Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Pope William F. Buckley Wanted

Here's an interesting little snapshot from the past -- an essay that William F. Buckley wrote for The New Republic in the late summer of 1978, as the world waited for the Catholic Church to choose a successor to Pope Paul VI. Buckley's wish list for the qualities the new pope should possess is fascinating both for the ways in which it accurately diagnosed what was wrong with the Church in those turbulent years, and also for the ways in which Buckley could not have foreseen or even hoped for the kind of pope the Church ultimately got in John Paul II.

What did Buckley get right about the Church's most pressing needs that September? First of all, he realized that the Church needed more than anything else a pastoral pope, rather than a pope around whom one ideological brand of Catholicism or another could rally for the advancement of its own worldly agenda.

"The Pope must stand out as the principal symbol of the transfiguring dimension of life...The Pope’s capacity persuasively to superordinate the spiritual over the material is the highest skill his community can demand from him."

John Paul II was nothing if not a "symbol of the transfiguring dimension of life." He successfully placed himself above the political squabbles that had already broken out in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and, simply by the force of his own personality and intellect, made it impossible not to acknowledge him as the Pastor of the Universal Church in a way that Paul VI never managed to do. He was, supremely, a spiritual leader of a kind the church had not elevated to the Chair of Peter in 20 years.

Buckley also saw accurately the damage done to the liturgical life of the Church by the "spirit of Vatican II," although he was rather too willing to blame Vatican II itself, rather than a false implementation of the Council's decrees, for that damage:

"The showplace of the church is the liturgy, and here the [Council's] reforms proved disastrous: a disfiguration of what was venerable and beautiful, into a vulgar collegiality that is artificial, distracting and appropriately celebrated by the worst abuses against the English language in the history of syntax."

Well, maybe. Most of what Buckley is lamenting here can be catalogued under the heading of what was permitted in the name of the Council rather than what the Council mandated. And surely Buckley -- a man to whom language itself had a sacramental dimension -- would be pleased to see the reformed translation of the Mass that will be introduced next year, a translation that will correct many of the "worst abuses against the English language in the history of syntax."

In other respects, Buckley can sound surprisingly -- and perhaps to some people disillusioningly -- like a typical '70s "progessive" Catholic. He thinks that dispensing with the rule of celibacy would not harm the standing of the priesthood as a "distinctive spiritual caste." More tendentiously, he seems to hope for a general dilution of the Church's teaching on human sexuality and marriage.

"The new Pope is likely to look again at these arguments [condoning contraceptive practices within marriage], and it is likely that, in a fresh allocution, he will modify Humanae vitae at least to the point of making it paradigmatic as distinct from binding. To say that the supreme point of sexual union is the continuation of life is to say that and not necessarily more than that. A retreat from a strict constructionist reading of Humanae vitae probably would be welcome in the long run without being held up as evidence of theological demagogy."

Well, we're none of us perfect, and it's almost reassuring in a way to discover that even as subtle a mind as William F. Buckley's could occasionally lapse into relativist incoherence, as he does here. With John Paul II he did not get his wished-for "retreat" from Humanae vitae. Instead he and we got a brilliant and forceful vindication of that historic and courageous papal document. (If you're Catholic and have not read Love and Responsibility, you should. Tomorrow.)

Perhaps the ecclesiastical portent that Buckley most obviously missed as he gazed into his 1978 crystal ball was the central importance of generational transition in the Church. It's a portent that the coming pope, John Paul II, did not (thank God) fail to recognize. Buckley's generation of Catholics -- the Vatican II generation, if you will -- was already giving way to the next generation (mine, as a matter of fact) when John Paul II was elected. And my generation in turn would prove much less influential in shaping the Church of the New Millennium than the generation that followed it. It was this younger generation that John Paul II targeted so successfully, and molded into the generation of young priests -- priests in their 30s and 40s today -- that will fulfill the promise of the Second Vatican Council and correct the misdirections committed in the Council's name. Ultimately, the inspiring of that generation may prove to be John Paul II's greatest gift to the Church.

As things turned out, the Church in October 1978 did not quite get the pope William F. Buckley wanted. Instead, it got a better pope than Buckley -- or any of us -- could ever have imagined.


  1. Well, it's late and since what you write about the essay is essentially exactly what I was thinking while I read it, I don't have much to say.

    This really got to me, "the Committee for the Responsible Election of the Pope." It tempts me to use bad language, but I will resist the urge. What hubris!


  2. Oh, and I have read Love and Responsibility which, I guess, is a good thing because I really won't have time to read it tomorrow.