The Catholicism of William F. Buckley, Jr.

Two biographies highlight the central role it played in his life and thought.

William F. Buckley Jr.’s name is synonymous with conservative politics, but it is not always linked with Catholicism, even though Buckley’s faith clearly affected, if not undergirded, his political ideology. By the reckoning of Lee Edwards and Jeremy Lott, this neglect of the centrality of Buckley’s faith has been an unfortunate sin of omission, which needs to be rectified.

Both Edwards and Lott have written fresh new biographies of the conservative giant, with Buckley’s faith at the crux of their investigations. To that end, both authors do dour combat with the assertion sometimes made that Buckley was a “bad Catholic” or a “cafeteria Catholic.”

Says Edwards: “He was a good Catholic all his life…. His faith was central to his life and career.” Lott agrees that “Buckley was a reasonably devout Catholic for the whole of his life,” even as he “struggled to accept Church teachings that he found diffi cult.” Both authors agree that Buckley, despite his struggles with certain Church teachings, ultimately remained a very faithful Catholic throughout his life.

Edwards’ book begins with the scene at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in April 2008, where Father George Rutler gave the homily for the funeral Mass of the conservative icon. The book is not a spiritual biography, but a comprehensive treatment of all aspects of Buckley’s life. Yet it is the gems on his faith, which Edwards (himself a faithful Catholic and a longtime professor at the Catholic University of America) scatt ers throughout the narrative, that will surprise readers the most.

Edwards describes how Buckley was immersed in Catholicism by his devout parents, by the Mexican nurses who cared for him, and by the Catholic education he received from Jesuits at a private school in England, St. John’s Beaumont, where he att ended daily Mass and began all of his essays by inscribing “A.M.D.G.” (“Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam—For the greater glory of God”) at the top of the page.

At first glance Buckley struck many as a WASP-ish New England patrician. But he was not that at all. He was thoroughly Catholic, the product of a Texan Irish father, Bill, Sr., and a mother, Aloise, who was raised by a New Orleans business executive. There was a special bond with his mother, who would bear 10 children, of which little Billy was number six. Along the way, in one pivotal moment, Buckley’s mother suffered through an especially difficult pregnancy. Witnessing that incident at age 13 prompted in Buckley a lifelong dedication to Our Lady that was capped by a daily Rosary, which he continued to say for 70 years, until his death.

Edwards does not shy away from dealing with Buckley’s struggles over certain Church teachings. Nonetheless, as Edwards shows, Buckley worked his way through those teachings, and eventually accepted them for the most important reason: because his Church had declared them to be true. As Edwards once told me, referencing Buckley’s initial support for contraception, “[He] changed his position to acceptance of the Holy Father’s teaching.”

Buckley humbled himself to the discipline and wisdom of the Church, bowing to its greater knowledge, conceding his own mental limitations—no small concession, perhaps, for a man celebrated as one of the most erudite in America. “My own incomplete understanding of the natural law balks at the central affirmation of Humanae Vitae,” he wrote, “even as I’d of course counsel dutiful compliance with it.” Of that compliance, he added: “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.”

Jeremy Lott’s take on Buckley is also engaging and well-written. It is brief (153 pages), almost pocketsized, one among several contributions to a series of Thomas Nelson “Christian Encounters” books, ranging from subjects like John Bunyan and D. L. Moody to Saints Nicholas and Patrick. That Thomas Nelson Publishers was willing to include Buckley in this series is commendable, and Lott rewards the decision with an insightful look at Buckley’s life and contributions viewed through the narrow but illuminating lens of his religious faith.

Like Lee Edwards, Lott makes clear that to get at the real Bill Buckley we need to get at the man’s soul—perhaps what Russell Kirk might have called the “inner order.” Given that this is a spiritual biography, Lott goes deeper in that regard than Edwards. As Lott says, this is a “selective treatment of Buckley’s life, not an exhaustive one.”

