Buckley’s Catholic Legacy


When William F. Buckley Jr. died on Feb. 27 at age 82, it was noted that he was a Catholic.

But in the avalanche of commentary that marked Buckley’s death, perhaps the most striking was the judgment of papal biographer George Weigel: “Bill Buckley may have been the most publicly influential U.S. Catholic of the 20th century; he would certainly be on any serious list of the top five.”

Indeed, while he was eulogized as the father of the modern conservative movement, the intellectual architect of the rise of Ronald Reagan, and consequently the most influential journalist of his generation, Buckley was the dominant figure of his time in shaping the Catholic contribution to American public life.

That contribution was twofold. First, Buckley’s political philosophy was grounded in the defense and celebration of human liberty: “Without freedom, there is no true humanity.”

While libertarian, he was no libertine, understanding that human freedom was a divine gift granted for a purpose — creativity, enterprise, industry, art and virtue. While he did not argue in the theological mode, his writings were born from his deeply Catholic thinking about human dignity, liberty, justice and the common good.

In founding his magazine, National Review, in 1955, he fashioned a new conservative movement, “excommunicating” the isolationists and nativists and extremists (he broke with Joe McCarthy) that had previously dominated American conservative thought.

When the Second Vatican Council embraced fully the human rights agenda, including religious liberty, Buckley was well situated to propose a political philosophy that, while not mandatory for Catholics, was certainly compatible with Catholic teaching. Given the tendency of American Catholic thinking to more progressive causes and associating with the Democratic Party, Buckley blazed a new political and cultural trail: the Catholic conservative.

The effect of that is hard to overstate.

The political phenomenon of the Reagan Democrats and the migration of Catholic voters to the Republican Party — especially practicing Catholics — is a Buckley effect, and hugely important in recent American politics.

Yet, that is only the consequence of a revolution of ideas that has become a distinctly American contribution to Catholic thought.

As a young man he was a supremely confident Catholic in a time when Catholics were not fully part of the American mainstream, and as an old man he called for a more confident Catholicism, unafraid of swimming against the stream.

Almost all of what could be considered Catholic conservative thought — First Things, Crisis (now InsideCatholic.com), Human Life Review, Ethics & Public Policy Center, The Acton Institute, Faith & Reason Institute, EWTN and a variety of others — are flourishing in ground first plowed by Buckley.

Some of those institutions were started by his protégés; all have been influenced by his public presenting of a Catholic understanding of American liberty. Generations of Catholic intellectuals first appeared in the pages of National Review, and many non-Catholics had their first encounter with Catholic thinking in those same pages.

His second key Catholic contribution was in making mainstream American conservatism pro-life. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, abortion politics were in transition.

The Democratic Party with its heavily Irish Catholic leadership was generally on the side of life — but moving rapidly toward embracing the abortion license. The elite Republican Party of Eisenhower and Rockefeller was generally in favor of abortion liberalization (Reagan himself signed such a law as governor of California).

It is generally conceded that without the steadfastness of the Catholic Church in the 1970s there would be no pro-life movement. It is likely that if Buckley had not been staunchly pro-life himself, the ascendant Republican majority may well have equivocated on the question of abortion.

But to consider William F. Buckley Jr. as a merely political figure is to miss out on what endeared him to so many — and enraged others.

He was a man of great wealth and greater talent still, and he lived life to the full, writing 40-plus books, sailing the oceans, skiing the Swiss Alps, playing the harpsichord, extolling the virtues of his favorite peanut butter, and doing it all with his high-wattage vocabulary.

“Bill Buckley was a man of almost inexhaustible curiosity, courtesy, generosity, and delight in the oddness of the human circumstance,” said Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things and a long-time friend. “He exulted in displaying his many talents, which was not pride so much as an invitation to others to share his amazement at the possibilities in being fully alive.”

His formidable intelligence was tempered by the simple piety he learned from his parents. In recent years, he confessed to being “tired of life.” He lost his wife of 57 years last year, and felt that having led a very full life, he was more than ready for the fullness of life in heaven.

Some Catholics have accused him of theological dissent on various issues over the years.

He was not unusual, for example, in questioning the Church’s teaching on contraception, noting that the vast majority of Catholics in the United States simply ignored it. Yet, in the end, he took the Catholic view on how to resolve such issues: “The answer, for a Catholic, has got to be: the position taken by the Pope, as spokesman for the magisterium.”

He may not be convinced, but accepts. The Catholic cannot be asked to do more.

On other issues he did not hold back his disappointment, notably inveighing against the banality of so much Catholic liturgical life and lamenting the pastoral foolishness of abandoning Friday abstinence.

As a young man he was a supremely confident Catholic in a time when Catholics were not fully part of the American mainstream, and as an old man he called for a more confident Catholicism, unafraid of swimming against the stream.

A master wordsmith, he argued for both Latin and good English when current Catholic liturgy is marked by neither. Famous for his sesquipedalian vocabulary, he routinely used terms that manifested a Catholic sensibility: “afflatus” (a divine impulse) or “thaumaturgical” (concerning the working of miracles).

It is often remarked that the Catholic sensibility is “both/and” rather than “either/or.”

Both faith and reason, both God and man, both priest and victim, etc. William F. Buckley Jr. lived a Catholic life that was “both/and” — he never did by half measures what the Lord had given to him in full measure, pressed down and overflowing. And as abundantly blessed as he was in this life, he never lost sight of blessings still to come.

“So I call it Nearer, My God,” he wrote about the title of his spiritual autobiography. “That is an incomplete phrase, but then my thoughts are incomplete, and I pray that my faith may always be whole.”


Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Buckley’s Catholic Legacy." National Catholic Register (March 9-15, 2008).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2008 National Catholic Register

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