Neil McCaffrey and the Conservative Book Club

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For those of us who remember the American conservative movement in its earlier manifestation, the recently published articles and correspondence of Neil McCaffrey make for stimulating reading.

For those who don’t recall McCaffrey (1925-1994), it might be mentioned that he was the founder of the Conservative Book Club, the owner of the conservative press Arlington House between 1964 and 1988, and a longtime friend and correspondent of Bill Buckley’s. A native New Yorker who worked as an editor at Doubleday, McCaffrey left behind a promising career at a leading commercial press to devote himself to his two lifetime passions, popularizing conservative ideas and fighting for traditional Catholic beliefs.

In his case, as his published letters indicate, the two were often intertwined. Although several of his authors and close friends, like Victor Gold, Victor Lasky, and Will Herberg, were Jewish, McCaffrey never hesitated to take on Jewish critics of Christian influence in America and engage them in polite but firm debate. He was also unsparing in going after “civil libertarians” whose real interest seemed to be in removing any traditional religious symbols and religious memories from American civil society.

At the same time, McCaffrey could be cutting in his remarks about the anti-American tendencies on the Catholic Right. His correspondence with contributors to the magazine Triumph in the 1960s make clear his skepticism about certain tendencies that he found there, particularly selective appeals to papal authority. McCaffrey was amused by how some would change their loyalties as soon as the Bishop of Rome made a pronouncement they didn’t approve of. He famously quoted the 16th-century Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez on the natural limits of papal power: “Suarez was asked whether a pope could be a schismatic. His response must have struck contemporaries as another exercise in dry Scholastic speculation, but it hits us today like the kick of a mule. Yes, he said, if a pope moves too radically to change Catholic tradition.”

McCaffrey also assumed that just as often as not, modern popes would move toward “modern aberrations,” leaving traditionalists in the Church unhappy. Neil may have been at his sarcastic best in responding to an overly zealous Catholic convert, Bill Marshner (who was my close friend at Yale graduate school in the mid-1960s), regarding Bill’s ritualistic practice of invoking “Catholic social doctrine.” According to McCaffrey: “I think we should be chaste in using a term like Christian economics, lest we accord to it a place of honor beside that other eminent discipline, Christian mathematics.”

Like his close friend Bill Buckley, however, McCaffrey hoped that “the new Mass” would be dropped and that the Church would return to its Tridentine Latin form. “In time,” he wrote, “I think this experiment will be recognized as the failure it is, and some future pope will restore the Mass in its classic form.”

Considering all his other preoccupations, including the raising of six children (his son Roger seems to have continued most of his father’s battles), it is remarkable how attuned Neil was to what was happening in the American conservative movement. His steady correspondence with Buckley, although the two were usually only a few miles apart within the New York metropolitan area, is remarkable given how unreservedly McCaffrey addresses the recipient of his missives. He offered his frank judgments about prospective reviewers and columnists, and he occasionally corrected Buckley’s statements in National Review about Catholic moral theology.

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