Unbelievers, Flannery O’Connor remarked, think that faith for be- Hevers is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the Cross. William Buckley, regretting at the outset of his book that he is unable to convey a sense of his own personal struggle with Catholic Christianity, pleads simply that “there is no sufficient story there to tell.” Originally commissioned to write a book entitled “Why I Am Still A Catholic,” he later concluded that this would imply that “to continue as a Catholic is in some way remarkable, as in ‘Why I Am Still A Whig.'” Yet, though his own faith has seemingly never wavered, Mr. Buckley is nonetheless aware —how many Catholics are not? —that to remain a Catholic in anno Domini 1997 is in fact miraculous, a tiny part of the infinitely greater miracle that there remains, after two millennia, a Church in which Catholics can still remain. While adamant in belief, Buckley is keenly sensitive to the existence of doubts and difficulties engendered by the modern secularist age, and also to the troubling human contradictions inherent in an institution that is human and historical in nature, as well as divine. Eschewing the role of devil’s advocate, he adopts a tone of humility consistent with the precept, “There, but for the grace of Cod, go I.” It is much harder, O’Connor insisted, to believe than not to believe. Her words might serve as a gloss for this “spiritual biography,” which in due course recounts, and gives thanks for, an abundance of graces.

Reminiscing on his childhood and early maturity Buckley poignantly conveys the instillation of Catholicism into his youthful temperament and intellect. In the following chapter he contrasts his formation with examples of the difficulties confronting young people today who might wish to learn about the Christian Cod. The reminder that these difficulties precede Generation X by several previous ones offers an opening to reprise God and Man at Yale as a prophetic document. (“Christianity has been excluded by the very instrument—academic freedom—that Protestantism had counted on to further its mission.”) Yet Buckley, a graduate of the Millbrook School in New York—a Protestant establishment—needed to experience Yale to witness the degradation of Christianity in its full force. His counterpart today would have already suffered the ordeal as a tender schoolboy, Millbrook having abolished regularly scheduled prayer in favor of “encouraging” students to engage in spiritual activities and observances of their choice, like Kwanzaa and the Feast of St. Martin Luther King, Jr. Something more than religious eclecticism is going on, Buckley observes. “It is on the order of a substitute for religion,” a type of “cultural cosmopolitanism” for which the vernacular term is multiculturalism.

This problem of what might politely be called heterodoxy prompts Buckley to turn next to the evolution of the Catholic magisterium as expounded by Newman, who argued that the question of whether a doctrine has been developed can only be judged by appeal to moral authority: “A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.” By way of entry to the sempiternal temptation of private judgment, personal revelation, and cafeteria Catholicism, Buckley goes on to introduce portions of the famous debate between Arnold Lunn and Monsignor Ronald Knox, in which the putative convert proposes doubts and the great apologist for the Faith disposes of them. Clearly doubt fascinates Mr. Buckley, as it does—or should—all Catholics, belief being the result—as Scott Fitzgerald said literature is—of the tension between opposites, while doubt is sown promiscuously like weeds throughout the modern world.

For many older—and not a few younger—Catholics a significant, if unintentional, sower has been the Second Vatican Council. Candidly, though without the vehemence of Evelyn Waugh denouncing what he colorfully described as “the buggering up of the Church,” Buckley criticizes the Nevus Ordo, the revised liturgy in particular. “Reform” seemed in so many cases unnecessary (Why give up not eating meat on Friday?), pointless, and futile.

If clarity were the paramount purpose of liturgical reform—the ultima ratio for going into English; the whole reason for the vernacular— then the intended reform of the liturgy has not been accomplished because it cannot be accomplished. If clarity were the desideratum, one would need to jettison, just to begin with, much of St. Paul, whose epistles are in some respects inscrutable to some of the people some of the time, in most respects to most of the people most of the time. To translate them from the Latin or from the archaic grandeur of the Douay into John-Jane-Gyp contemporese is quite simply undoable.

Regarding participation by the faithful, “The rote of saying anything is the enemy of understanding. To reduce to unison prayers whose meaning is elusive to begin with is virtually to assure that they will mean nothing to the reciter, denied the time to ponder their meaning according to his own resources or desires.” Finally, Buckley notes, reform, whether or not it has succeeded in inspiriting the Mass, has certainly not brought converts to the Church; instead the size of the laity has decreased, and so has the number of clergy. The convention of Vatican II, he concludes, was regarded then “as the perfect time to persuade ourselves that the Council was being guided by the Holy Spirit. It gave some of us pause.”

While reform of itself has not brought converts, those elements of the Church that remain resistant to or are divinely incapable of change have won over a good many in recent decades, quite a few of them men and women of large talents and great intellectual powers. And just as belief is of greater compelling human interest than doubt, so new faith—especially in times like the present—is perhaps more fascinating still. Mr. Buckley, accordingly, convened a forum of converts—Jeffrey Hart, Father Richard John Neuhaus, Father George Rutler, Wick Allison, Ernest van den Haag, and, from beyond the grave, the spirit of Russell Kirk—to serve as a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the author’s own theological reflections and obsessions, including the Lunnian phase of their personal conversions as well as certain unpopular Church teachings currently under scrutiny and even fire: priestly celibacy, the male priesthood, the indissolubility of the marriage bond, and the prohibition of birth control.

Faith, finally, is apprehension, what we have from God instead of knowledge; even more, it is experience. Therefore, in a book that is truly more personal than it might at first glance appear to be, Mr. Buckley includes moving accounts of certain of his own experiences of places and events—Lourdes; the ordination of his nephew, Michael Bozell, in the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes—and of people—Malcolm Muggeridge; his mother, Aloise Steiner Buckley—that have provided him with his private epiphanies. Because it is by seeing of this sort, as much as by believing, that all of us who dwell within the Body of Christ may say with gratitude to God that we are still Catholics.


[Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (New York: Doubleday) 313 pp., $24.95]