Monday, May 22, 2017

Mater Si, Magistra No?

Mater si, Magistra no was a once provocative phrase originally used by William F. Buckley (allegedly suggested to him by Gary Wills) in Buckley's journal National Review in his negative response to Pope Saint John XXIII's 1961 social encyclical Mater et Magistra ("Mother and Teacher"). It was a take-off on a then popular anti-Castro expression, Cuba si, Castro no. Appropriating the slogan in this way, Buckley meant to convey that one could be a devout and loyal Catholic son or daughter of Mother Church while rejecting particular Church teachings. In subsequent decades, the phrase came to characterize the more widespread phenomenon, on the left as well as on the right, of dissent from other authoritative Church teachings (e.g., on contraception).

I was reminded of all that recently with the publication of an excellent new Buckley biography, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley, Jr., by Al Felzenberg, a political scientist and scholar of the presidency, presently a lecturer at the Annenberg School of Communicatio- and (full disclosure) a former grad school classmate of mine at Princeton in the 1970s. Dr. Felzenberg provides a detailed account of Buckley's life, his career as a public face of and mentor to the revitalized conservative movement in the second half of the 20th century, and, as the title suggests, his personal and political interactions with the presidents (at least the Republican presidents) who dominated that period. The "odyssey" part of the title may be more problematic, since, although he did evolve in certain respects which Felzenberg details, basically Buckley began, continued, and ended as a convinced and polemical conservative throughout his entire public life. That said, as a study of Buckley's beliefs and how he promoted them, irrefutably influencing his era, Felzenberg's book is a tremendous success. Significantly, he highlights two of Buckley's greatest accomplishments - his "fusion" of disparate philosophical factions in a common anti-communist movement and his "gatekeeper" role, which functioned to de-legitimize more extreme and conspiratorial edges of the movement - some of the very elements which seem to be reasserting their influence on the right today under the rubric of "populism." An elitist by personality and background, Buckley (as Felzenberg relevantly shows) never quite resolved the competing claims of elitism and populism in his own thinking and in the movement at large.

Felzenberg acknowledges and highlights the significance of Buckley's Catholicism - and the influence it apparently had in moderating his inherited racial prejudices. But, unless I missed it, Buckley's 1961 reaction to Mater et Magistra and the larger, life-long Mater si, Magistra no question of how he reconciled his highly individualistic (almost libertarian) orientation with the communitarian-oriented teaching of the Church is hardly addressed. Perhaps what that really reflects is how - apart from his rejection of the most extreme  (and conveniently atheistic) version of libertarianism promoted by Ayn Rand - Buckley himself managed somehow sufficiently to compartmentalize his faith and his socio-political beliefs such that the challenges one proposed to the other could themselves be minimized or ignored. 

In this, unwittingly perhaps, Buckley became a paradigm for contemporary American Catholicism's internal divisions, which virtually mirror the larger social and political divisions in American society at large. Like the country, Catholicism in America is largely polarized between between its right and left wings which tragically seem increasingly to be moving in separate politically rather than religiously defined directions, despite the challenge to both by the authoritative teachings of the Church's magisterium.

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