who believes in the Holy Spirit, a libertarian who loves Our Lady, a novelist whose love scenes would receive a nihil obstat, if requested. He is an awesomely conscientious correspondent, dictating more than 300 letters every week. He will not allow disagreements to interfere with the bonds of friendship, except in the most extreme cases.

His acts of charity, rendered to family and friends, are legion. He once visited a young man in a Texas hospital who was recovering from wounds incurred in Vietnam. His doctors had told him that he would never see again. Buckley secured his flight to New York City, where after an examination by one of the world’s leading eye surgeons and three operations, the young veteran’s eyesight was restored. Learning that a friend had written several Christmas songs for children, Buckley had them orchestrated and presented in concert — to a delighted audience of children. Casting about for an appropriate gift for his long-time secretary Gertrude Vogt, when she retired to hilly San Fransisco, Buckley arranged with the Yellow Cab company to give her a permanent “free ride” on any of its cabs.

He has helped bring about the conversion of colleagues like Frank Meyer and Marvin Liebman as well as the 11th-hour return to the Church of his mentor and fellow editor, James Burnham. He ensured that his precious offspring, National Review, would remain in Catholic hands with the naming of John O’Sullivan as its editor. It is no coincidence that the young men and women who work on the eighth floor of National Review‘s building in Manhattan say the Angelus every day.

He is a forever restless inhabitant of the City of Man who owns four desktop computers, one each in his Stamford home, his Park Avenue apartment, his office in midtown Manhattan, and the chalet he rents in Switzerland each February and March to ski and write and sometimes paint. For all his many talents and honors, he has genuine humility. He loves to tell the story of when he invited his house guest, one of France’s greatest artists, to inspect a painting of which he was particularly proud. The maitre looked at Buckley’s work, slapped his cheek and cried, “Oh, the poor paint!”

Bill Buckley is fiercely loyal, as Garry Wills puts it, to the institutions that nurtured him — Church, family, and country. He is, in his own words, “obedient to God . . . and to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.” Despite the recent political victories, he is not sanguine about the moral state of America, referring to “the quiet triumph of secularism in the past thirty years” and arguing that “the evangelists of agnosticism no longer feel the need to move their armies against what, in their judgment, is nowadays only a derelict defense force.”

Nevertheless, ever ready for battle, he declares, with Chesterton, that “the men signed of the Cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.” He is, in the summing up of his friend and fellow conservative, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “a Catholic with all flags unfurled pursuing his vocation.”

By

Lee Edwards (born 1932 in Chicago, Illinois) is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation. He is considered one of the foremost historians of the conservative movement in America, and he has published more than 15 books, including biographies of President Ronald Reagan, Senator Barry Goldwater, Attorney General Edwin Meese III and William F. Buckley, Jr. He is currently the Chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

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