The Magazine

A Christian Gentleman

Joseph Bottum on Buckley.

Mar 10, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 25 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Along the way, many have remarked on his multiple lives. He had a rich man's existence, with the skiing in Switzerland and the sailing on the Atlantic and the parties on Park Avenue and the chauffeur-driven car coming into Manhattan from the estate in Connecticut. And then he had his writing life, creating the series of spy-thriller novels that began in 1976 with Saving the Queen and penning books about food and boating and his brief but depressing time at the United Nations. All the while, he had his pundit's career, writing three newspaper columns a week and taping his television show and editing National Review and giving 70 lectures a year and plotting political adventures with the powers that be.

It's enough to fill three lifetimes, and yet, somehow, in the accounts of all this, his Christian devotion seems almost to have disappeared. This was yet another of the simultaneous lives that he led, another string to his bow, and there was a time in the 1950s and 1960s when Buckley was also seen as the nation's leading Catholic layman.

His parents' Catholicism formed their children more significantly than anything else, and the family's experience rescuing priests during the anti-clerical Mexican revolution helped define for Buckley and his siblings their vision of themselves as radically opposed to the modern pattern of the world. It seemed perfectly in character when, at a talk at Catholic University in 1971, his sister Patricia responded to a suggestion that the Virgin Mary should have aborted the infant Jesus by storming the stage and slapping the speaker.

Buckley himself was never a professional Catholic, in the sense of someone who made his living from the fact of his faith, and his standing as a Catholic commentator declined when in 1961 National Review responded to John XXIII's encyclical on Christianity and social progress, Mater et Magistra, with the quip: "Mater si, Magistra no." Still, it was always there in his life, even if, on Firing Line, he most often used Malcolm Muggeridge as the designated Christian commentator.

Buckley could joke about his faith: He said of the deathbed conversion to Catholicism of his friend Frank S. Meyer that "the only remaining intellectual obstacle to his conversion was the collectivist implication lurking in the formulation 'the communion of saints' in the Apostles' Creed." And he could be serious: In reply to Garry Wills's claim that "being Catholic always mattered more to him than being conservative," Buckley responded, "If he meant he has a higher loyalty to God than to civil society, then the answer is obvious: God has to be pre-eminent." But he never let it go, even in his final months, darkened by the death of his wife, Patricia, in April 2007.

In the 1950s, he made an attempt to purchase the Catholic magazine Commonweal (through the agency of the political theorist James Burnham, whose brother Philip had been editor of the magazine). Those were different days, of course, in the glow of a Catholic renaissance that ran from the philosophical work of Jacques Maritain to the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, and Commonweal was a significant intellectual publication. It would be fascinating to observe what, in an alternate universe, William F. Buckley might have done as the editor of a Catholic intellectual journal instead of National Review.

Last week's obituaries--in the New York Times, for example, or the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times--all reduced his Catholicism to nothing more than a species, or at best a cause, of his political conservatism. This diminishment of his religious mind to political activism marks a loss in our understanding of how an intellectual life is made and how a full life is lived.

Full certainly describes William F. Buckley's life. With everything he did, he was always doing something more; with everything he was, he was always being something more--leading some further life, accomplishing some further goal, learning some further skill. He found fame young, and he sought fame hard, giving $10,000 to the publisher of his first book, God and Man at Yale, to use for advertising. But he never was just that famous man, any more than he was just a well-known political pundit, or a television celebrity, or a rich man's heir. And it was, more than anything else, his faith that gave him the more that defined him: a place to stand outside himself, a power to laugh, and a higher life to live.

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.