God and Man and William F. Buckley, Jr

By Johnson, Paul | The American Spectator, December 1997 | Go to article overview

God and Man and William F. Buckley, Jr


Johnson, Paul, The American Spectator


Nearer, My God:

An Autobiography of Faith.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

Doubleday /313 pages / $24.95.

Bill Buckley's place in the contemporary American political and media scene is secure and well-known, and he needs no introductlon. lt is also common knowledge that he is a strong, practicing Catholic, and that his Catholicism informs every aspect of his public convictions. But the nature and quality of his faith, and its history, have been personal matters up to now. Buckley has at last decided to open up the windows to his soul, and it is of interest to show exactly how he sets about it

First Buckley describes the salient episodes of his childhood. Much of it was spent just before World War II in England, where he attended the Jesuit school at Beaumont, near Windsor Castle, though he seems to have derived most of his religious ideas from his God-fearing parents (his mother took Holy Communion daily). Then came Yale, and Buckley has illuminating things to say about the elements of Christianity to be found there in his time, and today.

He then discusses what he calls "the never-ending debate" about the existence of God and the role of religion in life, with particular reference to the demands on a person made by Catholicism and the "difficulties" that thereby arise. He does not seem to have been bothered by most of the tricky questions created by the specificality and exigence of Catholic doctrine, but he admits to having been "arrested" by the need to reconcile divine omniscience and individual free will. He deals with the Spanish Inquisition, slavery, the doctrine of Hell, and even that old chestnut, Indulgences, and the sale thereof, quoting extensively from the defenses put up by such Catholic controversialists as Sir Arnold Lunn and Father Ronald Knox.

Buckley goes on to discuss the Second Vatican Council and its mixed message: on the one hand it did some much-needed updating of the Catholic Church, but on the other it seemed to set it on a path of free-fall to liberalism. A further chapter examines the experiences and views of such prominent converts to Catholicism as Father John Neuhaus. Chapter Eight is devoted to the crucifixion, in which he makes impressive use of a work by the Italian poetess Maria Valtorta, The Poem of the Man-God, which describes the execution of Christ in horrific detail. The poem was new to me, and the extensive summary and quotations Buckley provides made a striking impression on my visual consciousness of the event.

Buckley's next move is to deal with miracles by describing a visit he paid to Lourdes, on the edge of the Pyrenees, which is the biggest place of pilgrimage in France and probably in Europe. He describes in some detail the conditions which have to be satisfied to authenticate a Lourdes miracle, making extensive use of a book, The Miracle of Lourdes, written by a convert, Ruth Cranston, in the 1950's and recently updated. Buckley selects some of the cures examined by Cranston for his own analysis, and relates them to his experiences at the shrine. Then he passes on to the problem of evil, and the nature of a God who can allow to take place earthquakes and other natural disasters which kill innocent people, often cruelly.

In Chapter Eleven, Buckley looks at the way Hollywood has dealt with religious subjects, and in particular its treatment of True Confessions, the novel by John Gregory Dunne (1977), which features the bad priest who visits brothels. This kind of oblique attack on Catholicism does not worry Buckley too much because he believes it evokes from Catholics valuable responses, just as Charles Kingley's crude and unfair attack on John Henry Newman produced his masterpiece, Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Buckley is more exercised by such current Catholic problems as the arguments over women priests and birth-control, and the difficulties produced by divorce, remarriage and "living in sin" within Catholic families, all of which he deals with in Chapter Twelve. …

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