The death of William F. Buckley Jr. raises the question of what journalists mean when they use words such as conservative and liberal. Buckley was a Catholic and a conservative. But was he a Catholic conservative? All of the major newspapers think so.
In The New York Times, reporter Douglas Martin explained Buckley's upbringing this way:
The elder Mr. Buckley made a small fortune in the oil fields of Mexico and Venezuela and educated his children with personal tutors at Great Elm, the family estate in Sharon, Conn. They also attended exclusive Roman Catholic schools in England and France. Young William absorbed his family's conservatism along with its deep Catholicism.
Writing in The Washington Post, Bart Barnes suggested that Buckley's first book reflected his conservative Catholic outlook:
By the time he founded National Review, Buckley had published his first major book, "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom" (1951), in which he accused the faculty of his alma mater of a pervasive bias against religion, individualism and capitalism. The book sparked a heated debate, which only helped elevate Buckley's public profile. Academicians tended to see it as a polemic against liberal education, and some suggested it was a product of Buckley's "militant Catholicism."
In The Los Angeles Times, staff writer Scott Kraft notes that in the early 1950s, Buckley co-wrote a book in defense of Republic Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. His story states that Buckley's Catholicism explains his decision to write it, implying that nothing else could explain why he would do such a crazy thing:
Buckley identified with McCarthy, who like Buckley was a Catholic with a deep hatred for communism. And although he regretted the damage McCarthy's efforts might do to the reputations of innocent Americans, Buckley thought that paled in comparison to the damage and potential damage of communism, according to Judis, Buckley's biographer.
None of the stories referred to Buckley as a conservative Catholic. But they leave the overwhelming impression that he was. Deep, militant, hatred -- such words are rarely used to describe liberals or progressives, even though they apply to Catholics such as Dorothy Day or the Berrigan Brothers.
In fact, Buckley was not a conservative Catholic, in the religious, doctrinal sense of the term. He opposed the wisdom of church teaching on social and political issues. He favored decriminalizing drugs and wrote for Playboy. For a time, he defended southern segregationists and supported birth control. In other words, Buckley was not the intellectual godfather of Ray Flynn or Bob Casey, Sr.
This is not to suggest that Buckley was a liberal Catholic in the religious sense. Besides his lifelong opposition to socialism and communism, he opposed legalized abortion and opposed "Playboyism."
So what was Buckley? He was an idiosyncratic Catholic. On political issues, he took conservative stands, as well as a few liberal ones. As an example of the latter, he wrote a book arguing that the state, not the free market, was better able to nurture citizenship and a sense of civic obligation. On religious issues, he was a mixture of both. His views are complicated. He called himself a Catholic and a libertarian. Go figure.
Journalists need to define their terms more precisely. Is a person a conservative in a religious or political sense or both?
Answering this question isn't a matter of complicating matters. It's a matter of telling readers the truth.
By the way, for a classic PBS dose of Buckley, click here for a tribute at the Charlie Rose show.