“Buckley’s argument and his politics,” he writes, “were inspired and bounded by his religion.” Thus, rather than report on Buckley’s well-known doings via a conventional political analysis, Lott channels them through a faith perspective. For instance, he looks at Buckley’s classic political treatise Up from Liberalism not as simply a book that was (from a political standpoint) anti-liberalism, but that viewed the conflict between liberalism and all else as “ultimately religious in nature.” Buckley opposed liberalism, and Communism for that matter, “ultimately for theological reasons.” The policies that Buckley advocated, judges Lott, “proceeded from his understanding of how society should be ordered—an understanding that was profoundly shaped by his religion.”

Lott sets the tone in his introduction with a clever analysis of Buckley as “prophet,” while quickly cautioning readers that such an analogy can be overdone. As Lott notes, prophets, in the Hebrew tradition, were “God’s mouthpieces.” Those prophets spoke in a number of different ways, but they always strove to call people back to the One True Path. These prophets warned people, whether the people of Israel or other nations, “to repent, to establish a more just order, or to gird their loins and ready themselves for the consequences.”

Some reading these lines will fear this as a canonization in process, with Lott equating Buckley with Ezekiel, Daniel, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. That is not Lott’s intention, and he is careful not to overdo the analogy. He poses Buckley as a kind of political prophet, fighting the secular-progressive zeitgeist that appeared on the scene in the 1950s and reached its unhealthy apogee by the 1960s and 1970s.

As Lott records, prophets are not remembered because they were right about everything, but because they were right about a few important things—things that mattered most, and which needed to be identified among the people, people facing folly and potential ruin. And therein, he writes, is where Buckley filled the role: “He was proved right about Communism, right about academia, right about the excesses of liberalism, and right about much else, besides.”

The remainder of Lott’s work goes through those areas. One particularly interesting section of the book deals with academia, specifically Buckley’s time at Yale. It was there that Buckley emerged on the national scene, penning his instant classic, God and Man at Yale. Buckley arrived at Yale not only with his luggage but with, in his words, a “firm belief in Christianity and a profound respect for American institutions and traditions.” At Yale, he expected to find kindred souls, likewise professing not only free enterprise and limited government but “allies against secularism and collectivism.” He was soon disappointed. Worse, Buckley encountered the start of a horrific drift in modern academia, which he described as “one of the most extraordinary incongruities of our time: the institution that derives its moral and financial support from the Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists.”

This was the start of Bill Buckley’s conservative rebellion. He recorded what he found in God and Man at Yale, to the outrage of the Yale elite, who, scattered around the nation as wealthy alumni, lined up to blast the then-twentysomething with every cannon in the liberal arsenal. Buckley was suddenly in a cultural-ideological combat zone, and he would never look back, with his faith underpinning the journey and giving him the courage to last the battle.

Jeremy Lott covers that journey commendably, at greater length than can be summarized here. Yet one final, honorable mention from his handling should be made, and it relates to Buckley’s skirmish with Ayn Rand. When the angry, God-hating Rand first met Buckley in the early 1950s, she said to him: “You are too intelligent to believe in God.” For this insufferable woman, la pasionaria of libertarians, this comment was an attempt at a compliment, something she was not good at giving. And for a while, notes Lott, Rand and Buckley got along “tolerably well.”

But they soon came to an irreconcilable crossroads. Both extolled freedom, of man and enterprise. But Buckley believed that man’s freedom was a gift from God; Rand dismissed this out of hand. Such was the depth of her atheism that she expelled from her inner circle of sycophants and supplicants one young disciple who refused to denounce his wife for believing in the Almighty.

When she died in 1982, Buckley began one of his classic “R.I.P.” obituaries by employing a clever turn on Nietzsche’s cynical phrase about God, “Ayn Rand is dead.” He did not stop there, adding, caustically: “So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch; it was, in fact, stillborn.”

As Lott notes, that may or may not be true. In fact, Rand’s writings are enjoying a remarkable resurgence lately. She seems to have some staying power. But so does Bill Buckley. Few political commentators over the past half century had his impact, and he lives on, with his columns retrievable anywhere, with anthologies of his writings available, and with other biographies in the works for the years ahead.

Kudos to Lee Edwards and Jeremy Lott for highlighting what was so central to the heart, mind, and soul of the man. It is a chapter from all those Buckley words and writings that should never be omitted—for the greater memory of the man, and for the greater glory of God.

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About Dr. Paul Kengor 54 Articles
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage, and, most recently, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism's Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration.