The Right Coast

February 18, 2005
Buckley and Noonan on Age and Death
By Maimon Schwarzschild

William F. Buckley writes about the ailing Pope John Paul II:
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 is a lifelong and faithful Catholic, and his column is not an announcement of apostasy, or of Diabolical possession.
So, 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? Muriel Spark commented in "Memento Mori": "When a noble life has prepared old age, it is not decline that it reveals, but the first days of immortality." That cannot be effected by the hospital in which the pope struggles.
Buckley's column may be as much an exercise in introspection as a comment about the Pope. Buckley evidently has mortality on his mind. He retired from the National Review last June: according to the New York Times, "his decision, Mr Buckley said, had more to do with his own mortality".

As close to Buckley's heart, or even more so, was his sailboat, which he sold last year, a step "not lightly taken, bringing to mind a step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself".

Buckley has always shown a youthful spirit. Now approaching 80, he gives the impression that he doesn't relish the prospect of a long decline; even that he would do whatever might be necessary to avoid it.

It is an attitude with classical resonance. Also one with resonance for many of us today.

Buckley makes an interesting contrast with Peggy Noonan , who wants people to think about death and the Pope in a very different Catholic way. (Her theme is "offering it up", as Irish Catholics used to put it.) This Jewish RightCoaster can't judge between them on Catholic grounds: I suspect an old and wise church has room for both very different temperaments.

But if, or rather when, I have to choose -- as a Jew, not as a Catholic, in my case -- it will be Buckley's view for me, I think.