NEARER MY GOD: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF FAITH, by William F. Buckley
Review by PETER J. MCCORD
How to describe Bill Buckley? Author of 39 books. Publisher of The National Review. Novelist. TV host of his own show, “The Firing Line.” One time candidate for mayor of New York City. Catholic lay intellectual. Acerbic critic of things religious at Yale University (God and Man at Yale). Brief employee of the CIA. Defender of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Voice of political and Catholic conservatism. All of the above.
And much more, as we learn from this challenging and, most of the time, interesting book. Buckley admits to many reservations about writing the book in the first place, confessing to incompetence in matters theological and reluctance to display his private faith-life intrusively. After struggling with the idea for several years, he finally decided to go through with it —but only with the assistance of a group of Catholic men whom he especially respects and who came to Catholicism as adults. He calls them his “Forum” and polled them on a number of questions that seemed important to him in order to elucidate positions that he himself holds, but thought they could better describe. The sole woman candidate for Buckley’s Forum, Clare Boothe Luce, died before she could participate in the project.
Buckley does not describe any “tent-meeting” conversion experience, as one might expect perhaps from one born into a devout Catholic family of 11 children. He does describe the gradual deepening of his God and family-given faith, the key elements being his devotion to Mary, the Eucharist and the institutional church. Although he went to a non-Catholic private elementary school (having been tutored at home prior to that), his Catholic faith was not significantly challenged until he attended Yale University. His reaction to that experience was embodied in his first book, God and Man at Yale, which made him famous, or infamous to many of the Yale faculty and administration. From that time, he became a vocal critic of secular education and a recognized voice both of the Catholic viewpoint (as he understood it) and the conservative political philosophy.
The reader’s reaction to this account of the development of Buckley’s faith-life will likely be colored by one’s political and/or theological viewpoint. Not to mention the oftentimes turgid, pompous and opaque prose which has become the Buckley trademark. Now in his 70s, Buckley’s sense of Catholicism often seems freeze-framed in the church of his growing-up years. He is dismayed altogether, for example, by the liturgical changes which followed the Vatican II Council: “Twenty-five years later [after his secondary school years] I would write a scorching denunciation of the changes authorized by Vatican II and of the heartbreakingly awful English translations that accompanied the jettisoning of the Latin. The Mass, in Latin, had got to me.” Having been asked to serve as lector in his parish church in Connecticut in the late 60s, he “hung on doggedly for three years, until the day came when I felt obliged to act on my reservations” and resigned as lector. He is adamant that the Mass should be in Latin and that the changes have been counterproductive. If this were not the case, how explain the decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious orders of nuns?
Buckley omits any mention of lay renewal movements inspired by the Council, including those aimed at peace and justice initiatives. Nor does he mention his public disagreements with papal teachings on world economic justice, e.g. his editorial reaction to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, jestingly titled “Mater, si, magistra, no.”
Best to have a dictionary at your side while reading, but there’s something here to inspire and challenge any reader, Catholic or otherwise.
Peter J. McCord is executive director of the Greater Greer Development Corporation.