See you later, alligator?

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a press release yesterday denouncing a "vile column" distributed by the Universal Press Syndicate titled "Death for the Pope." The document contained a statement by League President William Donahue. The "kindest thing" that could be said of the columnist, opined Donohue, "is that he's gone off the deep end":

"It matters not a whit that he calls the pope 'a major historical figure,' because even the most inveterate anti-Catholic must acknowledge as much. Indeed, even the biggest Catholic basher in the world is not likely to write, 'So, what is wrong with praying for his death?' If you have to ask, sir, then you are beyond hope."

So who was this heretic who openly pined for the pope's death? Hans Küng? Frances Kissling? James Carroll? Gary Wills? Try William F. Buckley Jr.

Yes that William F. Buckley Jr. In his syndicated column (which one reader sent to me with a note that read "Dude, this column has GetReligion post written all over it"), Buckley began, "At church on Sunday the congregation was asked to pray for the recovery of the pope. I have abstained from doing so. I hope that he will not recover."

Buckley did quite a bit of throat-clearing before he got around to explaining why he would not join in the entreaties for the pope's recovery:

[T]he pope almost died the day that he was taken to the hospital. "We got him by a breath," one medico leaked the news, and another said, "If he had come in 10 minutes later, he would have been gone."

The temptation is, always, to pray for the continuation of the life of anyone who wants to keep on living. The pope is one of these. In the past, he recorded that he did not plan ever to abdicate, that he would die on the papal throne.

Buckley called it "presumptuous" to suppose that John Paul's decision not to abdicate was "motivated by vainglory" and then proceeded to do just that:

What exactly he had in mind we do not know, but can reasonably assume that he was asserting pride in physical fortitude, consistent with his days as a mountain climber and a skier. Perhaps there is an element of vanity there.

"We must have great faith in the pope. He knows what to do," said the Vatican secretary of state. Buckley rejoined,

What to do includes clinging to the papacy as a full-time cripple, if medicine, which arrested death by only 10 minutes, can arrest death again for weeks and even months. But the progressive deterioration in the pope's health over the last several years confirms that there are yet things medical science can't do, and these include giving the pope the physical strength to coordinate and to use his voice intelligibly.

"So," the old polemicist concluded, "what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings? And for the opportunity to pay honor to his legacy by turning to the responsibility of electing a successor to get on with John Paul's work?"

An interesting discussion of this column can be found in the comments threads of Amy Welborn's Open Book. One reader called Buckley's proposal the "Euthanasian Prayer." Welborn herself has refrained from comment except in one headline: "Pope to Buckley: 'Suffer this.'"

I was not surprised that Buckley wrote this column or that it generated a lot of debate. Buckley has been dropping broad hints lately that old age is closing in on him. This has affected the way he thinks about this world and whatever comes next -- though I argued in my recent Books & Culture appreciation that this shift has been a long time coming.

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