My father's world view was not merely shaped by his conservative cultural environment but through spending his spare time at the State Library and watching the pundits go at one another. While watching "The Firing Line" on PBS at my daddy's knee, I came to respect William F. Buckley. My father convinced me before I could fairly decide for myself that Buckley was the smartest man alive, and after a decade of firmly coming to my own conclusions that differed with my father, I am convinced his opinion of Buckley was correct. Indeed, it was in part due to my father exposing me to the intellectuals of the conservative movement like Buckley that I came to a begrudging respect for Catholics.
Buckley died last week at the age of 82. Many young people, even young educated people, have little idea of who he is, although they probably laughed at Robin Williams' Genie doing his best WFB impersonation in the Disney film Aladdin. The average College Republican drawn in by the frat party atmosphere combined with the combative nature of campaigning may not have even noticed the news of his passing, but he was mourned by the movement conservatives whose doctrine dripped from the pages of The National Review, the magazine founded by Buckley in 1955 which promised in its first issue to stand "athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."
As news of Buckley's death became public, modern conservative icon Rush Limbaugh offered a lengthy and moving tribute. Limbaugh reminisced of the man considered by many to be the Father of American Conservatism (although Russell Kirk may have greater claim) and perhaps the last great public intellectual given society's preference for sound bites rather than informed debate:
My desire to learn actually came from outside the classroom. It came from my father, perhaps the most brilliant man I ever knew intimately, and my grandfather, of course, and many members of my family, and tossed into the mix was Mr. Buckley, who had a newspaper column. I remember at age 12 or 13 it was published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, which was the morning paper in St. Louis at the time that was conservative for the most part. No longer publishes, of course. But I remember at age 13, 14, all the way up through high school just being mesmerized. It was the things that Buckley wrote in those columns that literally created my desire to learn. Of course, listening to my father just rant on about a number of things constantly regarding politics, cultural things, we were a very active family in that regard, and, you know, the old image of families sitting around the dinner table and talking about stuff was true at our house. For me it was a listening experience, and, of course, peppered with questions and so forth. The single greatest motivation I had to learn to read, write, speak the English language the best I could, to expand my vocabulary, came from Bill Buckley.
And although I have never mastered the frequent use of multisyllabic wit designed to send the opposition into stupor, and while I have never said anything as witty and as true as, "I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University," Buckley was an early role model in my attempts to educate myself. Limbaugh mourned a man whom he came to know personally as a second father, and last week, still feeling the weight of the death of my own parents in the last two months, I felt a sense of loss for a man I never met but for whom I shared an admiration from afar with my father.
And just as much as I have come to disagree with my father over the years since my conversion to Catholicism, I have found myself breaking from the strange fusion of ideologies in the American conservative movement. I found reasons to disagree with Buckley, frequently based on materialist and individualist ideals that seemed to clash with my new found allegiance to John Paul the Great and Catholic Social Teaching. Indeed, the conservative Buckley often referred to himself as a libertarian, and the contradiction begged the question: What exactly is the conservative movement trying to conserve?
Buckley was a practicing Catholic who frequented the Latin Mass and challenged the secularist stranglehold some on the left attempted to place on the academy and public life. Rod Dreher, a former employee of Buckley's, gave testimony to Buckley's graciousness and generosity. But Buckley was also a public dissenter to the Church's ban on contraception and frequently at odds with her teachings on social justice.
As news of Buckley's death spread, Vox Nova, a group blog presenting Catholic social commentary, found heated combox debates over Buckley's legacy as a Catholic intellectual. Much of that debate centered on Buckley's dissent to Mater et Magistra, an encyclical on social justice by Pope John XXIII. One combox poster critical of Buckley referenced an address on Mater et Magistra by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver which characterizes the divide between Catholicism and contemporary political allegiances:
. . . if we say we’re Catholic, we need to act like it. When Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia publicly disputes Church teaching on the death penalty, the message he sends is not all that different from Frances Kissling disputing what the Church teaches about abortion. I don’t mean that abortion and the death penalty are identical issues. They’re not, and they don’t have equivalent moral gravity. But the impulse to pick and choose what we’re going to accept is exactly the same kind of “cafeteria Catholicism” in both cases.
Very often we treat the Church the same way we treat our flesh and blood mothers. We want the mommy part, but we don’t want the teacher part. We want her around to feed us, encourage us and comfort us when things are going badly. But we don’t want her advice, especially when it interferes with our plans. When Pope John XXIII’s encyclical first came out, the conservative author William Buckley, who didn’t like the Pope’s economics, wrote a famous column called, “Mater si, Magistra no!” – mother yes, teacher no. That led Louise and Mark Zwick to characterize him in the Houston Catholic Worker as “the inventor of cafeteria Catholicism and the pro-choice stance (at least in economics), who accepted encyclicals he agreed with and rejected others.” I think they’re right.
Archbishop Chaput, a man whose loyalty to the Magisterium is without question, credits the Father of American conservatism with inventing cafeteria Catholicism. And while I agree with him and all those rightly pointing out that it is not only those on the left trying to recreate the Catholic faith according to philosophies designed to promote their own vices, I cannot help but feel some need to show loyalty to Buckley my teacher, some loyalty that reaches beyond the silencing wisdom that says the man is recently dead and we should be praying for his soul instead of arguing his legacy.
William F. Buckley, Jr. rose to national prominence with the 1951 publishing of God and Man at Yale, which criticized the professors of his alma mater for attempting to indoctrinate the students with anti-religious sentiment. Buckley was the first president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and the founder of Young Americans for Freedom, two organizations that offered dissent to the leftist orthodoxy of the academy. While his fusionist movement brought religious traditionalists, libertarians, and national security hawks under the faulty banner of conservatism, debate and distrust of the ivory tower prophets of progress kept the United States from falling into the complete cultural disarray of Europe. And I am certain that the intellectual prowess of the Catholic leaders of Buckley's influenced many towards the sacraments if not to complete doctrinal fidelity.
It is fair to point out the spots of darkness in Buckley's public discourse, especially when he clashes with the Church, but it ought be done with the humility that recognizes that we never know where it is that we might be completely blind to our own faults. Likewise, we are apt to miss such brilliant light coming from broken people if we are only searching out their darkness.
In our mission to redeem intellectual life, we are trying to sow seeds with unfailing loyalty to the Magisterium in ground that has been broken by the movement conservatives of Buckley's era. Their struggle made our "heterodoxy" towards political correctness an easier burden to bear. In spite of some significant differences which cannot continually be swept under the rug lest we lose our Catholic identity while measuring up to conservative orthodoxy, we owe Buckley and the movement he led more than prayers for their soul.
We owe gratitude.